(Karel Thole’s cover for the 1971 edition)
4.5/5 (Very Good)
(*some spoilers due to the limited nature of the plot*)
Another D. G. Compton novel, another wonderful (and terrifying) experience… The only one of his novels so far that has failed to hold my interest was The Missionaries (1971), a lackluster satire on religion. The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (variant title: The Unsleeping Eye) (1973) is a masterpiece and Farewell, Earth’s Bliss (1966) and Synthajoy (1968) are close behind.
Farewell, Earth’s Bliss is best described as a character study of a group of convicts sent to Mars and their attempts to integrate into an incredibly repressive and conservative society (derived in part to to the extreme dangers of the Martian environment) — in short, a piece of race and religion themed social science fiction. Be warned, there is little to no action. As with most of Compton’s works, near future environments are the perfect vehicle for societal ruminations by means of a variegated cast of characters. I’m almost certain that this is the only one of his novels to take place outside of Earth.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
The first quarter of the novel deftly moves from convict to convict (nine main points of view in total) during their automated voyage to Mars, a penal colony. As part of the rehabilitation project, and the idea that they will be starting a new life on Mars, each takes a new (biblical) name. As with Silverberg’s masterpiece Hawksbill Station (1968), those on Earth do not know whether anyone even survives the trip or whether a colony exists at all — communication is impossible. The trip is expected to take nine or so weeks, their food is drugged in order to facilitate such a long time without physical activity, and other than a programmed voice that occasionally alerts and advises them, the twenty-three convicts are left to their own devices. Despite the quantity of characters I found it relatively easy to distinguish between them due to Compton’s effective characterization.
The narrative focuses further on three individuals. Jacob, an African American, who swindled money from a bank — he’s consumed by suicidal thoughts (which never manifest into action) and is convinced that the ship will never arrive at its destination. Jacob’s the subject of racist taunts by Simon, jailed for burning an African American man alive (thankfully, Simon isn’t the main focus of the novel — but his hatred effectively permeates the pages). There’s Mark, a born leader, who attempts to maintain order amongst the disperate group. He was originally jailed for an attempted assassination. And Ruth, a college professor, who is incredibly judgmental yet outwardly reserved. The others, Isaac, Joshua (artist), Paul (self-proclaimed profit), David, Martha move in and out of the narrative where they’re needed. I found the first quarter of the novel by far the most powerful as each character and their interactions with others is the focus.
When the convict colonists land on the planet, contact is made with the Mars penal colony. The careful order established by Mark collapses completely. The ships entire food supply is taken (the real reason why is best kept a secret) and a massive dust storm mysteriously crops up after the contact party departs with a promise to return, stranding the ship for a month without food. The result is catastrophic: nine crewmen survive and they are shattered husks of their former selves.
The rest of the novel follows integration (and lack of integration) by the remaining crewmen on the harsh world of Mars. All the colonists live in the remains of the old spaceships, food comes from lichen farms (yes, Compton has planet and animal life grow on Mars) and strange burrowing animals, the governor, a member of the first convict ship to land on the planet, lives in virtual isolation, his orders delegated out to an efficient second in command. The cold way out (death) is dispensed for a vast variety of offenses (for example, the woman who is forced to throw away a spacesuit when it can no longer be repaired). A radical Christian society structured around notions of ignorant innocence and anti-intellectualism holds great sway over the populace. The concept of convicts desperately attempting to shield their children from the notion that their predicament is due to their parents being guilty is a driving social force. Mars, in its manifest harshness, is an Old Testament force if “goodness” as well. Mars filters out the weak, Mars purges the sinful, Mars toughens (and tempers) the strong.
Jacob is “adopted” by an older woman who runs the only store in town (an ally of the Governor), Ruth’s rehabilitation is overseen by a gentle family who careful refrain telling her how the colony deals with intellectuals, Mark his given to rabbit hunters (i.e. hunters of the weird Mars rodent which forms an important part of their died), etc.
Compton masterfully reveals how society in such a brutal environment functions. The ending is downright powerful, a year goes by and another spaceship filled with convicts lands…
Compton is adept at convincing characterizations, sympathetic depictions of women and minorities (see caveat below), harrowing depictions of isolation (mental, physical, and often, both), and an understated but always effective prose style. Some readers might be put off by the language of the work (remember, it was written in the 60s) — Compton still uses the term “Negro” and at least two extremely racist characters use the term “nigger” and “boy” to refer to the African-American character. However, Compton’s gentle depiction clearly indicates his sympathies lie with both Jacob, the African-American character, and Mark, a closeted homosexual.
The ending is perfect. Compton’s Mars society is incredibly vivid and terrifying. The religious cult that develops on Mars might be a frustrating for some readers, but it is indelibly tied to the harsh life and continuous exposure to death experienced by the colonists.
If you are a fan of 60s social science fiction heavy on character development, emotionally engaging narrative, and can tolerate an anti-religious streak than I full-heartedly recommend Farewell, Earth’s Bliss.
(Chris Achilleos’ cover for the 1971 edition)
For more reviews consult the INDEX.