war over dust

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


Glen Donaldson shares his thoughts on the latest sci-fi novel in British author Stuart Aken's Generation Mars series, WAR OVER DUST.

Submitted: October 07, 2017

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Submitted: October 07, 2017

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Megastar (pun intended) astrophysicist Stephen Hawking says we, meaning humankind, have to colonize another planet within the next hundred years if our species is to have even a prayer of avoiding  certain extinction.

In WAR OVER DUST, that mass migration is already more than 500 years past and while IQ-busting super-science, engineering and human genome coding advances have conspired to forge a truly technologically breathtaking alternate world, not everyone is enjoying their time in the cosmic floodlights.

Welcome to Stuart Aken’s second book in his elaborate GENERATION MARS series. The 4th planet from the sun may today be regarded by astronomers as a place of toxic soil, unbreathable air and freezing cold climate, but in WAR OVER DUST, set a further half millennia along from BLOOD RED DUST’s (the first book in the series) world of 2074, the Red Planet has now been fully colonized. However in a nod to futuristic Darwinism at work, Mars has unfortunately evolved into a divided community of intergalactic haves and have nots.

At the Beverly Hills end of town live in resplendent, AI-assisted glory The Chosen (the original colonists) and their descendants who now number in excess of 300 000. These lobster, chardonnay and fine literature enjoying breed of colonists are “a community overcrowded with genius” whose every need is tendered to by thousands of ‘semi-sentient’ androids.

Having the good sense to appreciate the almost limitless benefits that harnessing the principles of advanced science and physics have brought them, and this being an Aken novel, these pick-of-the- litter colonists also see no reason to hold onto primitive beliefs about the need to worship any form of imagined ‘Big Daddy’ creator type entity.

Contrast this to the less than contented miners and metal workers community of Marzero which has taken up residence on the other side of the planet and you have the makings of a titanic, seething class struggle not seen since the likes of the considerably less gadget-strewn and hi-tech PRIDE AND PREDJUDICE by 18th century English novelist Jane Austen.

The rough ‘n ready folk of Marzero number well over two million and partake in some pretty backward ways – even by twentieth century standards. They’re not above, for example, giving their women the odd Jackie ‘Honeymooners’ Gleason slap to keep them in line. That time-honored staple of Earthly institutions, corruption, has also wormed its way into every corner and crevice of their society. They’re also quite big on worshipping two charismatic-to-some religious pitchmen by the name of Stefan and Gabriel. Stir in a pervading “denial of intellect” and a belief instilled from birth that their more privileged cousins over at Marion (whom they ungraciously refer to as ‘Marionettes’) are the reason for all their underclass misery and you can foresee that a messy power shift might be on the interstellar horizon.

Aken has naturally outfitted his future world with the type of tech-trippy furniture that keeps sci-fi lovers up reading well into the night. There’s weapons-grade blade lasers, suits that turn the wearer invisible, gardenbots that tender lawns to manicured perfection (at least in Marion), dipole magnets and quantum computers capable of performing ‘quintigrigtillions’ of calculations at once. That’s to say nothing of the parabolic mirror power generators,  bombs with anti-tamper devices called ‘tremblers’, the futuristic Crime Council charged with upholding law and order in Marion, anti-gravitation devices, the nasty Assassin Squad, scatter guns, new-fashioned metals like metallic hydrogen, the sky elevator… you get the idea. In a development that would more than likely spell the end of the beauty face cream industry as we currently know it, you also get to pick what ‘stable year’ your visible ageing process is frozen at. And it’s all presided over by an omniscient super computer known as Grandma (think ‘Mother’ from the 1979 film ALIEN but a thousand light years more advanced).

 The sagging middle syndrome that beset the first book has been replaced with a storyline that zips along like it’s got twin outboard motors and a winged keel attached; as a consequence it’s now also got what the literary types call ‘real narrative pull’.

The themes Stuart Aken reliably weaves into his novels – gender politics, the falsehoods of religion, the struggles and rise of the proletariat – are all written here in abundance.  The author doesn’t so much whisper his messages, like air-conditioning coming thru a vent, but is more inclined to megaphone them on high volume. As far as thematic epicenters go, there are delicious echoes here of science fiction classics such as Octavia Butler’s PARABLE OF THE SOWER (1993), David Zindell’s NEVERNESS (1988) and Olaf Stapeldon’s ODD JOHN (1935). The ‘Church of Science’ – the bogus religion from Asimov’s FOUNDATION series has its literary doppelganger right here amongst the pages of WAR OVER DUST. What Ursula K. Le Guin’s THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS (1969) did for feminism and gender politics, Aken’s novel does to the same regime-changing, game-changing degree with the issues of egalitarianism and class struggles, even out-writing in this area a recognized classic such as Neil Ferguson’s DOUBLE HELIX FALL (1990).

There are a few minor perceived flaws in the writing, yet these are probably more matters of personal taste. I think the story could have used a smidgeon more humor. The tone might be described as pretty relentlessly serious throughout, though having said that, the exchange that opens Chapter 19, where hopelessly devoted religious zealot Stefan dissects and overconfidently misinterprets another one of Gabriel’s ‘visions’, had me holding back genuine tears of laughter. There’s also the little matter of the author’s use of very 20th century words and expressions such as “Basic as buggery” – “Cheap tarts” and endless variations of the more-than-annoying “Twat” (I stopped counting after noting 80 separate appearances of this word). One might also possibly be led to conclude from reading  certain passages of the book that Stuart Aken favors longer words when a shorter, less stiff one may have done just as well (Examples: 1. “Flummoxed by this abusive retort, Daisa shook her head in denial.”  2. “Tangible, it threatened to expose both of them to the rapacious guards.”  3. “This was a momentous meeting and everyone attending represented the wishes, ideas and priorities of their group”). From another viewpoint however, it might be said that this style helps supplement the whole AI-assisted feel of the story.

Overall, Aken’s multi-dimensional authorial wand has created another mindfully constructed alternate universe in which readers can delight and lose themselves. With overly familiar themes running at its core, I hesitate to label WAR OVER DUST as any kind of literary singularity. But with devoted world building, an emotional upcountry that includes time for a romance between two of the main protagonists, brilliantly written battle scenes every bit as good as those in Joe Haldeman’s sci-fi milestone THE FOREVER WAR (1974), cliffhanger chapter endings and enough high-tech toys and big ideas for readers to well and truly sink their teeth into, WAR OVER DUST is a sustained exercise in imagination and crisp story telling.

From first page to last, WAR OVER DUST maintains its inventiveness and heady pace to deliver a highly satisfying tale of 26th century rebellion, treachery and social engineering that tries its very best to make the genre great again.


© Copyright 2018 Glen Donaldson. All rights reserved.

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