“Life on Mars”

It is sometime in the near future. Or, maybe it’s now. The United States has changed its name to the Theocratic Union of American States. Citizens are required to wear pendants that identify their religious preference — a cross (which also has been added to the imagery on currency) for Christians; a star for Jewish; a crescent moon for Muslim; an O for other; and “a sad face for ‘godless.’ ” And more to the gist of Robert Klose’s novel, “Life on Mars,” the teaching of evolution is so heavily discouraged by politicians and school administrators, not to mention students, that it is almost, not quite, illegal.

“Life on Mars” by Robert Klose, Black Rose Writing, Castroville, Texas, 2019; 192 pages, paperback, $17.95

Telling us the story of all this is Nestor, a young philosophy professor at Wytopitlock College in Maine. Nestor is one of those profs who tries to keep his head down and concentrate on teaching. Since he’s a philosopher, no one pays much attention to him as long as he doesn’t offend any students by, for example, mentioning the theory of evolution. His lifelong friend Poye, however, ends up waist deep in, um, controversy.

After years of fumbling aimlessly through life, Poye hooks up with a middle-aged sex maniac named Clara, who with her unstoppable, force-of-nature personality bullies him into doing something useful with his life. Poye’s favorite teacher in high school was his biology teacher, so he studies biology and finds a job as an adjunct instructor at little WC. On the strength of Clara’s plans for him, Poye hopes to become a tenure track professor.

Nestor knows pretty well that the whole plan is more or less doomed. To teach biology properly, Poye has to talk about the theory of evolution. The authorities, and moreover the students, aren’t having it. And then there is the problem of how college administrators (and some faculty) view adjunct instructors, which is to say, basically as paid slaves in one of two categories: 1) dangerous to the established order, 2) not dangerous to the established order. Poye, because of his insistence on fidelity to scientific fact and reality, lands himself in category 1.

Meanwhile, aliens have chosen Nestor to write “Earth’s final biography.” This proves to be a difficult but fascinating problem for Nestor, whose field of philosophic expertise is Perspective. So much of reality depends upon Perspective, he believes, and one thing he discovers is that the conflict between the anti-evolutionists and the evolutionists is, to sum it up, illusory. Seen from a carefully objective perspective, nothing in science rules out the possibility of Intelligent Design of the universe, and nothing in religion rules out the fact of evolution. Nestor knows this not just through careful consideration of the facts, but through what he finds out about the origin of life from the Spong — the aliens.

“Life on Mars” has some strong similarities to books like Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” – all too plausible imaginations of what, exactly, the takeover of government by religious zealots could look like. But one difference is that Klose’s novel is straight-on satire, which the other two books kind of dance with, but are way too dark on the surface to be very funny. “Life on Mars” reads almost like slapstick applied to how government, money and religion might co-opt society’s elemental necessary functions, specifically education, for personal, political, social, economic gain. Some college adjunct instructors might suggest this book’s tongue-in-cheek surreality feels all too real. I would think “Life on Mars” should be a strong candidate for the 2020 Maine Literary Award in speculative fiction. <https://www.centralmaine.com/2019/11/07/off-radar-the-scrimshaw-worm/>

Robert Klose, of Orono, teaches at the University of Maine at Augusta’s Bangor campus, and is the author of “The Three-Legged Woman and Other Excursions in Teaching,” “Long Live Grover Cleveland,” “Small Worlds: Adopted Sons, Pet Piranhas, and Other Mortal Concerns” and other books, as well as numerous articles for the Christian Science Monitor. “Life on Mars”  is available online and through local book stores.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected]

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