A few months ago, at about the time the most recent IPCC report was shifting closer and closer to a much needed alarm, at about the same time world ocean temperatures had, once again, broken a hottest (ever) monthly record, and at about the same time that consensus among scientists and meteorologists was rapidly shifting toward a new acceptance that climate change was making the world’s weather radically more dangerous, I picked up a little-known book called “The Martian Patriarch” by Robert Vella.
This diamond in the rough of a sci-fi novel was exactly what I needed to both put into context the strange and disturbing events affecting the world’s weather and the angst and anxiety-causing inaction and political blindness of many business and political leaders within the US and around the world.
Yet one more climate summit had passed without more than token action. The power of the world’s polluters — the fossil fuel companies — were as strong and entrenched as ever. A radical right-wing political ideology, backed by many of the world’s monied special interests, had taken root in many western nations, bent on austerity and deconstruction rather than effective action and progress. And the climate movement response, though strong, had yet to dislodge these enduring and powerful forces from their now globalized strongholds.
Fast forward for another 60-80 years of today’s terrible business as usual and we arrive at the future envisioned by Robert Vella’s “Martian Patriarch.” The world’s governments are a fractured coalition of totalitarian regimes. The United States is the victim of an extreme right-wing coup d’etat and now suffers in the iron grip of a predatory, fascist dictator. The world’s ice caps have undergone a rapid melt-down, resulting in the flooding of many coastal cities and weather events can only be described as strange and horrific, spawning periodic great disasters that serve as high points in an ongoing trend of climate degradation.
Thrown into this dark mix, however, are a few points of light. Far away on Mars, a colony of enlightened ecologists, scientists, egalitarians and space travelers have managed the scrape together a bright civilization that is the backdrop to Earth’s dark decline. Space travel between planets, though rare and expensive, has now expanded to the point that massive ships carrying hundreds of souls can leap the distance between planets. And our protagonist, a refreshingly down-to-earth man by the name of Marc Bolton, sets out on a journey that will unlock both the wisdom in his own heart and that of an ancient race who, unbelieving, still extends a helping hand to human beings in the hope that they will progress past their current age of darkness.
“The Martian Patriarch” is both visionary in its willingness to expand on the current troubles of our day and bring them to darker fruition as well as for its ability to provide heroes to give us hope that the future won’t be quite so dark as we fear, to give us hope that, somehow, we will find a way out of the terrible fix we’ve made for ourselves. So at its darkest, “The Martian Patriarch” is an unflinching expose of the most terrible demons of humankind while at its brightest, the book also manages to touch our highest ideals. It is a strange paradox of opposites that seems extraordinarily difficult to pull off, but Robert Vella manages with flying colors.
Last of all, the book is almost impossible to put down. The pacing demands that the next page be turned, and then the next, and then the next, until the book is finished and you are left with the wonderful mental aftertaste of space opera meets environmental catastrophe meets dystopian Earth, meets the seeding of a multi-planet humanity. There is romance (both tragic and otherworldly), there are battles in the dark of space between worlds, there are tales of disaster after disaster, and there is the shining hope of a new world and a new people willing to work together selflessly to help one another. All crammed into 300 pages in a way that gives the book a nigh-irresistible pull.
Though “The Martian Patriarch” possesses a few of the expected rough edges — a couple of grammar errors, a few awkward sentences, and a cover presentation that does this amazingly creative work little justice — they do not at all detract from this masterful story. In fact, I’ve read a number of mainstream novels that offend more in this regard. If I had one complaint it would be due to my effort to suspend disbelief that a humanity afflicted with the same small-minded, selfish, and brutish leaders of today would even be capable of organizing the resources needed to begin the arduous and complex process of interplanetary colonization. In my view, a civilization unable to tackle the simpler, though still very difficult, problems of climate change, resource depletion, overpopulation, and institutionalized human greed, would also be unable to mount the massive effort needed to reach new planets and develop effective civilizations there. In my view, the overthrow and diminishment of the brutes would have to happen first, not later.
But this minor niggle of opinion did not at all detract from my enjoyment of what was, by equal parts, a visionary, entertaining, and masterful tale worthy of the greats of science fiction. Hats off to Robert who is obviously possessed of great heart, stunning imagination, and a vision for extraordinary tale-telling. I highly recommend the work to anyone interested in sci-fi, the environment, or humanity’s future.
Links: The Martian Patriarch