The next stop in our Going to Mars Word-by-Word tour is Mars Crossing by Geoffrey Landis. Published by Tor Books in 2000, this is the first novel by an experienced and award-winning short story author. It won a nomination for a Nebula and won the Locus Award for best first novel in 2001. Hop aboard for a gritty, near-future science fiction tale of the exploration of Mars the Landis way.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
By 2028, two missions have been sent to Mars. Both the Brazilian and the American expeditions met with catastrophe and death on the Red Planet. A NASA-private venture hopes the third mission to Mars will be the first to return. Their plan relies on a return vessel sent to Mars years earlier, capable of manufacturing fuel for the return trip from the Martian atmosphere.
The mixed-gender, multi-national crew of six lands on Mars successfully but their celebrations are short-lived. A catastrophic failure kills one of the crew and causes irreparable damage to the return ship. And there is no hope of a rescue mission coming from Earth.
As a last-ditch effort to survive, they set out to cross 4,000 miles of Mars to the north pole in the hopes that the abandoned Brazilian vehicle will be operational. Limited supplies and equipment, alien terrain, the ever-present dust are only a portion of the hazards they face. The Brazilian vehicle can only carry two.
Using alternating viewpoints and flashbacks, Landis slowly reveals each surviving astronaut has a painful secret from the past. The isolation and desperation of their trek, combined with their secrets, create tension and intrigue on every step of their journey. And one of the crew is willing to commit murder to ensure a place on the return trip to Earth.
HOW THE RED PLANET IS PORTRAYED
Mars Crossing conveys an authentic, fully-realized Martian landscape. The terrain crossed in the story includes familiar landmarks and a few surprises. Landis describes a place of beautiful desolation and isolation, a harsh and unforgiving land. It feels accurate. It feels real. And it’s no wonder, the author is in the know about real Mars exploration.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Geoffrey Landis wears many hats: He has published more than 80 short stories, nearly 50 poems, one one science fiction novel, and more than 400 scientific papers. His short fiction has numerous awards including a Nebula and two Hugos. See his bibliography here.
Landis can write authentically about Mars because he is a physicist at the NASA John Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. He is a member of the science team of the Mars Exploration Rovers mission that landed rovers Spirit and Opportunity on Mars. Opportunityis still working after nine years! Landis also worked on the Mars Pathfinder project. You can read more about the projects he has and is working on here.
For me, Mars Crossing has a nice balance of characterization, science, and drama. The novel has been compared to the greats of the field. The most fascinating part of it was the intriguing questions it posed about sending humans on interplanetary journeys:
Would you take a trip to Mars knowing that the two previous missions failed?
How would you decide who could go home and who would face certain death on the Red Planet?
What would you be willing to do to secure a seat on the trip home?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Have you read Mars Crossing? Won’t you share what you thought of it? If you haven’t read it, will you?
This is the final novel I had planned for this blog series. Yet there are many more novels I could explore. Tell me, would you like this series to continue? If so, what novels or stories about Mars would you like for me to cover over the next few months?
The next stop in my blog series, Going to Mars Word by Word, is the Nebula Award-winning novel Red Mars written by Kim Stanley Robinson, published by Bantam House Science Fiction in 1993. It is the first of a trilogy(Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) about the red planet that explores technological, scientific, political and social changes that might occur in the process of colonizing and terraforming the Mars. So let’s get Going to Mars WOrd by Word with Kim Stanley Robinson.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
To say that Red Mars is the story of the colonization of Mars is to oversimplify. It is a multi-character saga about the first fifty or so years of the colonization and transformation of the planet.
We follow several major characters in the first one hundred persons (mostly scientists) sent on the long journey to Mars. Once they land and begin to study and understand Mars, conflicts arise between various characters and their visions of their future on the red planet.
As the overcrowded Earth sends more and more colonists, the struggle intensifies and ultimately ruptures into a violent revolution. The irony is that the damage the revolution does will probably speed the process of terraforming Mars and the Mars they loved will be no more.
HOW THE RED PLANET IS PORTRAYED
Kim Stanley Robinson paints the marvel that is Mars in loving detail. There are multiple viewpoints, travelogues and scientific expeditions from the trenches to the incomprehensibly high mountain tops. He portrays a Mars that is dead, at least on the surface. The aquifers in the story are unlikely to be found on the real planet. All-in-all Mr. Robinson builds an accurate, if fictionalized, Mars.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kim Stanley Robinson (1952- ) is a multiple award winning novelist. Born in Illinois, his family moved to California when he was two. He grew up playing in orange orchards that soon gave way to suburban development.
During college he began writing science fiction. He earned a Ph.D. in literature with a dissertation since published as The Novels of Phillip K. Dick.
Orbit 18 was the first to publish his short stories in 1976. His novels have garnered eleven major science fiction awards (Nebulas, Hugos, the John Campbell Award, World Fantasy Award, and Locus Magazine Awards). Please see a fan generate bibliography here.
