Finches of Mars

Finches of Mars

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by Brian W. Aldiss

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In this thoughtful meditation on the future of humanity, colonists on Mars struggle to prevent their own extinction

Doomed by overpopulation, irreversible environmental degradation, and never-ending war, Earth has become a fetid swamp. For many, Mars represents humankind’s last hope. In six tightly clustered towers on the red planet’s


In this thoughtful meditation on the future of humanity, colonists on Mars struggle to prevent their own extinction

Doomed by overpopulation, irreversible environmental degradation, and never-ending war, Earth has become a fetid swamp. For many, Mars represents humankind’s last hope. In six tightly clustered towers on the red planet’s surface, the colonists who have escaped their dying home world are attempting to make a new life unencumbered by the corrupting influences of politics, art, and religion. Unable ever to return, these pioneers have chosen an unalterable path that winds through a landscape as terrible as it is beautiful, often forcing them to compromise their beliefs—and sometimes their humanity—in order to survive.
But the gravest threat to the future is not the settlement’s total dependence on foodstuffs sent from a distant and increasingly uncaring Earth, or the events that occur in the aftermath of the miraculous discovery of native life on Mars—it is the fact that in the ten years since colonization began, every new human baby has been born dead, or so tragically deformed that death comes within hours.
The great Brian W. Aldiss has delivered a dark and provocative yet ultimately hopeful magnum opus rich in imagination and bold ideas. A novel of philosophy as much as science fiction, Finches of Mars is an exploration of intellectual history, evolution, technology, and the future by one of speculative fiction’s undisputed masters.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Those expecting a feather in the cap of Aldiss’s long and distinguished writing career will be disappointed by the utter failure of this disjointed series of vignettes, set in a vague near future. It’s meant to tell the tale of a major problem facing a Martian colony: the colonists’ inability to produce live offspring. As a narrative, it lacks cohesion, jumping back and forth between Earth and Mars and among characters with little apparent point. Aldiss belabors the tragedies of the stillbirths and the seemingly endless wars that have embroiled the entire Earth (but that don’t seem to personally affect any of the characters). The story is further clogged by scientifically nonsensical elements—with no mention of terraforming, the pressure and outdoor temperatures on Mars are now comfortable—and wrapped up with a textbook case of deus ex machina that renders the entirety of the story utterly irrelevant. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
“Compelling . . . A suspenseful genre-bending combination of straight SF and mystery. Consider this required reading.” —Booklist, starred review

“Thought-provoking . . . Stimulating . . . Genuinely haunting . . . [Aldiss is] a major figure in world SF . . . Whatever else Aldiss may be, predictable he is not.” —The Guardian

“I have been reading Aldiss’s work with intense delight for something over forty-five years. . . . Finches of Mars certainly does not disappoint, and in fact shows Aldiss at the top of his game. . . . [This book is] full of incident and history and character.” —Paul Di Filippo

“A science fiction story of ideas . . .  Finches of Mars is a thinking person’s SF novel which wants to engage with the reader, to compel you to reflect on the nature of existence, what it is to be human and our relationship with our home planet Earth as well as our place within the universe.” —Starburst
Library Journal
Sf grandmaster Aldiss carries on his tradition of readable hard speculative fiction in this brief yet thoughtful exploration of life on Mars. The Martian colonists are happy to have escaped the environmentally devastated Earth, yet they struggle to attain independence on the red planet. Most important, they are unable to procreate successfully, a matter that becomes urgent as the situation back home deteriorates. VERDICT Exploring many of the same issues as the late Kage Baker's Empress of Mars, this novel offers a serious take on life after Earth that is likely to appeal to fans of Kim Stanley Robinson's "Mars" trilogy. With a more limited readership than Andy Weir's recent blockbuster The Martian, this is best for fans of Aldiss and classic sf.—JM

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Open Road Integrated Media LLC
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Finches of Mars

By Brian W. Aldiss


Copyright © 2015 Brian W. Aldiss
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-0589-0


An Oceanless World

The word 'scenery' was not in use on Mars. One might talk instead of 'the prospect'.

