Spectra, 1992, 502 pages
This grand epic adventure from six-time Hugo Award-winning author Ben Bova tells the irresistible story of man's first mission to that great unconquered frontier, Mars. Technically plausible and compellingly human, Bova's story explores the political, scientific, and social repercussions of our greatest quest yet: the search for evidence of life beyond Earth's boundaries.
Half-Navajo geologist Jamie Waterman has been selected for the ground team of the first manned expedition to our mysterious neighbor planet. Joining an international team of astronauts and scientists, he endures the rigors of training, the dangers of traveling an incredible distance in space, the challenges of an alien landscape, and the personal and political conflicts that arise when the team must face the most shocking discovery of all.
I would really, really like to believe that there's going to be a Mars mission in my lifetime, but I just don't see it happening, no matter how many billionaire geeks say they're willing to help fund it. With the end of the Cold War, the military value of space exploration is minimal, and the economic value has yet to be demonstrated. That pretty much leaves pure scientific exploration value, and when the global economy is as fucked as it is, appealing to mankind's sensawunda is not likely to launch any trillion-dollar space missions any time soon.
Mars is a believable account of how a fictional Mars mission might go. It's a science fiction novel that adds some dangers, personality conflict, and political drama to make it a novel and not just a speculative description of a Mars mission, but it's hard SF with nothing in the way of invented science or technology. There is nothing described in the book that we are not, theoretically, capable of building today.
The Mars mission in this book is an international team of scientists and astronauts, dictated as much by politics as by scientific necessity. National rivalries and media spin dictate mission requirements. Jamie Waterman, a half-Navajo geologist who was a last-minute pick for the team, causes some problems because his presence disrupted the careful balance of Americans and Russians on the mission. When he joins the group, he is an outsider, but when they reach Mars, unexpected emergencies thrust him into a leadership role.
The mission itself is described in sufficient detail to make Mars sound as interesting as you can make a big red desert with unbreathable air. The team that lands on the planet of course discovers a few unexpected things, but nothing that stretches suspension of disbelief. The dangers are entirely natural, except for a mysterious illness that spreads among the crew and threatens to destroy the mission. As they all get sicker, the mystery of what's causing it is the main source of tension in the book, though there are of course a few EVA emergencies as well.
The personalities are filled in by character expositions describing each major character's childhood and the course that led them to become Mars astronauts. This provides background for the social and political conflicts that drive the mission from Earth. The politics of the Mars program and the need to please the politicians and the media are a frustrating reality for all the scientists and astronauts.
Ben Bova's love for space travel and desire to see a Mars mission is evident in this book (which is part of a "Grand Tour" series about exploring the planets of our solar system). Bova isn't quite as famous as authors like Heinlein or Clarke or Asimov, but he's been writing sci-fi for a long time and this book is very polished and plausible, and it will make anyone who's even a little bit interested in a Mars mission long to see it happen. That said, it's very hard SF, very focused on the subject matter (a mission to Mars), and while Bova's characters are also plausible and fully-realized, they're all roles to fill; the book isn't asking you to invest yourself in the characters as much as their mission.
Verdict: Definitely a good book to read for any fans of classic SF and lovers of space travel (or the idea of space travel). There's no fantasy here, nor a lot in the way of glittering prose; Mars is an interesting contrast with Ray Bradbury's more imaginative and evocatively-written but far less believable Martian Chronicles.
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