I have still yet to find in Brunner’s early pulp-ish novels any solid indication of his future brilliance that manifests itself so poignantly in his great novels of the late 60s and 70s (Stand on Zanzibar, Shockwave Rider, The Sheep Look Up, and to a lesser degree The Jagged Orbit).
That is not to say that Brunner’s future building skills are not all together absent in Born Under Mars for it is a testament to these budding skills that this novel receives any stars at all. The Mars of his future has some great images, cultures, expressions, and recurrent metaphors. However, when the action picks up (and the flimsy and contrived for the future of the known universe plot thickens) Brunner sadly lets the interesting elements and depth of his world die a rating strangling death by “sand drowning.”
Some of Brunner’s short works function well because they are set either with a small group of people or just on Earth. But when he moves to an interstellar backdrop with interstellar ramifications a hundred and twenty-page book is completely inadequate. He is forced to make peoples monolithic blocks without deviance – for examples, the humans called “Bears” that settled in a nearby star system are anarchic, luck loving, free love practicing, while the humans called “Centaurs” from another system on the other “side” of Earth are autocratic, apparently highly educated (that’s hard to tell from the story), strict, and prone to violence. The Martians however, are pretty well rounded and interesting. They are angry that Mars is practically ignored besides as an interstellar space hub; they are interested in heraldry since they are proud of their heritage, and very traditional.
Ray Mallin (a Martian) is actually one of Brunner’s better characters and the novel is from his perspective. He is a space engineer and it is upon his return to his Mars that the story begins. Unlike many authors, Brunner does not write essays within the text explaining his worlds, rather it is inferred from his characters (this is a much more realistic way of going about it). Ray’s observations about the state of his world are the highlights of the text and from these we glimpse the interesting Martian society. They live in the “canals” that have been roofed in and babies are born under Mars because apparently fetuses cannot develop properly without Earth air pressure.
The recurrent themes that constantly crop up are related to the lack of water on Mars, death by drowning in sand, taking “baths” with spray detergent, and lack of oxygen – burping into tubes in your suit (kind of like the Freemen moisture collecting gear in Dune).
But, when Ray really begins understand the reason for his brutal nerve whipping and the goals of the plots of the Centaurs, Bears, Martians, and Earthlings that happen to surround the ship that Ray had recently been employed on, the contrived science-fiction clichés begin en mass to circulate (sexy Martian women, world encompassing lab experiments, selective breeding, super intelligent peeps, etc) which causes the plot to go down the drain and the tantalizing background to disappear.
Brunner swings with greatness mightily and misses monumentally. Cultures are never monolithic, stereotypes are bad and the cultures on other planets (besides Mars) need more description than a few adjectives.
Thankfully all of this Brunner learns by the time he sets out to write his “Non-novel” format of Stand on Zanzibar where brilliant world building is accomplished through newspaper clips, commercial jingles, computer output, television programs, etc…. Born Under Mars still is a pretty fun (ny) read, especially the first half, but is nowhere near his future brilliance.