One Day on Mars by Travis S. Taylor
Cover art by Kurt Miller
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Welcome to the 24th Century, in which the United States of America has subsumed all other polities, bringing all humanity the benefits of Constitutional government. However, this expansion has not led to happily ever after. Far from it, a group known as the Separatists has violently opposed the US government, and in a war some time before the book's beginning, secured for themselves a Reservation on Mars where they were supposed to be granted self-government.
However, their fanaticism has made that Reservation into a nightmarish hell of computer telepathy and execution by burning for those who merely want to go along to get along, as opposed to the truly fanatical. And with their polygamous marriage system, their population is growing rapidly, at beyond replacement rates, such that they can carry out suicidal terrorist attacks without running through their human capital.
When I first read the scenario, I assumed that we were dealing with a science fictional version of the Radical Islamist Fundamentalists, and that polygamy meant the sort of patriarchal polygyny that is practiced in many Muslim countries, by which a man may have a multiplicity of wives but a woman must give her allegiance to only a single husband. (Especially given that the Separatist leader's name is Elle Ahmi, which does suggest Arabic or at least Middle Eastern origins, however unusual it would be for a RIF terrorist organization to be led by a woman). However, it soon turns out that there are not just Chief Wives in Separatist families, but Chief Husbands as well -- indicating that this is not traditional polygamy, but some form of polyamorous group marriage in which a number of men and women are all married to one another.
The average science fiction reader is going to immediately think of some of the various group marriage systems that Robert A. Heinlein advocated in some of his later marriages -- the line marriages of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress or the S-marriage in Friday. Heinlein was drawing upon the cultural ferment of the 1960's which questioned the value and validity of the traditional nuclear family, but the idea of group marriage was not invented by the Flower Children. Far from it, all the way back in the staid nineteenth century, the Oneida Community experimented with group marriage in what they called "Complex Marriage." Unlike some of the religious communities of the Second Great Awakening (or of the 1960's), founder John Humphrey Noyes did not require married couples who entered the Oneida Community to abjure their marriages, but instead encouraged them to enlarge their concept of marriage to embrace the entire community.
However, both the Oneida Community and the various group-marriage communes of the 1960's were generally based upon principles of peace and love -- or at least living and letting live with respect to those who remained outside the community. The Separatists are adamantly oppositional, and have made their hatred of the Greater United States of America plain in the most brutal ways possible.
And as the novel begins, they are making their point afresh, with an attack reminiscent of the 9/11 attack upon New York City's World Trade Center. However, instead of flying civilian airliners into office towers, the Separatists have somehow taken control of a battlecruiser and crash it into one of the domed cities, an action that causes far greater casualties that the mere collapse of a building. Although a terraforming project has been in progress for a century or more, the atmosphere of Mars is still not able to support human life unaided. Thus the only survivors are those who had the good fortune to be in buildings that could be pressurized, or who were able to grab portable breathers.
And then the battle begins in earnest, for a Senator and his family were in one of the buildings of the domed city when it was attacked, and it is politically essential to rescue him. And it is a swift and brutal battle -- the "one day" in the title is not in the sense of "some day," but in the same sense as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich -- the action takes place in a single day (albeit a Martian day, which is slightly longer than a Terran day).
Taylor's descriptions of the battles are harshly realistic without quite crossing the line to grossout or combat-porn. It's interesting to see how certain elements that have become a sort of shared idea-pool among Baen writers show up in this novel in new permutations. For instance, the AIC's (artificial intelligence counterparts) used by many of the characters hearken back to the AID's introduced by John Ringo in his Legacy of the Aldenata universe, but Taylor introduces a new twist -- they can be installed into a robot cat body to create an AIK (artificially intelligent kitty) which to all appearances looks and moves just like a real live cat but has the same abilities to communicate with human and computer network as the regular AIC (think the magic talking cats in anime, but achieved through technology).
And then there is the custom of killing off Joe Buckley. This originally was started by David Weber, who was annoyed with the maintainer of a website for including "comments from the peanut gallery" alongside collected snippets of forthcoming novels. Weber wrote the offending Webmaster into his next novel and killed him off in a humorously gruesome way. Subsequently John Ringo picked up the meme in his Legacy of the Aldenata novels, and from there it grew until killing Joe Buckley has become a right regular Baen tradition. Usually it is an embarrassing, even humiliating, death, but in 1634: The Galileo Affair, Eric Flint made Joe Buckley's death a major plot point that allows the protagonists to realize they're being targeted. And in this novel, Travis Taylor allows Joe a heroic death, if somewhat disgusting, considering the materials with which he saves his ship at the cost of his own life.
As I was reading it, my biggest objection was not knowing what the Separatists were fighting for. It was pretty clear what they didn't like, but hatred can carry a movement only so far. Eventually there needs to be some positive motivation to carry the members beyond the destruction of that which they oppose, or the movement is going to fall apart as soon as the goal is achieved. So as I was reading, I kept asking mentally, "but what are they fighting for?"
And in the end Doc Taylor finally reveals the answer to that question, and to my mind it is the absolute masterstroke of the novel. It would've been far too easy to have them be some kind of resurgent version of Communism or Radical Islamist Fundamentalism or any of the other -isms of the current and past century against which the Republic has striven so mightily, often at great cost in lives and treasure. But no, he doesn't pull any cheap shot like that -- instead, he reminds us that the fiercest battles are often between those who share the same dream, but differ in their understanding of what it means or how it should be realized. As a result, the revelation really does need to be at the conclusion of the novel -- it would have sapped the resolution of its power if that vital bit of information had been unveiled earlier.
That said, I still think it might have been better if the question had not been left dangling the entire novel, but instead it had appeared to be answered. Perhaps there could have been some discussion of what everybody assumed the Separatists believed in and were fighting for -- which in fact could have given the Big Reveal even more punch because it would have shown that their assumptions were disastrously wrong, in addition to revealing the fight to be a fratricidal one, between two different understandings of what it means to be American, what the United States ought to stand for and be doing in the universe.
Overall, it looks like a very promising beginning to a new series. I'll be interested to see where Doc Taylor intends to take the storyline and how he is going to develop it. I don't think he's going to do a turnaround in which the Separatists become the good guys -- so far as I can see, he's had Elle Ahmi and her crew go over a moral event horizon with their actions, both in the Reservation before the novel's beginning and in the novel itself. But it's quite possible that he's going to be reminding us that just because someone believes in the ideals of America, it doesn't automatically make them the Good Guys. It is by our actions that we shall be known, and terrorist attacks do not Good Guys make.
Review posted November 1, 2009.
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