The Forge of Mars , Bruce Balfour

Ace, 2002, 404 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00954-9

It seemed promising enough: A novel mixing alien relics, a maverick hero, nanotechnology, robots, artificial intelligence and conspiracies reaching back in our history. It’s not as if there hasn’t been plenty of good SF novels with “Mars” in their titles over the past few years. Plus, Balfour has designed one of my all-time favourite computer adventures, Wasteland. What could go wrong?

Well, The Forge of Mars doesn’t go wrong as much as it doesn’t go anywhere coherent, interesting or pleasant. The novel switches sub-genres every hundred pages, creating the impression of a monster with too many heads and not enough muscle.

Even the opening sequence smacks of trouble, combining a training scenario shuttle crash with some muddy mysticism. Yep, this is the entrance of our hero, Tau Wolfsinger, a genius half-Native American whose rebel ideas prove too controversial for the NASA. Meanwhile, behind the shadows, a group of powerful men and women are dealing with the sudden appearance of alien artifacts on Mars… artifacts that may be not dissimilar to those discovered in Siberia on the site of the Tunguska disaster. One of the elements of the plan consists in manipulating Tau to ship him off to Mars. But whereas a simple “please” might have sufficed, a convoluted plan emerges which involves first shipping off his girlfriend, killing his mentor and assigning him an aggressively seductive colleague.

This first part of The Forge of Mars plays like a high-tech thriller, and it does contain interesting elements. The menace of the conspiracy is disturbing, and the NASA bureaucracy is used in an intriguing fashion. But already, signs of narrative fatigue are obvious; the useless detours can tax anyone’s patience, and the murder scene which tops this section seems gratuitously gory in light of the rest of the story. It’s an effective, unsettling moment, but it belongs in another book.

Then the book, midway through, shifts gears just in time for the lengthy voyage which will take Tau to Mars. This sequence is oddly familiar, given all the similar sequences that pepper the countless Mars-themed Hard-SF novels that have been published since the early nineties. This sentiment of familiarity carries over the initial scenes on Mars, as Tau establishes his research operation.

But don’t get too comfortable: before long, Tau fails to reunite with his girlfriend and is taken hostage by an evil Russian conspiracy member and his dog. He escapes, only to have the thematic ground of the novel shift under him once more as he’s asked to lead a series of war games for an alien race someplace far far away from Mars. Naaah, I’m not making this up. Fortunately, battle-wizard Tau eventually comes back to Mars to lead an attack against the evil Russians (and the dog) to liberate Mars.

Or something like that. Despite the various interesting elements used by The Forge of Mars, Balfour always takes the long way around, thus dissipating whatever tension accumulates. By the time Tau has become some sort of alien Ender Wiggins, readers might be wondering if there was even an editor around when they decided to publish the novel; too many plot threads, not enough narrative energy. The writing is nowhere as good as it should be to make us shrug off the rest of the book’s weaknesses. Bland and disjointed a dull novel it makes.

In the end, it doesn’t amount to much, and I suspect that my fuzzy memory of the book will erode even further in the next few months. It’s probably no accident if this is an Ace paperback original; certainly, it’s a cut below what we may expect for an average SF novel, let alone something worth our attention. Nothing to see here; let’s move along.

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