This is not an easy book.
Humans have established a colony on Mars. It's driven and funded by an international consortium of universities--the United Universities, or UU. The colony consists of six towers, of which the West, Chinese, and Sud-Am towers figure most prominently in the story. The colonists have been chosen for atheism and emotional stability. It's not altogether clear that they succeeded on the second point. Among the odd choices made is that the colonists get assigned computer-generated names, meaning nothing, to symbolize having cut their ties to Earth. It's as if they've established a sixties commune, more than a colony on Mars, in some respects.
The big problem haunting the colonists is that, ten years in, they've had a long series of miscarriages and stillbirths and horribly deformed babies that didn't live even five minutes, but no successful live births. The colony seems doomed.
Most of the action, which mostly consists of conversation and interior thoughts, is on Mars, but we also get interludes on Earth, where we learn that the colonists are probably in even more trouble than they realize. Earth is sinking into s growing series of wars--which include a successful invasion of eastern North America. The UU is getting tired of supporting a colony that seems doomed anyway.
It isn't just the tough subject matter that makes this book hard to enjoy. It's clear that Mr. Aldiss dislikes, if not the human race, at least the 21st century. There are items called "screamers" which, in context, appear to most likely be cell phones. Some other items are called "shriekers," which might be tvs, or maybe something else. It appears that "partners" has completely displaced "husband/wife," which might imply an adoption of gender-neutral terminology, but no. The man in a couple is called the "partner," while the woman is the "partness." There is not one single likable, admirable, compelling, or even especially interesting character in the book. All the interest comes from their circumstances--though it can't be denied that a colony striving to survive on Mars is a pretty interesting circumstance.
I do want to be clear that none, or at least very little, of this is a failure of writing. Aldiss hasn't lost it. This book surely has an audience, and audience that will think I am a nut with low tastes.
I'm just not that audience.
Apparently not Hugo-eligible in 2016, as it was apparently originally published in 2012.
I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.