Books Are Pretty

Monday, February 09, 2009

Mars Life.

When I first started getting books for review, it was 99% mommy book offers, which I accepted and was happy to review and didn't actually hate all of them, but I have to be honest: I don't accept very many of them any more, and mercifully I don't get many offers to review them. In fact, the progression of the genres over the years has gone something like this: Mommy book, Chick Lit, Chick Lit, Chick Lit, Historical Fiction, Mystery/Suspense, Chick Lit, and finally, I have arrived at science fiction. I can only assume publicists have either forgotten about my vagina or are choosing to ignore it. They wouldn't be the first.

Anyway, while we're on the subject, my vagina would like to address the portrayal of women in science fiction.

There's this:

and this:

I mean, I don't even know what's going on with that. Is she being canned? Is she going to meet the same fate as the girls behind her? Did they run out of girl-sized cans and had to make do with a chihuahua can? I don't understand.

I won't even discuss L. Ron Fucking Hubbard's views on women, and even Heinlein, who was apparently ahead of his day as far as women went, still drew these narrow images of women: busty, very young, like the Denise Richards-as-neuroscientist role in that James Bond movie, and of course they were slavishly devoted to some old fart that smelled vaguely of Heinlein himself (See Land, Stranger in a Strange. Sorry. I know it's a classic and one of the Greatest Ever, but still.)

Or, they'll try this trick where the best female character is beautifully thin, doe-eyed, has a job but it's well below the pay grade of the male protagonist, so she can better appreciate his genius, she's 25 and just can't help but love Captain Geritol, because of his brilliant mind, you see. But it isn't sexist, because they'll make references to the female President of the United States/Mars Colony/spaceship, or the genius' boss will be female, but we'll never get to know those women.

But one can't stay buried in the loving arms of Octavia Butler and James Tiptree, Jr forever, as much as one would like to, so I began Mars Life and wondered what Ben Bova, one of science fiction's big dogs, was going to give the ladies in the house.

Female president mentioned in passing? Check. Female Chief of the Navaho tribe, mentioned more than in passing but not much more? Check. And Miss Doreen McManus, a junior technician, who is described as having "lovely, thickly curled auburn hair, but it was cropped close in a strictly utilitarian style. Her face was oval, with the large, shy eyes of a waif. She thin and bony that [the male protagonist] wondered if she were bulimic."

Gah! So Doreen approaches the protagonist, Dr. Carleton Carter, who was sent to the Mars colony in exile, after losing his job at the university after being falsely accused of rape. Gah! Doreen asks Carter if she can join him for breakfast. The two are joined moments later by a women of the same professional status as Carter.

"Twenty bucks says she's old and a total bitch," I thought, and turned the page. Gah! I was right!

So Carter the Unjustly Accused but Brilliant starts an affair with Doreen, which squicks out exactly no one, and the book putters along with this story line until Doreen informs Carter she's going back home, to the colony on the Moon.

Then the following happens: Carter gets pissy and forbids her to go, and Doreen up and tells him to go fuck himself, saying that he's a narcissistic jerk who's only sleeping with her so everyone will be impressed that he can bang a girl over half his age. Further, he only wants her around so she can tell him how brilliant he is all the time, plus, he's a sexist jerk who totally sucks. And then she leaves.


Then he hits on a married woman closer to his own age, who also thinks he sucks and also thinks that rape charge may have some merit. This is the best science fiction book ever.

Sorry for the spoilers, but it was just too awesome not to share. Be comforted by the fact that this was a minor plot point, and I promise I won't spoil the major ones.

Mars Life is a continuation of books by Ben Bova about the colonization of Mars. By the time we check in with these recurring characters, things aren't going so well. The United States, major funder of Mars exploration, is firmly controlled by anti-science religious whackadoos, who cut government funding to Mars. The fundies are upset because fossils have been discovered at last, indicating the remains of an ancient civilization. They feel, correctly, that if this knowledge were made known, it would decrease the power of the Magical Sky Fairy who created the Earth in 6,000 years, and this would also decrease their political and social power, which by this time is pretty all-consuming. They've already had total success in eliminating the theory of evolution from public schools, and are successfully banning discussion of Mars discoveries from the classroom as well. Dr Carleton Carter, who claims he was run out of the university by the extreme right wing who manufactured a rape charge against him, is there to dig around in the Martian village, and other characters, in particular Jamie Waterman and his awesome wife Vijay, who are there to save the program by finding alternate funding. The colony gets screwed by the fundies at every turn, and you can feel the frustration steaming off the pages in little wavy lines of heat.

This seems to me to have been written with a lot of passion by Bova during a time where this fear of religious zealots destroying science and preventing kids from learning seemed eminent, you know, way back in 2007.

It's my wish, and probably Bova's, too, truth be told, that this book seem ridiculous and histrionic ten years from now. At the moment, it seems sadly plausible.


Mars Life
by Ben Bova
August, 2008 by Tor Books
Hardcover, 432 pp
ISBN: 0765317877

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