Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Review: Heirs of Mars

Author: Joseph Robert Lewis
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 275
Warnings: References to terrorism, death, descriptions of really gross injuries
Rating: 4/5

I really have to read more Science Fiction! This book only proves that I'm overlooking a simply fantastic genre. This book is chock full of poignantly cruel ethical dilemmas as well as a rich cast with conflicting morals and goals. The setting was internally realistic, with an attention to detail on the science that the engineer in me loves. I am going to read so much more Joseph Lewis.

The story was a little difficult to follow at first blush, with three major storylines and three sets of characters with separate sets of ambitions and histories. The first group to appear are Asher, Priya and Martin. Asher and Priya are two humans with a shared tragedy, and Martin's the comic relief. In the next chapter we're introduced to Holm and his robot cohorts, who haven't yet been vilified in the story, and never really do with Holm there to narrate from their (his?) point of view. A little later Selene and Niobi are introduced, a pretty awesome pair of rangers, the bounty hunters/mercenaries of Mars. All three groups offer a different perspective on what's happening on the red planet.

Naturally the situation isn't simple either. There is a lot of tension on Mars since the development of "clones", mental copies of terminal human professionals. They're intended to replace stressed out colonizers so it's a feature rather than a bug that they can't learn anything new, or deviate from their donor's personality. As if that wasn't cool enough the story follows the narrative path to the defeat of the final robot rebellion, artificial personalities that are slightly tweaked copies of Mother, a satellite over Venus that became sentient. Either of these concepts could have been a story unto itself! Together the gimmicks lie a little thick on the ground, but that's the worst I can say about Lewis' book.

After finishing this book I spent some time thinking about what makes a being sentient. Technically the clones are alive, but they are incapable of changing at all from the moment they're created. One of the clones, Toshiro, suffers immensely because the last thoughts of his donor were terror of the robots but he can't hack his own brain enough to stop having nightmares. I consider my sentience is a result is my ability to adapt my personality, even my way of thinking. I can try to be anything, but the clones can't. Does that make them human? Jut how cruel is it to create something that can realize they're frozen in time? The robots from Venus make a much better case for a truly sentient being. They have diverging goals from Mother and they occasionally defect. Who counts as alive? I have no idea.

"The Heirs of Mars" roused these questions in me, but they didn't seek to answer them. Very few of the characters voiced their opinion, although many of the decisions characters made reflected their personal opinions. No one... preached about it though, so in the end I felt the question of which AI's were sentient was my personal problem. In fact, the climax of the novel took all of this "sentience" stuff as unnecessary. The primary question was more "who deserves to live on Mars", and that was answered easy enough: whoever can survive there.

The novel finished after the defeat of the last independent robot, but nothing is really resolved. It's likely that time (a few generations) will give Martians the maturity to deal with clones kindly. Asher is still suffering from the loss of his daughter, and he's still digging at the past. The hope is that everyone can deal with their issue and live happily ever after on the red planet, (what? this is very surprising to me) but at the end of "The Heirs of Mars" none of this has happened. I can't help it, but I prefer that sort of ending to some sort of "happily ever after" nonsense.

If you remove all of the science fiction window-dressing, this was well-written story about a lot of people during the worst week of their life. Sometimes they came through, sometimes they didn't. The human vs. robot storyline was significantly less fun than the clones vs. humans one, so I was pleased that more time was spent following it. I flew through this book, and it's because there were so many little moments when I felt Lewis did things just right. This book reminded me of my love of the genre, and this author impressed me on many fronts. 

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