Skip to main content

Red Soil Through Our Fingers by Nalin Ratnayake

+Nalin Ratnayake's Red Soil Through Our Fingers surprised me. First off, it’s pretty short as far as epic tales of Martian colonization go, certainly a quicker read than “The Martian,” and quite bit shorter (obviously) than say Red Mars. Having met and talked with the author before I expected something like Kim Stanley Robinson's take on the planet: sweeping explorations of an entire planet and its evolving society through hundreds of years, a cast of hundreds drawn into revolutions, political movements, and the Herculean task of terraforming an entire world.




Ratnayake is not writing a prequel, sequel, or side-quel (still not sure if that’s a real thing) of Red Mars. His use of Mars and references to the ravaged Old Blue of future Earth bring Stanley to mind, but Red Soil is very much its own literary creature. The closest I could describe this as being is perhaps the novelization of Red Faction as written by a very cogent and sober Philip K. Dick. The overall plot concerns the motivations and origins of a Martian revolution against corporate tyranny. Wars and rebellions on Mars are as much a part of its literary tradition as the dust and cold and Ratnayake vividly describes. Like PKD, Red Soils characters are decidedly blue-color, with pragmatic motivations and anxieties.

The story begins with the modestly prosperous farmer Mahela trying to keep himself on the top of the heap in the competitive and risk world of Martian agriculture. His success is jeopardized first by a serious accident involving a new, rabble-rousing farmhand Ashok and then by a series of suspicious crop failures. Mahela comes to realize that on a world like Mars, inhabitable only through the will and ingenuity of people, tyranny is baked into the fabric of his life. One thing that I appreciate about Ratnayake as a writer is his use of characters as the driving force of the plot, rather than vice versa. After initial set-up, the action flows naturally from crisis to crisis.

One of the critiques of this book mentions it is message fiction and it certainly is that. I’m mostly okay with the concept of message fiction, even heavy-handed messaging, as long as it’s in the service of a decent plot and characters. I’m happy to report that Red Soil Through Our Fingers certainly meets that criteria. For a short novel, a surprising depth and complexity emerges from Red Soil’s inhabitants. The tight focus on a few characters helps keep the action moving and free of annoying digressions. The theme of engineered existence extends through the book, the possibilities and perils of human beings’ control of nature revealed in ways both grand and subtle.

I think my biggest reaction after reading this story was a desire to read more. The world that Ratnayake summons into being is one still sadly underrepresented in genre fiction; a future that is proudly, irreducably multi-cultural and multi-polar. Readers entering into Red Soil looking for another Heinlein parable of American triumphalism are going to come away disappointed. 

Ratnayake embraces the hard SFnal side of things, with periodic info dumps about the machines and processes required for survival on Mars. In aesthetic terms this meant the novel reads like prose, not poetry. I don't mean that as a criticism: Red Soil's characters are pragmatically prose sorts of people and the tone works here. However, I'd love to see follow-ups to this work explore the less quantifiable aspects of human societies. I'm currently reading Ian McDonald's Luna novel and his marriage of gritty science with messy human extracurriculars is illuminating.

Still, this a book with its own stark charms. Without giving too much away, Ratnayake’s Mars is not a place where victory comes cheap or without cost. Mars is a dry, nearly airless world filled with impossible vistas and ancient human conflicts.
Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Solemn Treasures

In Gilead, the transcendent novel by Marilynn Robinson, a 76 year old man confronts his impending mortality and the sense he cannot provide for his young son after he is gone. He had not expected to meet his son's mother in the twilight of his life, not expected to have a son. If he had, he tells his son in a lengthy letter forming the substance of Robinson's novel, he might have set something by for him. Some sort of savings or investment. It pains him to think that when he is gone, all that he can leave are a few words.

What words.

As mentioned in a previous post, I set myself on the task (is that really the right word here? maybe endeavor would be better) to read as many of the 'great novels' of this young century as I could. After reading Hillary Mantel's "Wolf Hall-" which was also fantastic by the way - I made my way to Gilead. One of the many quietly strange things about this novel is that it's actually the second novel from Robinson. Her first…

New Story Acceptance!

As mentioned last week, I do have a bit of happy news to share. I am excited to announce that my story, "The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY," will appear in the next issue of the Electric Spec Magazine at the end of the month. I am tremendously excited about this for a few reasons:
Electric Spec is simply awesome. I've been reading this magazine for awhile and never been disappointed by a single story. To have one of my stories selected is beyond humbling. I can only give an earnest thank you to Lesley L. Smith for choosing the story.I love this story dearly. It has one of my favorite protagonists and shows in the clearest way I've managed where I'd like to go with my fiction. Electric Spec also gave me the chance to reflect on this story and its meaning in a guest blog which I am sharing below. Without being spoilery, this blog expresses some of what resonates about "The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY," with me. Guest Blog at Electric SpecAt the moment, I think the…

"The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY" is now available!

My new story, "The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY," is now available in the current issue of the Electric Spec magazine. I'm very proud that this story is getting published at Electic Spec for the simple reason I've been reading the magazine for years, dreaming of the day I might get a story published there. Well, it's finally happened.

The story of "Yuru-chara" is pretty simple: a young girl wakes up to discover that her old virtual friend, a seven-foot-tall yellow monster named Tama Bell, has come to life. While navigating through waves of other virtual creatures released through a world-wide hack, the young heroine tries to come to grips with her responsibility to her forgotten friend and the losses inherent to growing up.

I hope that you enjoy my story and that you give the other stories a try. They're awesome!

Thank you for your continued support.