At the end of the 22nd century, a group of Martian students is sent to Earth in order to improve the relationship between the two planets that has been tenuous since a war of independence a few decades earlier. When they return to Mars 5 years later, they discover that their old lives do not fit them anymore.
Although this is a science fiction story that has its share of space ships and advanced technology, it fundamentally aspires to be a meditation on human nature and the social and political realities it creates. It is rather obvious that the rigid and egalitarian Martian society is meant to mirror China, while the capitalist Terran society is a symbol for the Western world. The students, who have experienced the pros and cons of both systems, consider inciting a revolution on Mars to change the current society into one that would afford its people more freedom, or at least what they perceive as freedom.
There are some interesting philosophical possibilities that open up here, but also one very big problem that I could not ignore: Over time it becomes clear that the rigid society did not randomly evolve, but that it is an absolute necessity due to the scarcity of resources on Mars which of course changes the whole premise. That this group of students, who are supposed to be the cream of the crop, did not take this fact into account is unfathomable. They generally seem to operate under a ton of false presumptions which are rectified only at the end, and this made me really mad because if readers are supposed to follow these ponderings on different societies they need to know the fundamental facts on which these societies are built. To reveal pertinent information only at the very end is not the way to keep me engaged and explains why there were some parts of the book which made me want to throw it at a wall because of the absolutely wrong conclusions it arrived at, only to find out later that it was maybe I who had arrived at the wrong conclusions because I did not have all the facts I needed. To make it even worse, there is a lot of excess information that I absolutely did not need. That and the glacial pace made the book drag and much too long overall, while still inexplicably abandoning subplots all over.
Another thing that struck me while reading this is that women are marginalised in this book. The protagonist is one of the female students, but otherwise there are virtually no women. All the heroes of Mars are men, the Terran delegates are men, the high-ranking Martian politicians are men, everyone of importance in this book is a man. How could this happen? And is the author, a woman herself, trying to tell me something? That in 200 years everything is even worse for women than it is now because not even a few of them will have made it to the top of society? Also, if I take a look at the students, the occupations they are working in or are interested in are questionable in light of that. Of the girls, the protagonist is a dancer and one of her best friends designs clothes, which would be fine if not all of the boys were aspiring fighter pilots, mechanics, engineers, or inventors. It just boggles the mind.
On the plus side, the story is beautifully written, and the worldbuilding is amazing. If the focus had been kept on the relationship between Mars and Earth, the further evolution of Martian society, and maybe the difficulty of the students in adapting to being back home, I think that this could have been a good book. Instead it tries to make a greater point on society, human nature, and the concept of freedom that is half-baked and simplistic. It presents two diametrically opposed societal models where the message seems to be that both are flawed because people are flawed, and you cannot take only the good things from one and transplant them into the other because the bad things will follow. Sadly, the approach to important issues in this book is even more superficial than Terran society. Overall, it is beautiful but hollow, and it made me angry more often than it entertained me.