Thursday, October 02, 2008

Review: Mars Life

Of all the planets in our solar system, Mars is the one that seems most likely to have harbored life. One of the goals of NASA's remote exploration of the red planet is to try and detect such life. So far, we've found water - both frozen in the ground and falling as snow - a necessity for life as we know it. It's unlikely that actual microbes will be detected, but wouldn't it be spectacular if we did?

Ben Bova's latest novel Mars Life asks what might happen if an expedition not only found microbes on Mars, but evidence of ancient intelligent life. The story is set in the not-to-distant future, where global warming has caused wide-spread flooding, militant fundamentalists have essentially taken over the US government and education system, and the Navajo Nation has stewardship of Mars. Jamie Waterman, a Navajo, is the scientific director of the Mars exploration program, which he runs from his office in Albuquerque. On Mars the program is run by mission director Chang Laodong, who has an adversarial relationship with head anthropologist Carter Carlson. Despite (or because of) their discoveries, the US government is pulling out its funding, which may cause the human exploration of Mars to be abandoned. The scientists struggle to maintain their program and capture the public's imagination, all while continuing their research on a shoestring budget.

I think the premise has a lot of potential for both a thought-provoking and entertaining story. Unfortunately, Mars Life didn't really capture my imagination. I found the characters to be two-dimensional and felt hit over the head with the message about the dangers of religious fundamentalists gaining political power. The biggest problem I had, however, was that the story just wasn't that interesting.

One of the positive aspects of Mars Life is that the good guys - the scientists studying Mars - aren't limited to white American men. It actually seems that Bova was trying a bit too hard for variety, and ended up relying on stereotypes, rather than interesting characterization. There is Waterman, the Navajo science director whose dead grandfather advises him in his dreams; Vijay, Waterman's "voluptuous" psychiatrist wife, who is of East Indian ancestry and Australian citizenship; Chang, the Chinese science director with a picture of Mao on his wall; Doreen McMannus, the mission's waiflike auburn-haired and green-eyed nanotech specialist and citizen of Selene (the Moon); Nari Quintana, the mission's mousy middle-aged Japanese-Venezuelan chief medical officer, Fulvio DiNardo, the Jesuit geologist, Izzy Rosenberg the British Jewish scientist and his colleague Saleem Hasdrubal, the black Chicagoan who attended college on a basketball scholarship. It seems a bit like the crew of the USS Enterprise, with it's artificial mixture of different races and nationalities.

Then there's Carter Carleton, a crusty American anthropologist who fled Earth under the shadow of a trumped-up rape charge. He's rude to the volunteers working on his dig site, very sexist, and unwilling to even try new technology. He is supposed to be a great scientist, but from what we see, his greatest skill seems to be his willingness to keep plugging away at his excavation even when the funding dries up. And this is apparently reason enough to keep him on, despite his bad behavior. Even when he comes close to sexually assaulting Vijay, she decides not to tell anyone about it because "she could handle him". What the hell? I'd think he would be the last kind person you'd want in a small group of people on an isolated research station. I suspect I was meant to feel a bit sorry for him, but I kept hoping that they'd stick him on the next spaceship to Earth.

But shallow characters can still make for an entertaining story. The problem is that the novel doesn't focus on the team of scientists. Instead it jumps back and forth between the exploration of Mars, the attempts to find funding on Earth, and completely unrelated vignettes that don't particularly advance the plot. Instead they are meant to paint a picture of a United States where religious fundamentalists have taken power. We have several glimpses of 13-year-old Bucky, a middle school kid who wants to learn about evolution and Mars, but can't because of the influence of the religious fundamentalists on school curriculum. We meet politicians who have decided to go along with the religious coalition to gain office, and a music industry producer who refuses to buckle under to censorship demands and ends up dead. The anti-science sentiment is so strong that terrorists are attacking astronomy department buildings. It is certainly a frightening scenario, but the frequent return to the American political situation doesn't really add anything to the story.

I suspect that's why I didn't find Mars Life that engaging: the interesting plot lines that looked at the study of the ancient remains of intelligent Martians and the interaction of the scientists facing both isolation from their friends and family on Earth and the cancellation of their fantastic research project were frequently interrupted with the scenes meant to remind us of the scary religious fundamentalists. I think I would have enjoyed it more if we had seen the developing story through the eyes of one or two of the scientists, and the American political situation had been left in the background.

It's only fair to mention that I haven't read the first two novels in Bova's trilogy, Mars (1992) and Return to Mars (1999), and perhaps I would feel more invested in the characters if I had. As a stand-alone novel, however, it just didn't work for me.

Read my interview with Ben Bova about Mars Life.
Read an excerpt of Mars Life.

For more about manned missions to Mars, check out the related series on Astronomy Cast: Humans to Mars, Part 1: Scientists; Humans to Mars, Part 2: Colonists; Humans to Mars, Part 3: Terraforming Mars

(Astronomy Cast links via Physicality of Words)
Image: Microscope image of the soil under the Phoenix Mars Lander
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1 comment:

Ford (This Week in Evolution) said...

Fundamentalists -- pick your flavor! -- dominating government and education and cutting funding for research? We don't need an expedition to Mars to find that.

Thanks for the review. I might have bought it based on the jacket description, but good science fiction also needs to be good fiction.