Robinson is married to a working environmental chemist, is a stay-at-home dad caring for his two sons, a backpacker who loves the mountains, and has traveled extensively. The Mars trilogy is the result of a lifelong passionate interest in Mars and multiple years of research.
Red Mars is an ambitious novel that is recognized as a seminal work of science fiction. And I will not dispute that. It is a book that every serious science fiction reader or writer should read.
I read this book when it was first published and re-read it this past month. For me the characters are neither likeable nor believable and the pace is very slow. However, Mars is portrayed with a loving sense of wonder that I admire and enjoyed.
Nominated for the Nebula in 1986 and the Hugo and Locus in 1988, The Forge of God by Greg Bear is our next stop in this series Going to Mars: Word by Word. It is a grim, relentless examination of what might happen if an alien society of machines wanted to destroy the earth without regard or consideration for any of her inhabitants or history. Hop aboard for an exploration of Mars Bear Style.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
Europa explodes stunning astrologists. Chunks of the former moon hit Mars and Venus. Mountains suddenly appear in locations as diverse as the Australian Outback and the United States’ Death Valley stumping geologists. Oceanographers observe and track large meteor-like objects that enter the earth through the ocean’s trenches.
Scientists, politicians, and everyday people struggle with the fact that the Earth will be destroyed by an unfathomable planet eater. A second race of robots select some people to gather and load what they can onto space-going arks.
Among the saved are those who stood witness to the earth’s destruction. “It is the Law.”
Awakened from nearly four hundred years of cryosleep, the survivors create a colony on New Mars. A select few of the survivors accompanied the robots to search the stars seeking to destroy the planet eaters. For this is how balance is kept.
HOW THE RED PLANET IS PORTRAYED
Only the last chapter of The Forge of God takes place on Mars. Despite the brief appearance, Bear does a good job of presenting the reader with a credible Mars, early in its terraforming. The colonists live in habitats with some functions occurring underground. Wearing cold suits, they can leave the habitat via airlocks and breathe the cold, thin Martian atmosphere unaided as long as they don’t exert themselves. Lichen and mosses, seeded by the aliens, thrive on the planet’s surface. And the reader knows that while the colonists have a long way to go, they will survive.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Science fiction and mainstream author, Greg Bear (b 1951 – ) completed his first story when he was ten years old. He sold his first story at the age of fifteen and by age twenty-three he was selling regularly. His stories and novels have been translated into nineteen languages and have won numerous awards including Hugos, Nebulas and the French Prix Apollo.
The Forge of God is the first book in one of several series written by Bear and is in development by a film studio.
For more information and a complete list of works by Greg Bear please visit his website.
The Forge of God by Greg Bear could be excruciating in its merciless flight toward the destruction of earth, yet it isn’t. He isn’t heavy-handed in his treatment of characters who greet the news of their fate with religious fervor, or stoicism, or panic. The appearance of the robotic saviors and characters who work to save art and history, who pursue life regardless, create a sense of hope. And Bear’s description of the earth’s destruction is wrenchingly beautiful and mesmerizing. It makes one wonder:
What would you do if you knew the earth would end in a few months?
If you survived, would you be on a needle-shaped ship seeking to destroy the destroyers?
The next stop on our Going to Mars, Word-by-Word tour is the Nebula award-winning novel, Man Plus by Fredrik Pohl, published in 1976. By the mid-seventies, Pohl had been writing and publishing stories for almost 40 years. The writing reflects that. Smoothly written, it is a quick and entertaining read.
In reality the early 1970’s were a time of disco dances like the hustle, world wide unrest and fear of terrorist bombings, hijackings, kidnappings, and assassinations. There were economic worries and hardships and a huge energy crisis. The United States, USSR, and France were doing nuclear tests on their own soil. Space Mountain opened at Disneyland and Jaws by Steven Spielberg had its premier. The television show The Bionic Man was popular. Apollo 18 and Soyuz 19 rendezvoused in space. And the Viking 2 Mars probe was launched.
Man Plus takes place in the not-too-distant future when the overpopulated earth is on the brink a world war battling over the few remaining natural resources on the planet. The fate of humanity rests on the people and the project inside a building in Tonka, Oklahoma.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
When former astronaut Col. Roger Torraway volunteered to be the understudy for astronaut Willy Hartnett, Roger never thought he’d actually be called upon. After Willy’s death, the President of the United States urged the team at the project to meet their deadline because computer projections predicted the world would soon be at war. Roger was mankind’s last hope. He was to become Man Plus, a cyborg engineered to survive and thrive in the harsh conditions on Mars.