The prospect was modestly dramatic. Volcanoes on this section of Tharsis were small and scattered. The settlement site on the Tharsis Shield had been chosen for its underground water supply and its comparative smoothness. A path had been worn leading eastwards a short way. A man and woman were walking side-by-side along the path, treading with the high-kneed gait the lower gravity of Mars encouraged. The pair were thickly dressed and wore face masks, since they were beyond the atmospheric confines of the project settlement.

This constitutional exercise, though remarkable enough, had come about by events and arrangements of some complexity, inspired in large part by the findings of the NASA experimental vehicle, Curiosity, in 2012 AD — when both of these new Martians were not even conceived. Rooy and Aymee were taking their daily exercise. They had discovered in the austerities of this derelict planet something they had sought without discovering in their previous lives. No air: perfect vision — clarity of sight and mind. Martian orange-grey sterility. Aymee, dark of skin and outspoken, always declared that Mars served as a physical manifestation of the support system of the subconscious.

The great spread of an oceanless world surrounded them. Such water as there was flowed hidden underground. As usual, the couple had walked until the brow of Olympus Mons showed like consciousness above the horizon

They were walking now between two volcanoes, believed to be extinct, Pavonis Mons and, to the south, Arsia Mons, passing quite close to the rumpled base of the former. In one of these small fissures they had found a little clump of cyanobacteria which added to the interest of their walk. They believed it to be a mark of an ancient underground waterway.

Their progress was slow; Rooy had his left leg encased in plaster, setting a broken bone.

Little Phobos, having risen in the west, was at present speeding above the Shield. Sight of it was obscured by a wind that carried fine dust. The dust and the distant star, Sol, low on the landscape, gave a dull golden aspect to everything.

'I was wondering about our contentment,' Aymee said. 'If we weren't under some odd compulsion to come here? Or if we're not here and are experiencing some form of delusion? Reality can be rather tenuous up here.'

'And not only here,' said Rooy, chuckling.

Back on Earth, one of the screamers had run an opinion poll about the six towers in the Martian settlement. The towers were graded as follows:







'Maybe there's something to be said for making it up as you go along,' said Aymee. 'How do "they" know what it feels like to be here?'

'It's nice to know we're still in the news, however conjectural.'

'Conjectural? More like a sideshow.'

'I wake up every morning to marvel,' said Rooy.

'And sleep every evening to snore.'

'Was it the twentieth century author, someone Burgess, who said, "Laugh and the world laughs with you, snore and you snore alone"?'

'Anthony, I believe. Anyhow, you've told me that one before.'

They fell silent. Something in the ambience of the prospect engendered silence. Some found this ambience alarming, some a delight — if a delight of an uncertain kind.

It was Rooy who spoke next.

'You know what I miss most?' he said. 'Rajasthan.'

'Rajasthan!' Aymee exclaimed. She had been born there of a high caste Hindu family. 'Parts of Tharsis remind me of parts of Rajasthan.'

She thought only of the sandy reaches, where the odd goat might be found, and not of the fecund regions where deer ran and rutted among acacia trees.

The West tower loomed ahead of them. It did not stand alone. All told, the six towers had been built within sight of each other: not close enough to form an illusion of 'togetherness', yet still near enough to each other to make, as it might be, a statement of intent — that humanity had arrived at last, and was trying to form something more than a mere voice crying in the wilderness.

And those voices ... The UU had created linguistic rather than political bases for each site.

A number of pipes led in from the wilds into the basement of the West's building; the water they carried had been charted by Operation Horizon over a year previously. Methane plumes escaping from under the planetary crust were trapped to serve heating and cooking requirements. This development, as with the towers themselves, and the whole Mars enterprise, was funded by the UU. The settlement thus remained ever dependent on terrestrial liberality.

Liberality. Something else absorbed into the unceasing terrestrial power struggle: a tap easily turned off.

Confronting the grey tower, Rooy said, 'Back to the subterranean life ...' He was a machinist and spent much of his life underground.

Once Aymee and Rooy were inside the confinement zone they could remove their masks and breathe shallowly. In a year or two — or maybe three — the modest area of contained atmosphere would have approached normal limits. The six towers stood in this zone under a large friction-stir welding dome; from this leaked an atmosphere consisting mainly of nitrogen, mixed with 21.15% oxygen. The circular zone guard retained most of the gas. Still, few people cared to stay unmasked outside the towers for long.

