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Jalapeno Score: 42/50
Oh so sad, melodramatic, and dreary this “Snowfall on Mars” is. And I loved it. It had a decent amount of terraformation science, hardships on a hostile planet, quirks of a degraded and disillusioned society, religious cult extremes reminiscent of Holocaust or Jonestown massacre, gripping characters and a sad, sad, sad love story.
Most of all, the novel made me think about the human nature. Are all humans inherently capable of infinite evil, given the right circumstances? Or are there some humans that regardless of a situation would preserve their humanity?
The novel also brought to my attention the unique ways, in which women survive in crisis. We all know that during war and armed conflicts, women are a target of unspeakable atrocities. In peace times, women are subjected to the expectations of a ‘proper’ womanhood: pure, soft, beautiful, and voiceless. Whenever women diverge from this gender stereotype, they are harshly judged through perpetuation of rape myths and victim-blaming (e.g., ‘she called for it’, ‘she was never innocent to begin with, so why spill beans now?’ etc.). Maybe it is not the main topic of the book, and in it’s essence, this book is, first of all, an entertaining thriller and a murder mystery, but what resonated with me the most, is a case study of a human condition.
It seems, that there is always darkness lurking in the corners of our soul, whether we admit it or not.
60 years ago, humans pulled together planetary resources to start the most ambitions Exodus yet – to Mars. It was a blitzkrieg terraformation plan, backed by big businesses and dumbfounded scientists, acting like children allowed to play with adult toys. Breathable air was the utmost goal for the project, and it was planned to achieve this goal through introducing tons of chemicals to the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the infrastructure of Mars was feverishly developed under the climate-controlled domes. Cities were popping up like wild mushrooms after a summer rain, parcels of Martian land were sold left and right, and lavish lifestyle was imported from Earth.
However, there was some glitch in the terraforming plan, and it had disastrous results. The ecosystem of Mars turned into a poisonous acidic wasteland, with toxic snow and rain falling on the red rusty Martian soil. To make matters worse, something went terribly wrong on Earth, and the settlers saw the video feed, in which nuclear mushroom clouds erupted all over the planet, and the Earth went silent. All communications with the Earth were lost, and the Martian colony became the only surviving outpost of humanity in the universe.
David Adler came to Mars in his early teens, with mom and dad in search of a better life. Adler always hated Mars, and lived with one thought in mind, that someday, when he grows up, he will go back to the Earth and forget all this colonization nightmare. When the End came, “Whoever David Adler was, he died that day… Since then, I haven’t really figured out who, if anyone, took David Adler’s place. That very day, I put my head down, and I guess I haven’t really looked up yet.”.
Twenty years layer, Adler managed somehow to survive, together with a few hundred remaining colonists, leading meaningless day-to-day existence. The concepts of future, family, progress, or any other defining aspects of humanity, vanished from everyone’s vocabulary. What was left, could be wrapped around mundane, purposeless encounters that led nowhere.
Everyone was used to death. Nobody was immune from it, but the remaining few hundred of settlers had no energy even for murder any more, especially when it came down to a few useful and somewhat functioning individuals who maintained living conditions in the colony. That is why a savage murder of an old scientist Epstein shocked David as beyond illogical. Who would murder a person, who kept them alive? He received the news about Epstein’s demise from his former lover, Oksana, “beautiful, self-obsessed Oksana”, who David long accepted to be bad news.
Following the trail of a murder suspect, a sleazy former lawyer Wang, who had a reputation of being able to sell his own mother into slavery given a little profit, Adler stumbles at even bigger danger yet. Evidently, Wang was procuring materials for bombs. The matters quickly get worse, when David finds out that Wang’s client is a sociopathic cult leader Proctor. The problem with Proctor is that over the years after the End, he gathered a following of brainwashed lunatics who believe that they already died and are now in Purgatory. The only way out for them, is kill everyone, and such mass suicide would bring the end to their suffering, sending them straight to Heaven. Naturally, bombs in the hands of these lunatics were bad news.
On the backdrop of this murder mystery, the destiny of the last sparkle of humanity is at stake, and this stakes were never higher.
Frankel utilized a fare share of popular Mars colonization ideas, voiced in science and fiction alike. The idea of introducing greenhouse gasses and an artificial magnetic field in order to help Mars to retain the atmosphere, is a good old staple of the genre, and Frenkel put it to a good use. There are other sporadic science considerations that have to do with Martian lower gravity, it’s moons, soil composition etc. Overall, the science in the story plays an instrumental role to make the reader ‘feel’ like traveling through the real Mars, with it’s natural threats. However, the science plays more of a backdrop to the story, plot and characters being it’s main pillars. The readers who appreciate fiction without being overloaded with science info-dumps, will find the story appealing.
