Mars – Ben Bova (1992)
‘To the harsh landscape of Sol’s fourth planet travel thirteen astronauts, the best scientists from eleven nations, on a history-making voyage into the unknown. The international crew of the Mars mission have spent nine months in space, crossing too (sic) million kilometres, to reach the last great frontier.
Their voyage is fraught with disputes, both personal and political, and their time on Mars limited to ‘footprints and flags’: yet while there they come face-to-face with the most incredible and shocking discovery of all.’
Blurb from the 1993 NEL edition
Released during a period which saw a brief flourish of Mars-related releases, Bova’s novel breaks no new ground, and invites inevitable comparison with Kim Stanley Robinson’s infinitely superior ‘Red Mars’ published in the same year.
Bova’s dual timeline structure – which returns from the contemporary narrative to examine the former lives of various crew members does little to add depth to the characterisations.
In fairness to Bova, the central character, Jamie Waterman, is an interesting creation; a geologist of Amerindian descent, whose parents have – to a certain extent – abandoned their roots in favour of a middle-class American lifestyle. Jamie has rediscovered his heritage through his grandfather and now, despite political difficulties and the added problems of international quotas, has been selected to be part of the first team to set foot on Mars.
The science is well-researched, the political aspects are a clear and important part of the novel, but Bova fails in giving us any real feeling of Mars itself. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars, in contrast, becomes almost a character in its own right, but on a first reading of Bova’s ‘Mars’ one is left with the impression that it looks a little bit like new Mexico.
Had this novel been shorter, one might not be so critical, but in its 566 pages, much is redundant and other issues are dealt with peremptorily, such as the Jewish biologist Ilona Mater’s reaction to the Russians. It’s a Hallmark plotline. Initially she irrationally blames all Russians for the massacre of her family, but later, when a Russian saves her life, her viewpoint is completely changed. This is simply too simplistic a device for such an emotive and complex issue which is not dealt with enough in the text to begin with.
Bova also, perhaps unintentionally, gives us rather caricatured characters from outside the US. The Austrian geologist – whom Jamie replaces on the mission – is depicted a sexist misogynist egomaniac. The English medical officer, Tony Reed, is initially a cowardly manipulator whose only aim seems to be to bed an unattainable female crewmember. He, in another Hallmark moment, ultimately faces his fears and saves the day.
The Russians are standard fictional Russians, efficient and humourless, but who display a more human face when disaster strikes. Conversely, the American characters, Waterman, Brumado and Pete Connors, seem to have no character flaws.
The mission eventually succeeds in finding primitive life on Mars and there are a couple of unimportant loose ends left for an inevitable sequel.
It’s a good novel for a long journey or a rainy afternoon, but pales in comparison with other Mars-related works of the Nineties.