As Aymee punched in their code, she said, 'Another new word needed there. "Subterranean" can't be right.'

The gate was opened by the door guardian, a man called Phipp, who hustled the pair in. Guardianship was considered to be an important post. Blood, pulse and eyesight readings had to be taken by automatic machines within the warlike confinement of the gatehouse before anyone from outside was allowed to move freely inside.

This entailed a delay of only 55 seconds, unless the automatics detected reasons for stoppage and possible treatment; nevertheless this precautionary delay was widely resented. Resented, although Mars imposed its own delay on the passage of time. Aymee and Rooy waited at the tower gate, hand in hand.


A Freedom

'Sub specie aeternitatis — that's us,' said Noel, who had been elected more or less as Director of the West tower. 'We have "aeternitatis" all round us in trumps. Our function is to occupy — what? — emptiness. And to discuss those abstract and vital questions that have vexed humanity since ... well, since the first human-like babe fell out of a vague quaternary tree. Who would like to kick off?'

The woman to whom a terrestrial computer had allotted the name Sheea said, 'Are we the elite or the rejects, Noel?'

Noel raised a delicate eyebrow. 'I prefer to think of us as the elite.'

'Here we are on Tharsis Shield, parked in six towers — we were so proud of being chosen for this extraordinary exile — is this indeed the honour we imagine it to be? Or do you think we have been dumped here so as not to interfere with the villainies brewing on Earth?'

'Not a question you can usefully ask,' said Noel. She spoke lightly, knowing Sheea faced the challenges of pregnancy.

The possibilities of a wise and peaceful terrestrial future had been destroyed by vicissitudes of fortune and the accidents of history. Only occasionally on the planet Earth do we find a nation at peace with itself and its neighbours. The quest for happiness — in itself not a particularly noble occupation — has in general been overcome by a lust for riot and slaughter. Violent and vengeful nations have arisen, seething with illiterates enslaved by ancient writings.

The more peevish the nation, the more primitive its preaching.

Occasionally one finds states where all seems quiet and without disturbance; these in the main prove to be police states, where disagreement is ruthlessly suppressed, and only the most powerful have freedom of movement to a limited degree.

On the planet Mars it is different.

But of course Mars is not over-populated.

The human settlement on Mars has its share of human woes. But here for once sagacity prevails, perhaps because the occupants of the various towers are so few, and have been so carefully selected.

Noel in her bed at night thinks always of the great Mangalian.

These chosen persons living on the Shield must succeed or die. They have signed a contract making it impossible for them to return to the planet from which, in either the name of advancement or adventure, they have voluntarily exiled themselves.

Many small restrictions apply here. Nothing may be wasted, not even human dung. No pets at all may be kept in the towers. Recreational drugs are not available, and may not be used if found.

The scarcity of oxygen and the increased distance from a volatile sun may contribute to the stability of the Martian venture. The mentality of these exiles, as we shall see, has been liberated by their freedom from belief in the dictates of an inscrutable god.


Mangalian's Remark

To be on Mars ...

This almost evolutionary step owes its existence to a small group of learned and wise men and women. Working at the end of the previous century, and spurred on to begin with by the provocation of the great Herbert Amin Saud Mangalian, the universities of the cultivated world linked themselves together under a charter which in essence represented a great company of the wise, the UU (for United Universities). The despatch of the two hydrologists to our nearby planet was the first UU move.

Mangalian spent a profligate youth on San Salvador, the island off Cuba, fathering several children on several women. The edict 'Go forth and multiply' was his inspiration. Only when he met and married Beth Gul — both taking delight in this antiquated ceremony — did he reform, encouraged by her loving but disputatious nature. For a while he and Beth severed their connections with others. They read and studied; they led a rapt hermit's life.

Together, the two of them wrote a book from which great consequences sprang. It was entitled The Unsteady State or, Starting Again from Scratch. As was the fashion, this volume contained moving video and screamer shots married into the text. It argued that humanity on Earth was doomed, and that the only solution was to send our best away, where they could strive — on Mars and beyond — to achieve true civilization. It was sensationalist, but persuasive.

The declaration alarmed many in the West and infuriated many more in the Middle-East, as is generally the way when truth is plainly stated. It brought Mangalian to public attention.

