Monday, September 07, 2009

Even on Mars, We Are Who We Are

The following review is republished from the September 3rd issue of the Boulder Weekly. Back in February, I wrote a feature about Robert Dresner and his failed attempts to get his novel The Astral Imperative published for the Boulder Weekly.

When I reprinted that piece on Kash's Book Corner, it became one of my most read entries garnering many comments from people in publishing and also self-published authors. Dresner was also contacted directly by publishers and agents about the book. To date, he still does not have a deal in place. It's not so easy for an unknown author to sell a trilogy one book at a time.
In this article, I chose not to discuss the fact that the novel is self-published. The distinctions between published and self-published and all the permutations in between those two extremes seems to be completely blurred in the public's mind. If it's a good book, no one - outside of the bookselling and publishing industries -seems to care whether some guy is printing his personal manifesto on demand or whether Random House is revving up the presses for a 100,000 print run.

Stargazer

Local Sci-Fi author creates his own Universe
Robert Dresner creates a dark but vividly drawn future universe where life is nearly impossible for his heroes in The Machine, the second volume of his thought-provoking science-fiction trilogy, The Astral Imperative.

The novel opens with three astronauts stranded on Mars after their international mission of hope has led to the deaths of their six crewmates. The survivors live in uncomfortable quarters where the constant drone of the air pumps invades their every conscious moment. They barely speak to each other, only communicating when it is absolutely necessary.

“They gave birth to the future, but now they are marooned,” Dresner said. “It’s about survival. They have to discover who they are. When hope starts to fade, it’s amazing how you revert back to who you are. You can meet a great challenge, but when it’s over, you are all of a sudden back to yourself.”

The rescue of the astronauts is not so simple. They have discovered a new life form, and that form, regardless of how tiny (we’re talking molecular here), could possibly contaminate everything on Earth. In addition, they are in possession of the Dream Machine, a computer that has reached consciousness. Whatever nation controls that technology would obviously have a huge advantage in the world. The ideals of the first international crew give way to the tribal bickering of the rescuers.

“That machine is the most powerful thing that humans have ever created,” Dresner said, clearly relishing his own creation. “The idea of the rescuers is to either control the Dream Machine or make sure that no one else does.”

While the humans wrangle for power on Mars, for many on Earth, survival isn’t even an option. The climate becomes increasingly foreboding until a killer storm, far beyond the power of Hurricane Katrina, strikes New York City, highlighting the necessity of exploring new worlds. One character walks out into the streets of Manhattan after the storm has cleared and is stunned and heartbroken by the destruction.

“He saw one whole block destroyed, every single building collapsed into one another; the mound of wreckage and carnage so high it blocked out the sun… He heard gunshots in the distance, and a short burst of machine gun fire as he neared Central Park. He saw bulldozers shoveling bodies off the sidewalk, piling them on top of one another for removal to mass graves in New Jersey.”

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Dresner’s world is how ordinary people respond to extraordinary situations. On his Earth, life is virtually unchanged despite the fact that the first novel ended with all of the computers being taken over by an alien intelligence of some kind. Wouldn’t that be the most amazing event in human history? Wouldn’t that change how we saw ourselves in this universe?

“If we had an experience with aliens, it wouldn’t be progressive,” Dresner said. “You’d wake up one day and it would happen. You’d be listening to NPR or watching CNN or perhaps a friend would call you and tell you. It would just happen. For a few days, things would be different, but you’d still have to pay the rent, you’d still have to go to work. It wouldn’t change your emotional reality.”

Emotions are at the forefront of Dresner’s writing. His plot may scream science fiction, but there are two powerful romantic love stories seamlessly weaved into the novel. Dresner may be as concerned with matters of the heart as he is about the survival of the human race. The question of whether one of his characters will have an abortion and what the impact of that one act will be is central to the novel’s development. Relationships are treated with a surprising tenderness given the technical, science-based writing that prevails in the series. Perhaps it is his skill in writing about emotions that has helped him build a strong female audience.

“I’m shocked, not that some women like the first book, but by how many really like it,” Dresner said. “They relate to the characters and to the issues that those characters are dealing with, and how they make decisions. But their reactions don’t influence how I write. The intellectual content drives the plot, but feelings and emotions bring the story to fruition. It’s heartbreaking and romantic what the characters go through.”

The most compelling character in the novel is Sara Sietzer, the widow of the Mars mission captain. Sietzer moves from celebrity to politician and eventually into the presidency. Along the way, she must make painful personal decisions. Her rise seems to be one of the few positive developments on Earth. She’s a reason for hope. However, she proves to be totally ineffectual as a politician, in part because she denies her true emotions.

As much as Dresner’s novel is grounded in the politics of Earth and the science of Mars, there is another dimension that he is writing on that gives the novel depth and resonance. His concerns are spiritual, philosophical. In many different ways and through many different characters, he asks: Who are we? What will we do to survive? What makes a meaningful life?

“I’m bringing in intense New Age, Buddhist, Kabbalah, Christian Mystical thoughts to tie in these people who are dealing with their day to day lives,” Dresner said. “I’m trying to create a synergistic effect between having your eyes fixed on the stars and your feet planted on earth.”

It is this quest for the spiritual that drives the astronauts and ultimately their rescuers on Mars. The unifying spirit of discovering another life form, perhaps the secrets of the universe, ultimately proves more important than any national loyalty. In the end, it is the astronauts’ need for something larger than themselves that imbue this novel with hope and courage and make it a fascinating read, a novel to ponder as you gaze up into the night sky.

1 comment:

Janet Ursel said...

Welcome back to the blogosphere. :o)