Linda Nagata. The Martian Obelisk. (Tor.com)

Originally published online on Tor.com, July 2017 and still online

Reviewed in : The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Three. (ed Neil Clarke, Nightshade Books 2018)

A story I liked a lot, with but one quibble.

Nagata starts her story well : “The end of the world required time to accomplish—and time, Susannah reflected, worked at the task with all the leisurely skill of a master torturer, one who could deliver death either quickly or slowly, but always with excruciating pain.” (n.b. I’d have put time as Time, but that’s not the quibble).

It’s relatively near future, but due to a combination of man made catastrophes (resistance to antibodies, plagues, warfare, climate change etc) and natural disasters, humanity appears to be on it’s way out, not so much with a bang as with a whimper. The protagonist has had her own share of loss, and has committed her remaining years to building the Martian Obelisk of the title. She is using the pre-colonisation kit despatched to Mars, which was not followed by colonists, creating something that will stand for aeons, long after humanity has failed.

Nagata handles the character well, but the story takes a twist when the cameras detect something happening on Mars. And this is QuibbleTimetm as they have spotted a rover from another colony, which had failed, which is heading over to her obelisk. Is it an AI gone awol? For the rover isn’t equipped to sustain a human for such a long journey, and after all, all the colonists are dead. Pre- Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian’ this would have been a great story plot, not entirely original, but post- ‘The Martian’ as a plot device it’s just too samey. I’d have suggested taking a slightly different angle to achieve the outcome – which is (spoiler) that all is evidently not lost, as the protagonist finds out that not only is there life on Mars, the daughter she had believed dead in a quarantined plague-ridden Hawaii, is in fact alive, and there is a flicker of hope both for her and for humanity.

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