Before Mars is the third novel in Emma Newman’s Planetfall universe, loosely connected to its predecessors, 2015’s Planetfall and 2016’s After Atlas. Readers of After Atlas will come to Before Mars with some foreboding: we already know that the creeping sense of horror Before Mars’ protagonist experiences will have to pay off, one way or another—especially as it becomes clearer how the timeline in Before Mars lines up with that of After Atlas.
Anna Kubrin is a geologist and an artist, dispatched to take a new job on the tiny Mars operation owned and operated by GaborCorp. Leaving behind a husband and small child—alienated from them both, and guilty over her inability to overcome her sense of alienation towards her own motherhood, because mothers are supposed to feel instant love and connection with their child, aren’t they?—for months of travel, she arrives on Mars to a disorienting sense of familiarity. There, she finds a note in her own handwriting on very familiar materials—her own art materials—warning her not to trust the Mars psychologist, Dr. Arnolfi. Anna feels that she must either be going mad or that someone is playing a cruel prank on her, but apart from Arnolfi and Anna herself, there are only three other members of the Mars outpost, not counting the AI of Mars Principia: Banks, who presents an “immersive” show, Petranek, and Dr. Elvan. But as Anna acclimates to Mars and tries to begin her work, she finds more and more evidence of a conspiracy.
Either that, or she really is going mad. A secret communiqué from the husband of GaborCorp’s main owner is hidden within one of her immersive recordings. The base AI is altering footage that she’s recorded, deleting evidence, and faking weather conditions in order to keep her in the dark, and to keep her isolated from her colleagues. But Anna is stubborn, and discovers a second base near Mars Principia—and discovers, too, what Arnolfi has been keeping not just from Anna, but from all the staff on the base.
In the Planetfall universe (and I’ve yet to read Newman’s other work, barring one novella from Tor.com), Newman has chosen to write about protagonists who are isolated, either socially, physically, or both: protagonists who experience anomie and alienation, who don’t quite fit into the roles that other people see for them, and who have a hard time defining a role for themselves that gives them happiness. We see this again here in Before Mars: Anna is an unhappy woman, who finds satisfaction pretty much only in her work. She feels trapped by society: trapped in her marriage, and by the fact that she can’t do science that’s science for the sake of discovery; and guilty that she doesn’t feel the love and connection for her child that everyone around her seems to feel for theirs, and which is presented as natural. And she feels trapped, too, on Mars, isolated either by madness or conspiracy until she discovers the truth.
The truth sets her free, in a sense, but only at the cost of tragedy.
Newman writes compelling prose, and Before Mars is a tight and claustrophobic psychological thriller of a novel. But some of its tension is undermined, for readers who recollect the events of After Atlas, by the knowledge of the ultimate outcome for Earth and GaborCorp. Whatever transpires for Anna Kubrin on Mars, the reader already has their suspicions about the fate of her husband and child.
I’m finding it hard to properly enjoy books lately. Despite Newman’s talents, Before Mars didn’t really speak to me. While it’s compelling as a puzzle, I found myself lacking in a real sense of emotional investment, either in Anna as a character or in the novel’s outcome. This is perhaps more due to me than to any failing in the book: sometimes you only really want to read novels that do very specific things, or satisfy very particular itches.
Before Mars is an interesting novel. I hope Newman has the opportunity to answer more of the questions its predecessors left open in future volumes in this continuity.
Before Mars is available from Ace Books.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.