There’s a few slow projects in progress on this blog: rereading favorites I haven’t reviewed yet (Foundation, Anathem, Frankenstein and maybe some Banks are in the queue), working my way slowly through the KSR, Greg Egan and M. John Harrison I haven’t read, reading Frank Herbert’s lesser novels (a form of masochism), read more of my non-fiction TBR, digesting the oeuvre of Flemish writer J.M.H. Berckmans, and checking out some of the vintage scifi Joachim Boaz recommends on his site Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.
Some of Boaz’ recommendations have worked out really well for me: Non-Stop, Stand on Zanzibar, Beyond Apollo, Dying Inside, We Who Are About To…, An Infinite Summer, others less so: Ice, Memoirs of a Spacewoman, A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire.
The British author David Guy Compton’s second speculative title falls somewhere in between. I didn’t fully love it, but it is not to be discarded either. Farewell, Earth’s Bliss combines 2 tropes: colonizing Mars and the prisoners’ colony.
I’m sure the story of unwanted people that are sent to a distant island or so has been told lots of times in regular fiction too, but science fiction obviously offers a bit more possibilities than some version of Australia. In 1967 Robert Silverberg published Hawksbill Station – a novel I have yet to read, and he uses time travel as the method of exile. [update: I read it in January 2022, click on the title for the review.] In the 1980ies Julian May takes that same idea for The Many-Coloured Land and makes an entire series out of it – one I loved as a teenager.
Stories about communities in isolation being abundant, the question then is whether Compton uses his Mars setting effectively – to wit, distinctively. The short answer is yes, but the longer answer is a bit more nuanced, as Farewell, Earth’s Bliss is social science fiction, no hard sci-fi or space laser stuff.
That’s easily explained by the fact that Compton simply was not interested in science fiction as such, and has read none of his peers’ stuff, as he expressed in a fairly long 2019 interview with Darrell Schweitzer on Black Gate:
“I had been writing some crime novels, and they weren’t very good, and I decided I would do something different. I had an idea I liked about population control. This was way back whenever it was, early ’60s, I suppose, and I wrote a book. I sent it off to a publisher (…). They said yes, they would do it, and it was science fiction. And I, who had never even read any science fiction, apart from H.G. Wells, I suppose, and Jules Verne, I said, “Oh, is it science fiction? All right? I don’t mind. You can call it what you like, but publish it.” So is how I got into science fiction.
After it came out as science fiction and was reasonably well received, it made me think, well, I had better do another, hadn’t I? My images of science fiction were so crude at that time that really I thought that I needed a spaceship and mad scientist and a monster. I couldn’t do the mad scientist or the monster, but I did the spaceship. It was a utopia set on Mars. So that launched me further into science fiction. I was very lucky because I had entered a ghetto, a very friendly ghetto that has supported me more or less ever since.
I, you see, am absolutely not a scientist in the smallest way. I had one of those English, very specialized educations, that young men used to have. (…) I studied only modern languages and English, really, so science was out. I was simply responding, as you have said, to things that were going on around me, and using science fiction gimmicks, such as the camera in Katherine Mortenhoe, as a metaphor for what was going on around me.
I have to be honest and say that since even when I became a science fiction writer, I did not research the media. I should have gone out and read a lot of science fiction, but I never thought of myself as any sort of a writer. I was writing what was interesting me, and the science-fiction convention, which I only understood in a very clichéd and obvious way, gave me metaphors, a way of talking about things in, I hope, an interesting and unusual fashion.”
This is a short book, 188 pages, and discussing the plot too much would spoil a lot. I would advice against reading the few 21st century reviews floating around in the blogosphere: most give away too much, and part of this novel’s charm is the slow discovery of how things play out – with a palpable tension at times.
I can say this: Farewell, Earth’s Bliss starts on a space ship on the way to Mars – “a dumping ground for socially unacceptable” humans. 24 deportees are on board, a fairly diverse cast, and Compton focuses on just a few. The ship obviously lands on Mars, and the rest of the novel chronicles how the newbees are absorbed in the society of their predecessors that already took hold.
This is a novel from a different time – an actual paper time machine – and Compton shows a lot more empathy than most of his contemporaries for black and gay people. One could even say the core of this novel is about how minorities are treated, and as such it would be a shame if trigger warnings would shy away people from a human story that is ultimately insightful and touching, even though it might feel a bit dated to some.
Coincidentally I’ve just reviewed the excellent The Evolution of Moral Progress, and the scientific findings of that book – harsh conditions lead to less inclusivity – are on full display in Compton’s story. Having said that, I would not start this book expecting to gain a lot of new insight in the human condition, but it is a fascinating read to fine-tune your conception of the diversity of thought in the 1960ies: not all white English men were homophobic racists.
Creepy governors have become a trope in dystopian fiction about isolated communities (The Walking Death maybe the most well-known example) and so parts this book feel a bit predictable. Compton manages to keep things interesting nonetheless, and the Martian setting offers a few things that elevate this book above the regular stuff of small, isolated communities in bleak surroundings. On the other hand – and that’s that longer answer I hinted at above – most of this book could have easily played out on a distant island that welcomes new shipwreck survivors: as such Compton has failed to fully embrace the possibilities of his chosen setting. I also think the novel would have benefited from a bit more backstory on Earth’s society, even though I can appreciate Compton’s choice to focus solely on the new life of the deportees.
The back cover quotes a critic from the The Times Literary Supplement, who wrote that this “novel stands out for its quasi-Kafkaesque relevance to the total human predicament and, by means of authentic characterization, to the environment which the author has so vividly evoked.” I don’t think Compton has vividly evoked the Martian environment at all: the undoubtedly claustrophobic nature of its society’s dwellings doesn’t translate well to the page. It is hard to do I guess, and harder in the 60ies still – the first successful Mars landing only happened in 1971. It’s hard to conceive how anybody would stay sane in such an environment – it was the biggest problem with Andy Weir’s The Martian too. One day I will start Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, and I’m already looking forward to see how he will pull it off. (By the way, KSR’s list of 10 favorite Mars novels is on IEEE Spectrum, and it features Compton’s as well.)
Comparing this with Kafka is a bridge too far – this is no In the Penal Colony at all. The mood at times eerie, yes, but Compton’s is not a book about existential shackles, just a study of people under extreme duress.
The main characters are realized rather well, especially for such a short novel. Grey more than black and white, Compton leaves enough to the reader to make up her own mind. Not written from a position on a moral high horse, the novel never feels preachy, yet has something to say. But Compton fails to fully paint the Martian community of about 150 people, nor its economy. The novel is about individuals in an embryonic society, rather than about that society itself.
Compton’s palette more impressionistic than realistic or encyclopedic, Farewell, Earth’s Bliss is good enough to recommend to everybody that has an interest in 1960 science fiction. Also scholars of the history of minority representation in fiction should take heed.