I was sent this book as an advance listening copy via libro.fm for reviewing purposes, but all opinions are my own.
A century after the Martian war of independence, a group of kids are sent to Earth as delegates from Mars, but when they return home, they are caught between the two worlds, unable to reconcile the beauty and culture of Mars with their experiences on Earth in this spellbinding novel from Hugo Award–winning author Hao Jingfang.
In 2096, the war of independence erupts when a colony of people living on Mars rebel against Earth’s rule. The war results in two different and mutually incompatible worlds. In 2196, one hundred years later, Earth and Mars attempt to initiate a dialogue, hoping a reconciliation is on the horizon. Representing Mars, a group of young delegates are sent to Earth to study the history and culture of the rival planet, all while teaching others about life on Mars.
Narrated from two perspectives: Luo Ying, an eighteen-year-old girl from Mars who has spent the past five years on Earth, and Ignacio, a filmmaker in his late twenties from Earth on a job to document the delegates from Mars. Both Luo and Ignacio are trapped between worlds, with critics all around, and always under suspicion, searching for where they truly belong.
This was an overall interesting experience and I’m looking forward to not doing it again!
More seriously and in case it isn’t clear, I actually really, really liked this and I think it did very interesting things. It’s basically literary fic in a sci-fi trenchcoat and if you’re wondering what that means: a whole lot of introspection and philosophy, not even one space battle and more physics than your average novel. Which, to me, meant that I really enjoyed it, but I am also aware that I would have never finished it if I hadn’t been listening to the audiobook.
The book is divided in three parts and each follows a more or less self-contained arc, with recurring characters and what we could call the rightful main character, Luoying, who was part of a group of students who were sent to study on Earth for five years and are now back on Mars and trying to adjust to the society they were born in after experiencing, literally, a whole different world.
Luoying is also the granddaughter of what is known on Earth as the dictator of Mars (but nobody on Mars would call him that, because utopia), and she makes for an interesting main character also thanks to the fact that she’s so close to the Mars establishment, but not only.
I think Hao Jingfang managed to get away with what frankly is a 650-page introspection fest because she managed to make it not about the individual but about the whole, even though in the novel very little happens in terms of events and plot points and most of the development happens internally, through Luoying’s POV.
It’s impossible to read this book and not make a direct comparison to different types of society in our reality, although the differences are much more emphasized in the book, and while reading this and discussing about it with my buddy read partner we found ourselves in similar situations as the characters of the book, wondering about “the other side” and then realizing we didn’t know enough and all we had were speculations and assumptions, not dissimilar to how Martians assume things about Earth (and the other way around too). If this was even one of Hao Jingfang’s goals, since she probably knew her novel would be translated, then she fully succeeded in it.
If you’re scared of sci-fi but still want to read a novel that more or less answers the ever-present curiosity of “what would a human society on Mars look like?”, with no space battles and very few scifi-typical elements, this might be for you. I highly recommend the audiobook if you’re too impatient to sit down and read something so slow paced, but I promise its pace makes sense, and while I don’t think this is the kind of book that would make onto many favorite lists, it is one of those novels that you’ll find yourself thinking back to more than once.