Bruce Balfour,
The Forge of Mars
(Ace, 2002)

Long ago in a dim and forgotten past, Ace publishers put out books called "doubles"-- short science fiction novels that came two to a paperback. Usually, one story was very good and the other was adequate. Bruce Balfour recreates that period with The Forge Of Mars, bringing two stories into the same book.

Unfortunately, they're also in the same story.

Story 1 is a political thriller, with Russia trying to get back to superpower status. Intricate plans are hinted at, assassinations are ordered and a new artificial intelligence is somehow being used as the final tipping point for this planned ascendance. In Story 2, an ancient otherworldly civilization has left relics on Mars, waiting for someone to put them to use again. Tau Wolfsinger, designer of wildly advanced AIs, and his usually-girlfriend Kate McCloud are tapped by the alien artifacts to carry out the war of their creators.

The two plots tangle and devalue each other every time they touch. Despite the constant presence of the alien artifacts, Story 2 doesn't really get started until three-fifths of the book has gone by. The artful political intrigue Balfour spends so much time setting up in the first half of the book is made irrelevant by sheer robot military might in the second. Why spend time laying plots or worrying about hostile takeovers if honest-to-Megatron deus ex machinas are just going to swarm in and flatten the enemy?

The unifying story between both plots is Tau Wolfsinger, AI designer, pacifist and extremely Navajo in heritage. His personal journey might unite the two warring plots, except that Tau isn't nearly charismatic enough to carry a book. His love interest Kate, though she spends most of her time unconscious or conflicted, is a better subject; even the manipulative Yvette, who has fine ambitious dreams in the first plot that somehow die in the second, is more interesting. Real people who substitute nationality for character are boring; Tau's reliance on his Navajo-ness to provide reason and motivation becomes very dull, very fast. His multiple death scenes don't help much. After enough virtual death and dismemberment, any real threat begins to seem unimportant. Worse, it gives the novel the unpleasant feel of a dream cycle, sapping the urgency from every scene.

I was disappointed not to like The Forge Of Mars, because Balfour's writing was pleasant by itself. I'd be willing to give another story of his a try, on the strength of his voice alone.

But only one story at time.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 18 January 2003

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