Heavily sedated, Roger did not know when his nervous system, his eyes, lungs, heart, ears, nose, and skin were replaced or supplemented. To solve the power problem, they gave him wings of solar panels. When the surgeries were finally over, Roger had to learn to use his new senses. His large, multifaceted eyes could distinguish everything from infrared to UV light. With his bat-like ears, he could hear all of life’s most minute sounds and easily heard conversations in the corridors outside his pressurized room. Roger also had to come to terms with who he was, was he still human? Would his wife still love him? Was his wife having an affair with his best friend, Brad, who was also the scientist responsible for much of Roger’s new body?
The remaining two-thirds of the book is about Roger adapting to his new, alien self, to the planet Mars, and finding a way to be human despite everything. The computers now predict humanity will survive on Mars and are pleased they have been successful in their mission to save the humans as well as themselves.
The story is told from a kind of limited omniscient viewpoint with sentient computers as the ‘surprise’ narrator. The reader of today is not surprised. And on reflection, there are plot holes, inconsistencies, and questionable motivations throughout the story. So yes, the story has some flaws. But it was a story that captured many readers imaginations at the time it was first published. And, it may not be as far-fetched as it seems at first glance. Do you remember these stories that made the news?
The descriptions of Mars in Man Plus are minimal, but not inaccurate visually. Various metals and elements mentioned in the novel I’m unable to recognize as correct or incorrect. The human characters erect tents for shelter and begin performing scientific studies and tests one would expect the first persons on Mars to do.
Roger’s reaction to being on Mars is delightful. “To Roger, looking out on the bright, jewel-like colors of the planet he was meant to live on, it was a fairyland, beautiful and inviting.” And a little later, “First he walked, then trotted, then he began to run. If he had sped through the streets of Tonka, here he was a blur. He laughed out loud.” He is so eager to explore Mars that he gets himself into trouble with his power supply. This is what I read books about Mars for, that sense of wonder and excitement.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in 1919, Frederik George Pohl, Jr. has been a high school drop-out, an American soldier (during WWII), and has had nearly every possible role in science fiction. He has been a fan, poet, critic, literary agent, teacher, book and magazine editor, and a writer. “Elegy to a Dead Planet” was his first published story and appeared in Amazing Stories in 1937. His volume of writing is phenomenal and he has won every major science fiction award and then some.
When asked about his process, Pohl has had this to say, “People ask me how I do research for my science fiction. The answer is, I never do any research. I just enjoy reading the stuff, and some of it sticks in my mind and fits into the stories. Maybe that’s the best way to do it.” from Locus Online
Between the duration of his career and the breadth of his career, there is no way to do him justice in this post. Please visit the resources listed below. Be sure to visit his blog, The Way The Future Blogs, in which he discusses his travels (all over the world), sf writers he has known (there’s a lot of those!), and things that interest him (the list is endless).
I believe that Man Plus deserves its place in science fiction history. It deserved a Nebula at the time and it deserves being read today. It challenges you to think about what it is to be human, how we humans are going to deal with our burgeoning population and consumption of natural resources, and it questions our reliance on computers. Finally, it’s one more way that Man might go to Mars.
Published in 1964, Martian Time Slip by Phillip K. Dick (PKD) is a dark, moody story of tricks of the mind: delusions, hallucinations, power, and a time slip. It is simply told, but dated by socially unacceptable gender, racial, and ethnic descriptions. Despite the language, it has characters you want to succeed and characters you want to see get their comeuppance. Join me for the next book review in my Going to Mars Word by Word series.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
There are multiple colonies on Mars, each dominated by a different nationality or workgroup (plumbers, farmers, etc.) The colonies are officially run by the UN, but each settlement is controlled by the appropriate union boss. They are interdependent and separate communities connected by a series of canals. It is the scarcity of water that gives the plumbing union boss a stranglehold on Mars.
Jack, a ‘recovered’ schizophrenic and a repairman, left earth to escape the pressures of an overpopulated Earth. Arnie Kott, the plumbing union boss, found the power and wealth on Mars that he would never have been able to achieve on Earth. These two men are brought together by the UN announcer’s emergency notification that a party of Bleekmen, in the open desert, were dying of thirst and exposure.
By law, all nearby helicopters had to respond and help the UN-protected Martian natives. Jack went willingly, wishing he could do more. Arnie would have preferred his pilot ignore the notification, but his pilot feared the fine he’d have to pay only a little more than he feared Arnie.
Arnie visits Camp B-G, a home for ‘anomalous children,’ one of whom is his own. There he meets Manfred Steiner, a functionally mute, autistic boy born on Mars. After Manfred’s father commits suicide, Manfred falls under Arnie’s power.
Arnie believes that people with mental disorders live and perceive time differently than regular folk. He believes they have knowledge of the future. Certain he can use this knowledge to gain more money and power, he wishes they could communicate their knowledge to him. He hires Jack to create a mechanical device that will enable Manfred to perceive ‘real’ time and communicate his knowledge of the future.
