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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.

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