Before Mars
by Emma Newman
352pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.2/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.2/5

Emma Newman’s latest novel, Before Mars, is set in the same science fiction universe as two of her previously published books, Planetfall and Clarke Award finalist After Atlas. Despite being the third book in this setting, it does stand alone as a complete story, although I did find myself occasionally wondering if I might have felt more connected to it had I read the others first and been familiar with the major events that were referenced. After having finished it, I believe this lack of connection had more to do with the way it introduced some intriguing characterization and concepts but did not follow through with deeper exploration.

Before Mars begins with Anna, a geologist and artist whose billionaire boss sent her to paint unique landscapes of Mars, arriving on the planet after having spent six months alone traveling through space. During her long journey, the closest she came to human contact was being immersed in memories stored in her neural chip—which is rather risky since she’s been told she’s especially susceptible to immersion psychosis, a condition that makes it difficult to distinguish between past memories and present circumstances and can result in seeing things that are not truly there.

After Anna undergoes a successful medical evaluation and is shown to her room, she discovers a note warning her not to trust one of the other four residents of the Mars base. What she finds truly unnerving about this situation is that she knows she had to have written it herself since it’s on the same uncommon non-disposable paper she uses for her art, painted in her own style—but she cannot recall having created it.

This message is just the first in a series of strange occurrences that lead Anna to wonder if she can trust what she sees or if she could be experiencing the same dissonance with reality as her father—who traumatized her so deeply that she’s never been able to forgive him.

Before Mars is largely both a futuristic mystery and a character portrait, and both of these aspects are built upon suspense since the story of Anna’s past is gradually revealed. It starts with the big picture—such as her horror at the idea of becoming like her father—and fills in the details of her childhood and family, her relationship with her husband and daughter, her career as a geologist and hobby as an artist, and how she came to be on Mars. Despite being confident that I knew what had happened with the main mystery within the first couple of chapters, I was curious enough about the hows and whys of it and Anna’s history to keep reading.

One aspect of the novel that kept me turning the pages was the candidness of Anna’s first person viewpoint, particularly when it came to her struggles with motherhood—a role she never wanted in the first place—and postpartum depression. She carries a lot of guilt about not feeling like a good enough mother since she never felt that instant love that everyone always talks about being overwhelmed by the first time they see their child. Anna also never had a desire to make her daughter her whole world and left most of the childcare to her husband. Though there’s focus on her husband and their baby, Anna’s long felt she had to fake her way through life in order to pursue her career ambitions, pretending to be someone else and exhibiting the “normal” human emotions that others expect her to feel. Anna’s perspective is also open about the PTSD from her childhood experience and her dislike of therapy.

As much as I appreciated the honest look at Anna’s fears and some occasional poignant descriptions of her difficulties and art, her narrative didn’t entirely work for me mainly because it delved into her thoughts so thoroughly that not much room was left for subtlety. The majority of Anna’s characterization seems to follow the pattern of a flashback to her life on Earth coupled with a dump of all of her related thoughts, and though Anna’s viewpoint is not 100% reliable since she is capable of lying to herself or changing her mind later, it also often clearly spells out what we’re supposed to know about her. Anna doesn’t actually interact in real-time with those she has the closest relationships with since they’re all back on Earth, and though it fit thematically, I felt that showing all of these through her memories became stale after awhile—especially since it didn’t show her developing meaningful bonds on Mars or undergoing major character development herself. (That’s not to say that she didn’t develop any meaningful relationships on Mars but rather that the forging of such bonds was glossed over.)

As the type of reader who primarily enjoys reading about people over plot, the determining factors in whether or not a book works for me personally are usually characters and the exploration of society—and unfortunately, the latter also failed to keep me interested the further I got into the novel. Since the present timeline is set on an isolated base on Mars occupied by five people, the ways in which the world has changed for humanity as a whole are also glimpsed through flashbacks and infodumps. The main story is primarily focused on advanced technology that is rather standard in science fiction such as the AI that maintains operations on Mars, the printers that automatically create food and many other items, and the neural implants that are central to the story. Though I don’t mind inclusion of common elements, I do tend to prefer stories that examine ideas and societal effects. Before Mars does do this to an extent, but it seemed as though it just brought up typical issues such as security and privacy with increased digitization but only touched on them without going into depth.

That’s the crux of why I found Before Mars increasingly unsatisfying: it basically tried to stuff Anna’s life story plus the Martian mystery into about 340 pages. Though there are some interesting parts here, it’s constantly jumping around as it touches on many topics and themes, but in the end it seems to skim over many of them with a brief mention before racing toward the next thing. I found this frustrating because there were occasionally some beautifully written lines about art or science or humanity, but they were few and far between as it skipped from one scene to the next without breathing room—and I found these and Anna’s past far more compelling than the the Mars story, which seemed to bog down in the middle. It did pick up again toward the end, but at that point, I was still a little curious about the conclusion but mostly wanted to finish what I had started since it was a fairly short book.

If you’re a fan of futuristic mysteries looking for a diverting book, you may enjoy Before Mars more than I did. I have found that books in a similar vein don’t tend to work well for me even though they do for many others, and after reading samples from Planetfall and After Atlas, I concluded that this is probably a case of a well-loved series that is just not my cup of tea.

My Rating: 5/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from Before Mars