He was an attractive young fellow, tall, sinewy, with a mop of jet black hair — and a certain gift of the gab.

It was only after his remark, 'Countless lungs, countless penises, all working away! We shall run out of oxygen before we run out of semen!' that Mangalian's name became much more widely known, and his book more attentively read. 'Semen is always trendy,' he told an interviewer, by way of explanation.

'A handsome fellow' was how many people expressed in their various languages admiration and envy of Mangalian. Using his book as both inspiration and guide, several intellectuals made tentative efforts to link universities as the first step towards civilization elsewhere. There was no doubt that Mangalian was a vital advocate for a new association — the UU. While there were many who enthused over the idea of the UU, almost as many — in the main those living in slums, tents and sink estates — raged against its exclusivity.

So Mangalian, a youth with no university degree, became head, figurehead, of the newly formed UU. He was aware that any sunshine of global attention had its rapid sunset. Invited to England, he attracted representatives from the three leading universities, to shower them with challenges to unite.

'All know you to be a footballing nation, but Q.P.R. and Q.E.D. should not be adversarial. A ball in the net is great — so is the netting of new facts.' He was being facile, but his argument scored a goal. The first three universities raised the purple and blue flag of the UU.

But a left wing politician remarked, 'So, the words come from Oxford, but the cash comes from China ...' It was certainly true, although not widely admitted, that NASA projects were nowadays kept afloat on Beijing currency — it was unlikely to be little different with the UU.

Under the goading of the young impresario Mangalian, many universities agreed to join the first three, to create a nation-like body of new learning, a corpus aloof from the weltering struggles of an underfed, under-educated and unreasoning range of random elements: the sick, the insane, the suicide-bombers and their like. Mangalian disliked this division. It was then he spoke for the colonisation of Mars. MARS, he said, stood for 'MANKIND ACHIEVING (a) RENEWED SOCIETY.' Some laughed, some jeered. But the movers at last moved.

Even before all the various universities had finished signing on their various dotted United lines, an exploration duo was sent out to inspect Martian terrain. The terrain had been photographed previously, but trodden by a human's boot — never.

Operation Horizon consisted of two men and a robotruck. Modest though this expedition was, the future of an entire enterprise depended on it. If no watercourses were detected, then the great UU initiative was sunk as surely as the Titanic; if water was detected, and in sufficient quantities, then the project would proceed. Everything depended on two skilled hydrologists and a new-fangled robotruck, designed especially for the task.

The truck could be spoken to by screamer from a kilometre's distance. It was loaded with equipment. It also gave two men shelter in the chill sleep hours and enabled them to refill their oxygen tanks.

While electronics experts and eager young engineers worked on the truck, various hydrology experts were being interviewed. One of the men given the okay was the experienced Robert Prestwick, fifty-six years of age, and the other was Henry Simpson, sixty-one years old, famous for his design of the dome over Luna. He wasn't just a skilled hydrologist. Prestwick was a heavily built, blue jowled man. Simpson was of slighter build, and a head shorter than his friend. The robotruck was new, as stated.

The hydrologists had known each other on and off for something like thirty years, having first met at Paranal Observatory in Chile, which had been temporarily beset by flood problems. Now they joked, 'So they send us to a planet believed to be without water ...'

It seemed to be that way at first. The two men had begun by surveying the great central feature of the Martian globe, the Valles Marinaris, a gash in the planet a mile deep, stretching for almost two thousand miles. Howling winds blowing along the rift from east to west carried dust storms with them. The gales blew along its uninviting length, persuading the men to choose a more promising area to the north. The robotruck took them to the Tharsis Shield — at the north of which stood the grand old extinct volcano, Olympus Mons, once believed to be the home of gods. If their exploration was successful, no one believing in God was to be allowed on Mars.

Henry Simpson grumbled at the dimness of the light. 'It's like 4:30 of a December afternoon back home. Midnight, in other words.'

'Don't complain,' said Prestwick, with a chuckle. 'At least God has given us this spare planet for gainful employment ... We're sniffing water!' He pointed to the screen, his mood changed entirely. The robotruck was moving slowly; a flickering vein of green showed on its screen. They halted, getting a depth check.

'Nine point four feet below surface.'

