BOOK REVIEW: Mars, by Ben Bova

  • Book One of the Mars Trilogy
  • Part of the Grand Tour universe
  • Published by Bantam in 1992
  • Hard SF
  • 549 pages
  • ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Mars. The next logical stopping point for human exploration of space. A world ripe for investigation, but also exploitation. When the first crewed mission to Mars touches down, will their goal be science, or will politics dominate there as it does on Earth . . .

This is only the second book I’ve read by the late Ben Bova, but it is enough to ensure that I buy a whole lot more. It’s not every day that you discover a new favourite author, but maybe this is that day. The best way I can describe Bova’s work is ‘If Asimov wrote Star Trek,’ because it has the clear prose and keen mind of the former, and the love of exploration and warmth of the latter. This is Hard SF as it should be written. It doesn’t bog down with pages and pages of calculations, but uses an adherence to science (as understood at the time of writing) to propel the narrative forwards. It also has something very, very important, that we could use a whole lot more of. Optimism.

There are no exact dates given in Mars, but from context we can establish that the book is set in 2008, meaning that we’re a little way behind Bova’s grand vision of the future. But aside from a few dated elements (I don’t think a real Mars mission will use floppy disks quite so much), the story holds up. The United States and Russia drive the space race, but the Europeans are in the mix too. It reads as a perfectly natural evolution of the space race, but with the cooperation between nations that characterises modern space exploration. Squint a little, and you’d never know the book is thirty years old. And that multicultural mission takes centre stage with protagonist Waterman, a Navajo scientist. For all that the team come from diverse backgrounds, it’s his overwhelmed foirst words on Mars that kickstart the problems back home. Ya’aa’tey might mean ‘It is good,’ but it sends the US politicians into a spin.

The split between science and politics is the driving conflict in Mars, with each side trying to manoeuvre the other into doing their bidding, with varying results. But as conflicts go, it’s a very civil one. Yes there are arguments, but the characters in this book act like the mature adults they are. Disputes are settled by words, not fists. There’s not a shred of violence in the story, which is more refreshing than it ought to be. My overall feeling at the end of this book is one of calmness. Mars is a gripping read, but it’s also an incredibly soothing one. This is such a gentle book, taking its time and putting you at ease, even when things go wrong. Honestly, it’s a genuine pleasure to read.

Bova’s prose is effortlessly clean, telling you everything you need to know and not bandying words around. My only issue is the structure of the book, which is heavily reliant on flashbacks. When we’re on Mars, things are clear cut, but back on Earth there are two timelines. One concurrent with the mission, the other telling of the training leading up to take-off. It’s pretty well done, but I’ll always prefer a linear narrative. One part of the structure I really did enjoy is the dossiers, which essentially provide miniature character studies, scattered throughout the book. They’re a great way of revealing character without weighing down the otherwise tight narrative.

Ben Bova has skyrocketed to the top of my must-read list, and I’ll be diving into the sequel right away, and more of his work later in the year. Ya’aa’tey indeed.

Did you enjoy this book? If so, you may also like:
Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus, by Isaac Asimov
Mars, by Ben Bova
Cold Welcome, by Elizabeth Moon

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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