The plot of the story is strong, action-packed, and coherent. In the beginning, the author does a fantastic job immersing the reader in the narrative by playing on our survival instincts. Together with the characters, we are scared, anxious, and deprived of civilization. That is why the imminent danger of a murderous cult leader feels real. As far as a murder investigation tactics, they are not very sophisticated. What I mean by that, is that the characters often are guided by their instincts and hearsay, which is far from the rigorous Sherlock Holmes methodology. But if you think about the circumstances and limitations of the character’s predicament, it only makes sense. That is why I did not deduct any points for that, realizing that the author went for the raw and authentic quality of the story.
What I found mildly distracting, is the short time-scale for the terraformation, and the fact that within a few decades, the colonies ended up becoming rich cities with lavish excesses of human civilization, like flower shops, rich mansions, pawn shops, entertainment and such. I would expect a more austere existence from the new colonies. And at first we don’t realize how sprawled the colonization on Mars was. The information about new buildings and structures keeps popping up as the story progressed, and it felt just a bit too convenient. I would not expect to find any un-vandalized places as well. If the people knew that it was all they could ever get from the remnants of civilization, they would probably try to rob and possess everything there was to possess. However, that is somewhat justified because, according to the narrative, people cannot travel between the domes freely, being limited with the oxygen supply in their space suits, and vast distances between each structure. So that one was a bit of a toss for me. Nonetheless, 9 points is a very high score, and I almost gave it a perfect 10, so don’t be discouraged by it.
Character development is a perfect ten, especially for the leading characters. David Adler is an average guy without any particular special skills, or so we think at first. He feels ill-suited for the post-apocalyptic living, because he never killed anyone, which is rare among the settlers. He also did not succeed in eliminating all human qualities in his character, such as empathy, compassion, and care about the fellow men. These qualities are well hidden, and truly shine in the moments of crisis. David still wanted to be useful, unlike the majority of loitering and drinking folks around. Every day, he gets up, and goes to work, a work that he hired himself for, and that nobody expects him to do. His job is to provide the only type of nutrition available in the planet – the sustainability bars, harvested from the waste products of a fungus, that grows in an old mine.
Another main character is David’s flame from years ago Oksana. This woman has a plethora of flaws, infidelity, stealing, cheating, vanity are only some of them. How can a man love someone so damaged, so lost? But somewhere deep down, David knows that Oksana has some redeeming qualities, he may have not found them yet.
Another character, central to the story, is Lane, one of the Panama Boys, a new generation born on Mars. Panama Boys don’t believe in the Earth; to them it is only a myth. These kids grow like tumbleweed, without families, schools, and benefits of civilizations. Lane is their leader. Most of the older generation steer away from guys like Lane, because they know of their sketchy value system.
Overall, the characters are the biggest treasure of this book. They are responsible for the mood and appeal of the story.
It is hard to place the “Snowfall on Mars” on the originality scale, because the genre is so competitive. However, the combination of dystopian, post-apocalypse, and Mars colonization themes lands it in a narrower category of science fiction. The claim of originality is mostly made in the way the author fused the familiar themes, and produced a self-sufficient, character-driven plot.
Considering that Branden Frankel is somewhat new to the creative writing genre, “Snowfall on Mars” a raging success, and I am looking forward to his future creations. The most impressive achievement of the “Snowfall on Mars” is the style. Written from the point of view of David Adler, the story is conveyed in the present tense, which gives the reader a close immersed experience. We are following David in his skin, see through his eyes, eat what he eats, and fear what he fears. The story is for the most part fast-pacing, especially in the beginning and the end, with a bit more of exposition in the middle. However, if in no hurry, this is a pleasant read and contributes to the mood. Another good quality of the writing style is crisp clarity of narration, even when it comes to ambiguous and abstract emotions and concepts. Finally, a great strength of the narration is it’s vivid, cinematic quality. I could totally see this story made into the movie, because the author made it easy for the reader to make the scenes so visual. This simple, straightforward narration without any false pompousness and weediness won me over from the start.
My concluding words – satisfying, engaging, highly recommended.
Thanks for reading this review. Please let me know what you think, I’m looking forward to read your comments. Do you have a favorite 2015 or 2016 sci fi novel? You can nominate it for the award.
To find out about the Jalapeño Fiction Award, go to this page.
Copyright Ellie Maloney (2016)
Excellent! Very thorough and illuminating.
Thank you, sir. This new author captivated my imagination. It was a great debut from someone who decided to write a novel without any previous experience in creative writing, and finished it. I thought it was impressive.