Prestwick wondered to himself what it would be like to have to live here. He'd been to some bleak places back home. Here, there was nothing but bleakness, water or no water ...

Simpson came and stared over his comrade's shoulder at the screen.

'Okay! Good! We need something nearer surface, but without being frozen solid.'

On the sweep again, they watched green delta-like traces close into a single strip. It then become faint and vanished. Simpson scratched his head.

'We've struck an area.' He spoke surprisingly calmly.

Stopping the machine, Prestwick asked, 'Retrace?' Both men had reacquired their usual poise.

'Hang on. There's still something ...' Simpson had a dedeaf to his forehead. Faintly came an intermittent boom and a faint low plop, such as a leaky tap might make, dripping into a puddle. The noises faded away and then returned, the tap noise slightly louder now.

'Something's going on. Can only be water.' Simpson shivered. The sound was not a friendly one. 'Couldn't be horse piss,' he added.

Prestwick by now had a dedeaf to his forehead too. He pulled a face at his partner. Both were well aware they were isolated on an unfriendly planet and this discovery would extend their stay. It was a disappointment — another week finding nothing and they would have been on the way back home. In time for Christmas. However, it was a well-paid stretch of employment.

'Go on a bit,' Simpson told the truck. 'Slowly, okay?'

They growled onwards, watching the screen. Suddenly the green strip was back on screen. It fattened. A thin green vein ran off from it, disappearing at the side of the screen. The sound too had changed; the dedeafs brought a noise as of someone humming tunelessly in a deep voice.


Excerpted from Finches of Mars by Brian W. Aldiss. Copyright © 2015 Brian W. Aldiss. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Brian W. Aldiss was born in Norfolk, England, in 1925. Over a long and distinguished writing career, he has published award-winning science fiction (two Hugo Awards, a Nebula Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award); bestselling popular fiction, including the three-volume Horatio Stubbs saga and the four-volume the Squire Quartet; experimental fiction such as Report on Probability A and Barefoot in the Head; and many other iconic and pioneering works, including the Helliconia Trilogy. He has edited many successful anthologies and has published groundbreaking nonfiction, including a magisterial history of science fiction (Billion Year Spree, later revised and expanded as Trillion Year Spree). Among his many short stories, perhaps the most famous is “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,” which was adapted for film by Stanley Kubrick and produced and directed after Kubrick’s death by Steven Spielberg as A.I. Artificial Intelligence

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Finches of Mars 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There is no theme, no story line, nothing that holds this book together. It jumps from one thought to another or from one scene to another without warning. I am disappointed that I spent hours on such an uninspired book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Mary Shelley, who, in my assumption, was truly a fascinating author. She weaved together a very fast moving extraordinary saga, THE LAST MAN that kept me enthralled. Lionel’s life began on a cheerful note, but then tragedy struck. As I watched Lionel’s emotions go from sorrow, to bliss, back to sorrow, then grief in one brief moment took him by the throat and would not let go until his heart was broken. As deep depression set in he felt pure torment and could do nothing but try to comfort those around him as his dear friends, neighbors, and family departed, one by one, from what seemed to be a never-ending epidemic that swept through each countryside. This skillfully written masterpiece of a seriously tragic and also an intensely passionate story regarding love found, then lost through devastation, which led to unspeakable sorrow and loneliness, held me as I read line after line, and page after page, savoring every word. As I followed Lionel through his existence, in each chapter he must take action against this foe that always seemed to have the upper hand in everything, and yet, each time, he knew he must move on because of the need to find others. Will he have to live in constant silence, or will there be someone out there waiting to be heard? From the Sibyl’s Cave, where it all seemed to initiate, all the way through to the end, or the start of a new beginning, this fascinating tale of intrigue led me down some desolate paths, and through some unforgettable and very picturesque forlorn valleys. Wonderful read!
PollyH More than 1 year ago
Reputed to be Brian Aldiss' last work, Finches of Mars presents a picture of humans trying to colonize Mars. With the failure of women to give birth to live children, the colony faces a dark future. I found it a difficult book, and ultimately unsatisfying. Compared to his earlier works, such as Hothouse, Graybeard and the Heliconia Trilogy, this one didn't seem as up to the mark (only my opinion).