A political thriller that suffers from the strictures of science fiction as a genre
Natasha Pulley’s work tends to run to type: Delicately drawn queer relationships, exquisite images evoking the unknowability of (super)natural forces, an unmoored approach to time, and plots focusing on conquest and colonialism that usually involve Britain at one end or the other. The Mars House, a science fiction political thriller set on Mars, would seem like a striking departure from this mold, and yet, at its core, nearly all of Pulley’s key interests are represented. The problem is that what works beautifully in historical fiction tinged with the fantastic does not translate well to science fiction.
The book centers around January Stirling, a ballet dancer from England who must flee a flooded London as a climate refugee. The city of Tharsis, a Martian colony, is always looking for new people, and make a practice of taking in climate refugees like January. But people who have grown up on Earth are three times stronger than natural Martian citizens, due to the gravity differential, and because they do not know how to moderate their strength, they are deadly additions to society. One in 267 Earthborn people kills a Martian by accident every year, on account of their strength—a statistic that takes familiar arguments about immigration and gives them a decidedly fresh twist. It’s one thing to insist that taking in refugees is a humane and decent thing to do, or to show how immigration results in a net positive economic impact. It’s quite another when the cost of such policies is measurable in lives.
Tharsis has coped with this uneasy balance by creating a two-tiered society. At the top are natural or naturalized Martians: those who were born on the planet, or have undergone a grueling and not-entirely-safe medical procedure to render their physiology comparable to more fragile Martian norms. The underclass are the ‘Earthstrong’, people like January, whose comparative robustness makes them valuable workers in jobs like manufacturing, where manual labour and brute strength are valuable, but who are still seen as a peril in shops or on public transit. They are legally required to wear resistance cages, a metal mechanism that resists their movement in a manner evocative of Harrison Bergeron, reducing their strength to Mars-normal. Regulations restrict their movement: they can remove their cages only in certain places, under clearly defined circumstances. Public service messaging reinforces these regulations in dehumanizing language.
This strength-related division between Earthstrong and Tharses is bolstered by a gender-related divide. The Tharsese have done away with social gender entirely. Everyone is ‘they’. To a Martian, gendered language is rude, uncouth. It evoke back-alley thuggery, because on Mars gendered pronouns are only used by Earthstrongers, for Earthstrongers. Oh—and for animals. A Martian cannot be ‘he’ or ‘she’, but a dog or an Earthstronger can be. Again, immigrants are dehumanized.
Within this society, January Stirling makes a home for himself. He wears his cage obediently, works diligently in a factory to manufactor water from biowaste at a molecular level, and struggles to support himself in a grey market economy that runs on energy credits, since unnaturalized Martians are shut out of the currency economy. Then, in an unfortunate example of politics staining everything it touches, he catches the attention of Aubrey Gale, a militantly anti-refugee Tharsese politician on the rise. As a political stunt, Gale invites January to enter into a temporary political marriage, and January—now out of work and unable to support himself---has no other option but to agree. (This is rather typical of Pulley, whose queer relationships almost always feature a decidedly unhealthy imbalance of power.) From there, plottery ensues: explosions and dinner parties, talking mammoths and almost-ghosts, mysteriously missing persons and maybe-murdered marital predecessors, and a great deal of immigration policy and political intrigue in all directions.
The real strength of this book is, I think, the politics of immigration in this Tharsese context. Pulley has always been quite interested in culture clash and colonization, and the interplanetary setting here allows her the freedom to explore familiar ideas in novel ways. By making Earthstrongers genuinely dangerous to indigenous Martians, Pulley neatly balances the two sides of an argument that most left-leaning readers of SFF would see as laughably unbalanced in its real-world incarnation. The world presented here has no good solutions: Earth’s climate crisis is catastrophically bad, and Mars has room. Yet Earthstrong people are genuinely dangerous, and the more of them arrive on Mars, the more they will threaten the Tharsese. Yet on Mars itself, they are an underclass, forced either to physically hamper themselves, or else undergo debilitating, irreversable medical procedures for the sake of reaping the benefits of Tharses citizenship. Integrating the two populations cannot be made safe or equitable. Segregating them into separate settlements would only create two groups who must share limited resources, one of which is vastly stronger than the other—an imbalance that will not end well.