Jack studies Manfred, keeping the boy at his side most of the time. Soon, Jack has hallucinations and slides into his former schizophrenic state. When Jack confesses to Arnie that not only can he not make the mechanical device for Manfred, but that Jack’s father bought most of the mountain real estate that the UN will soon buy for development, Arnie becomes enraged. Arnie blames Jack for financial losses he assumes he will have because of his lack of knowledge about the pending development.
Manfred finally finds someone he can communicate with, Arnie’s Bleekman servant, Helio. Helio tells Arnie that the sandstone and volcanic glass projection of rock in the so-called Dirty Knobby is sacred to the Bleekmen. It’s a time portal. Activating the portal requires Manfred’s presence. Arnie conceives a plot to kill Jack. He takes Manfred to Dirty Knobby, forcing Jack to fly his helicopter overhead during their pilgrimage for ‘safety’ reasons.
At Dirty Knobby, Arnie uses Manfred to open the time slip and travels to the past. He plans to kill Jack at their first meeting so Jack won’t be his ruin. Instead, he enters into a degenerating time loop, his perceptions more and more confused until he returns to his present where he is shot by an aggrieved victim of his. Arnie dies convinced he’s in the fantasy of a schizophrenic.
With Arnie dead and Manfred with the Bleekmen, Jack realizes that the worlds of the schizophrenic, the autistic, and the ‘normal’ are not absolutely distinct, but a question of degree. He returns home, to competence, and to his family.
HOW THE RED PLANET IS PORTRAYED
I was a bit disappointed in PKD’s portrayal of the planet. Despite the set-up that water is scarce, water is wasted by those who have enough money. The settlements in Martian Time Slip resemble suburbia in the USA: there are the rich and the poor. The rich have landscapes with roses and other earth imports; the poor struggle to maintain a garden for food. The air is cold but breathable. The F.D.R. mountains are the one place where it seems like Mars. It’s arid and largely unexplored.
The native Martians were disappointing also. The Bleekman, a dark-skinned aboriginal race, are either living on their own away from the settlements and dying of exposure and thirst (for no discernible reason) or they are slaves or servants. They speak a kind of pidgin-English and trade and barter with the Earther-immigrants. Arnie’s servant speaks to Manfred in English and somehow perceives Manfred’s answers. Some reviewers say this is telepathy. The Bleekmen appear to be spiritual but the ‘priest’ at the sacred Dirty Knobby does not come across as a spiritual leader.
Though I was disappointed in the setting, PKD’s point was not the “where” of this story.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Author of 44 published novels and more than 100 short stories, Phillip Kindred Dick (1928-1982) and his twin sister, Jane, were born prematurely. Jane died just six weeks after their birth. The loss of his twin had a profound effect on PKD.
By seventh grade, he began suffering extreme bouts of vertigo. Multiple physicians and psychiatrists examined him. The differed in what caused his symptoms. Some called it schizophrenia, others identified other illnesses, and one even declared him quite sane. Regardless of the diagnosis, PKD experienced what he called “nervous breakdowns” throughout his life
He often cited two questions as encompassing his work: What is Reality? And What is Human? Those questions reflect his experiences, from the death of his twin to the nervous breakdowns.
He published his first story in 1951 and worked full-time as a writer from then on. His first novel was published in 1955.
He won the 1963 Hugo award for his novel, The Man in the High Castle, the 1974 John W Campbell Memorial Award for Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.
PKD spent most of his career in near-poverty. He began to see more financial success when he sold the rights to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which became Blade Runner. He died of heart failure, at the age of 53, before he could see the finished movie.
After his death, a number of his stories were made into movies: Total Recall; Minority Report; Screamers; Next; Imposter; Paycheck; A Scanner Darkly; The Adjustment Bureau; Radio Free Albemuth; and Confessions d’un Bario, a French film based on his mainstream novel, Confessions of a Crap Artist.
PKD wanted recognition as a literary writer, however, few of his mainstream novels were ever published. Still, PKD loved to read and to write science fiction.
The SF writer sees not just possibilities but wild possibilities. It’s not just ‘What if’ – it’s ‘My God; what if’ – in frenzy and hysteria. The Martians are always coming. – Phillip K. Dick
Martian Time Slip is full of uncomfortable language and attitudes, inconsistencies, and lacks the story logic that readers often demand today. Does this mean I would not recommend this book? Not at all. As an exploration of tricks of the mind (delusions, hallucinations, and reality) it creates powerful emotions. Was it PKD’s intention to make the reader think deeply about race, gender, and ethnic issues? Possibly. I do believe he intended to stir deep thoughts about reality and mental illness.
It’s not an easy book to read because of the subjects and its flaws, but it will make you think. That’s part of the reason I read science fiction. Isn’t that part of the reason you read science fiction?