THE MARTIAN RACEA novel by Gregory Benford
(1999, Abbenford Associates)
A billionaire sponsors the trip to Mars, in the hopes that they can find life, and a way home.
-- First reading (hardcover)
Somewhat lackluster, and for some reason I couldn't get into either the story or the characters. But it did have some nice science, and some truly interesting moments.
I cannot pinpoint exactly what I didn't like about this book. I just wasn't really interested. It was well-written, I believe, and had what should have been an interesting story. However, whenever I put it down, I really didn't have any urge to pick it right up again.
There was a lot of business and science involved in the story. Perhaps too much. I often became as annoyed as Julia when their sponsor, Mr. Axelrod, starts playing every single thing in a media light.
For NASA's plans to go to Mars have failed, disastrously, with the loss of vehicle and crew. But there is still a prize available, $30 billion for the team who goes to Mars, does some science, and returns. This is paid for by many of the industrialized nations. And when NASA starts decommissioning its Mars program, Axelrod decides to buy it. And more, and more, and more, until he's nearly broke. I can't factor in all the royalties paid out to him for news clips, garment sponsors and the like, but at the beginning, he says he can do the trip for $20 billion, thus making a profit. But if he's only getting $30 billion, then he's lost half of his investment already.
I found that the book was riddled with inconsistencies like this. They are not firmly wrong, but something about what is said doesn't seem to fit. Take for example the "real-time" communications. Often the author implies that it is actually real-time, like with the "squirts" of information, but at others, he strictly says that there is a delay. There were many others, but I was too lazy or uninterested in finding them again.
The early part of the book takes place in the "present", when the astronauts are on Mars, at the very end of their mission, and before the mission starts. They test the return vehicle and it fails, Julia searches a vent that has just spurted water. Apparently they found fossils in rock samples, but that just wasn't exciting. So with a few months left, she actually finds water with recently-alive biomatter. Marc and Raoul also find water. Why the delay. They had been inspecting the same spots for months now, and never find anything?
Before the mission, we wonder why Victor is not chosen for the crew, even though he actually ends up on Mars (from the present timeline). When Julia convinces Axelrod to give Victor a spot, he bumps Marc off, and we wonder how Marc ends up on Mars, in that case. Throughout the whole book, even though he nearly lost his dream, there is absolutely no indication of resentment from Marc to Victor and Julia, until the very end. Even then, it only lasts for a very short time.
The big discovery comes when Julia convinces the others to let her descend into the water-vent. She and Marc discover actual, living organisms, similar to the non-oxygen breathing simple organisms deep within Earth's rocks. Only it has evolved into a very complex life-form.
When she grows a sample, and it gets out of control, breaks through the walls of the greenhouse and nearly kills her (from venting oxygen), Earth goes wild with accusations, even to the point where they wanted to prevent the astronauts from returning at all. It was so realistic, that it was very, very sad!
But that was the most exciting part of the book, where Julia has to run without any oxygen from the greenhouse to the habitat. The decent into the vent was also well done, but it was overblown with biology, which I only half-assimilated.
It wouldn't be a Race, would it, without competition? The Chinese stole the rest of the NASA astronauts away and built a nuclear powered rocket that could do a completely powered trip to and from Mars. It was done in complete secrecy, but they decided to land where Julia's team discovered water, so they could easily fuel their rocket again. Marc had been part of that team until he was invited to rejoin the group.
Because the tests with the return vehicle were failures, the Chinese team knew that they could win the race. They built on the science that Julia's team did, and even divided her crew by offers of giving one person a lift. When they couldn't get Julia's Marsmat sample, they decided to get their own.
I knew as soon as it was mentioned, what was going to happen, but I didn't predict the end. It was obvious that they would find the two Chinese scientists dead in the vent. What didn't seem to occur to the group until later was that there were now three seats in the nuclear vehicle, instead of just one spare. I thought one of Julia's crew would die in the vent rescue, and they would get home that way, four people in a four-seater.
But they found an alternate solution, when there were still five of them alive. They would send three home, and leave two on Mars. It was obvious to me that she would want to stay and study her Marsmat, and even though it was too dangerous to go back into the vent with only two people, I know she probably would do it anyway. Nobody else even considered the possibility, even when they were planning mutiny. It just flowed out of her personality. Victor, of course, was their pilot, and Julia's lover (then husband). Of course he was going to stay with her. It didn't seem like too big a deal to me, even though everybody else seemed surprised by it.
There's not much else I want to say about this book. I did enjoy some of it, and the science was neat, but the characters seemed to spout it for no reason at all, so that I was even ignoring much of the engineering and astronomy details. There was probably too much. Also, things didn't flow properly. A chapter was ended with an urgent call coming through, but the next chapter would not mention it (or barely). I couldn't figure out why many of the section headers meant, let alone why they tried to break up the book. But there was still quite a bit to like. It was just sort of... there.
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