On top of this quite sophisticated political world-building, there are also beautiful references to her earlier books. A reference to the Peruvian Andes is, I think, an Easter egg for readers who read The Bedlam Stacks (the finest of Pulley’s books, in my opinion). At one point a character pulls out a cell phone that is a family heirloom, a Mori cell phone. Mori is the name of the titular character from The Watchmaker of Filligree Street, and the idea that his craft would have evolved from 19th century watchmaking to 21st century cell phone manufacturing is a lovely connector between the very different worlds in Pulley’s books. (It’s also rather a nice touch that a key mark of the quality of Mori craftsmanship is that the cell phones can be easily taken apart so that damaged parts can be swapped out to effect repairs. *coughcoughApplecoughcough*)
Other characteristically Pulleyan touches abound, but with less delicacy or success than in her previous books. The growing intimacy between January and Gale is the core of their character arcs, but it feels a bit forced. Part of that might be the quite tropey marriage-of-convenience plot device. Part of it might be the fact that January has internalized the anti-Earthstrong sentiment to a distressing degree of self-loathing, which makes his growing feelings for Gale—a rabid anti-Earthstronger, remember—seem less like affection and more like another representation of that self-loathing.
The evocation of the ineffable power of natural forces, too, is present, but less satisfying. For example, water is a scarce commodity on Mars—hence January’s job at the factory manufacturing it—but Gale’s family has made its fortune extracting it from the atmosphere. Several scenes take place among a plantation of solar mirrors, which power Tharsis, while also warming the surrounding air and nurturing a pine forest. The microclimate generates mist, and nearby is a herd of genetically reconstituted mammoths, who can communicate with humans. Some veery evocative imagery, to be sure, but also a little bit silly.
I think that the problem with this book lies almost entirely its use of science fictional devices, rather than fantasy, to generate these otherworldly touches. Because with science fiction things must be explained, and explained in a way that makes sense. And these explanations simply don’t. Take, for example, the misty forest: It’s misty, we’re told, because the air is warmer around the solar collectors. But how can that work? Mist precipitates when the amount of water vapor grows too high for the air to hold. But warm air can hold more water than cold air. This is why dew collects at night: the air cools down, and water precipates out. This is also why winter air is dry: even if the outside air is fully saturated with water, once we warm it up indoors we increase its capacity to hold water, and so its relative humidity will plummet. Now consider Mars: It’s so dry that water must be created at a molecular level in massive solar-powered factories. Warming up the air is going to make the problem worse. So where does the water come from, to saturate this warmed air so completely that mist appears?
Consider, too, the cages that Earthstrongers must wear. Their mechanism, we are told, is to resist muscular movement, which prevents an overly enthusiastic gesture from taking off a Martian’s head. (While we’re at it, I’m a little perplexed at the frequency of limb-removal being attributed to Earthstrongers. Certainly bones and muscles will be weaker, but I have difficulty seeing how life in low-gravity weakens tendons and ligaments enough that someone of typical Earth stature can rip off a Martian’s leg. If you'll forgive a gruesome comparison, I do not believe it is the case that one in 267 preschool teachers accidentally dismembers a toddler every year.) The cages counteract movement; they do not change anything about the internal density or composition of an Earthstronger’s body. So how is it that a fall in Martian gravity is harmless to an Earthstronger who is not wearing a cage, but deadly to an Earthstronger who is wearing a cage? How is it that a crowd-repelling water hose can be shrugged off by an Earthstronger who is not wearing a cage, but will sweep away an Earthstronger who is wearing a cage? The Earthstrong muscle and bone density are not going anywhere. The narrative purpose of the cages is clear: make Earthstrongers like Martians. But the mechanism that we are given simply doesn’t match the effect that they are intended to generate.
There are lots of examples of this: ideas that are evocative and useful for plotting and pacing and tension and stakes, but which simply don't work if you're trying to come up with a science-fictional type solution for them. With Pulley's approach to fantasy, she can leave it in the misty background, generating spectacular stories that aren’t dragged down by mechanics or unconvincing science. With SF, she can't.
So, in sum, this is not Pulley's best work. Nevertheless, I devoured it in a day, and will devour her next, because even Pulley's not-best work is still pretty good stuff.
Nerd coefficient: 6/10, still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore
Politics of immigration and gender
Unconvincing SF mechanics
CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on Mastodon at wandering.shop/@ergative.
Pulley, Natasha. The Mars House. [Bloomsbury Publishing, 2024].