Berkley’s International Science Fiction program is proud to introduce France’s premier young s-f master with an adventure in Earth’s future. After the catastrophic death of civilization, human colonists of Mars return to “the mother planet” to discover a primitive society operating in bloody conflict with nature. The planetwide adventures of this group of colonists—grown soft and decadent in the artificial, low-gravity colonies on Mars—is one of the most exciting adventures of today’s international world of science fiction.
This one’s going up really late for me, and I apologize, but I just got back into town after a vacation. I meant to read the book while I was away, but that just didn’t happen.
That said, The Mountains of the Sun was a pretty tough nut to crack. Try as I might, I just couldn’t keep my eyes and brain on the book. Part of that is because I got a new phone and kept getting distracted by it, but a pretty significant portion of the reason is that the book was just so boring.
That’s a shame, really, because this book has an excellent premise. Earth has been basically uninhabited for 350 or so years, following some great cataclysmic event that was never really explained. Oddly, it was never even hinted that it was a man-made event, like a nuclear war or a genetically engineered plague. All the hints we were given is that it was some kind of natural disaster, probably an “ion storm.”
Anyway, the people of Earth fled en masse to Mars, where they managed to eke out a living for three and a half centuries. Some people, however, were left behind on Earth, where they, too, managed to eke out an existence. Our book begins by focusing on the descendents of the people who stayed behind, people who have regressed into what basically amounts to the bronze age.
Our hero for most of the book is a dude named Cal. Cal is a hunter and is really ambitious. He not only wants to rule the tribe, but also wants to lead them out of the valley where the tribe has existed from time immemorial. He manages to meet a member of another tribe, a guy named An-Yang (An-Yang!), whose tribe uses horses, which Cal’s tribe does not. Cal and An-Yang (An-Yang!) manage to convince the chief, Igol, that An-Yang’s (An-Yang!) tribe is about to attack, and now it’s time to leave.
Together they manage to steal some horses, convince everyone to leave, and find an old abandoned city.
While all this is happening, there’s a B-plot where people from Mars are doing science and talking about what happened, basically providing some exposition that wasn’t especially necessary, but was actually pretty interesting.
These two plots meet up about three-quarters of the way through the book where, due to the science of the Mars-people, Cal and An-Yang (An-Yang!) manage to fight off the people they stole the horses from.
That’s really the whole plot. There just wasn’t an awful lot there.
Like I said, that’s a real shame. On the surface, this book had so much to offer. I absolutely love the idea of people moving to Mars, spending a long time there, and then deciding that it’s time to come back to Earth, only to have to face off against the descendents of the people they left behind. It’s a brilliant setup!
Where the book went really wrong, though, is in the execution. Very little happens, and when it does happen, it’s in the most non-confrontational way. It’s like when I was in the third grade and I decided I wanted to write stories, and the stories usually had a plot to the effect of “He met his enemy, they drew swords, and they fought for a while. The other guy was pretty tough, but eventually he won.” That’s the level of execution in this book.
Instead of any kind of drama happening when Cal and his folks meet the Martians, they just sort of mingle around until they get to know each other. It’s like they met at a cocktail party. There was potential drama. Cal was convinced that the Martians were in fact his ancestors, and there was a possibility of language issues, but both of those plot points fizzled out really quickly. Basically the linguist figured out Cal’s language really quickly, and then they explained the situation to him. Problem solved.
Throughout the whole book Cal’s party is being chased by these horsemen. Whenever it cut to their point of view the style of the book changed dramatically, with phrases like “Thus declared the lord of the horse-men” and stuff like that. It was really ominous but it didn’t exactly work. When the final fight scene came down it was also written in that style, but it just sort of ended when An-Yang (An-Yang!) hit the leader with a spear. Then the rest of the horsemen came down and declared An-Yang (An-Yang!) their champion and joined the cocktail party.
Scientifically speaking the book had a lot going for it. There was a lot of talk about how the early settlers to Mars (led by a guy named Robert A. Clarke, of all names) had to deal with the harsh Martian climate, figuring out how to make food and water and oxygen and all that. The science there was pretty detailed and didn’t stray very much from science as we know it today. So that was nice. Again, it just didn’t go anywhere.
The Mountains of the Sun was translated from French, and I do have to wonder how much was lost in the translation. It was pretty coherent as it was, but it was also full of typos and typesetting errors, which implied to me a rush job. Since the back of the book was really adamant that Christian Léourier is the king of French science fiction (I’m sure fans of Jules Verne would have words to say about that), it was pretty amazing to me how quick and dirty and boring the whole thing was.
It does make me wonder, though, if this is somehow representative of Continental European science fiction? I’ll admit it, I haven’t read an awful lot of that sub-sub-sub-genre. I’ve basically read some Jules Verne (also in translation, of course. French is hard.) but I feel like Verne had a lot more excitement and plot in his books than this one did. Of course, those two authors are also separated by a matter of a hundred years or so. Could it be that 20th century American and British science fiction is more influenced by Verne than the French were? These are questions I really want to figure out the answers to. Just how much modern French science fiction is there? What about Germans or Italians or elsewhere on the continent?
This is a short post because there really wasn’t a lot to say about the book, but as I’m typing, I’m having a lot of questions to ponder, so that’s a good thing. Good sci-fi should always raise questions and discussion. This book didn’t really bring up any questions relating to itself, but hey, I’ll count it.