BOOK REVIEW: Return to Mars, by Ben Bova

Hold up, this is a sequel! You can find my review of the previous book by clicking on this link.

  • Book Two of the Mars Trilogy
  • Part of the Grand Tour universe
  • Published by Avon in 1999
  • Hard SF
  • 403 pages
  • ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Jamie Waterman has returned to Mars with a new team of scientists. But his search for facts clashes with his spiritual need for answers. Jamie is sure he has found proof of intelligent Martian life, but will anyone believe him . . ?

On the one hand, Return to Mars offers more of the same. In its return to the Grand Canyon of Mars, it is quite literally treading old ground. Bova’s delightfully lean prose and accessible science once again pave the way for a story of exploration and discovery on the Red Planet. But there is more to this book than that. While the science remains as hard as ever, this is also a book about the explorers themselves. About how life on Mars takes its toll on the body, the mind, and the soul. Not just of Jamie Waterman and his fellow explorers, but on the psyche of humanity as a whole. Because even when you get the answers you desperately hoped for, it leaves you with questions that might be even more worrying than knowing nothing at all.

With the basics of Martian life established in the previous novel, Bova takes the time here to flesh out the characters a little more. Clearly, Jamie gets the bulk of the development, and its his twinned scientist and Navajo instincts that drive much of the narrative. However, there isn’t the conflict between religion and science that you might expect. Jamie has dreams about his dead grandfather leading him to a Martian village, and this is clearly a spiritual experience for him. But the way he goes about fulfilling these dreams is through the application of logic and hard evidence. Religion and science live side by side here in a way that a lot of books forget that they can. Back on Earth, similar debates ensue, and are a little less harmonious in their resolution. The bigger debate is whether the exploration of space should be driven by the government-sponsored pursuit of knowledge, or funded by private individuals for commercial gain. Bova’s government is as spendthrift as ever, while the wealthy Trumball has more than a hint of the Musk/Bezos about him. As always, the answer is a little from both columns, but there is no clear wrong or right presented. Quite frankly, the nuance is as refreshing as the calm maturity with which Bova’s characters carry themselves.

There are a few elements here that don’t quite work for me. The first is flashbacks, which are thankfully dropped early on. I don’t have much more to say on the matter other than that they are here, and they continue to bother me. As soon as they’re dropped and we’re in firmly forwards trajectory, everything falls into place. Except for the sabotage, which considering it is mentioned on the cover flap, I was expecting to play a larger role in the story. What we actually get are a series of accidents and strange occurrences that only really come together in the closing act of the novel. It’s quite remarkable that Bova doesn’t milk the events for tension, instead maintaining his usual clarity and directness even as suspicions start to form in the minds of some. The only real conflict the saboteur creates is revealed in a series of diary entries scattered throughout the book. The rest of the story either derives drama from the strained relationships of the explorers as they debate the best way to go about settling Mars, or proceeds peacefully with everyone getting along rather swimmingly.

Like Bova’s other works, this calm and mature piece of hard science fiction won’t be for everyone. Looking back, it does seem as though not a whole lot happened. But the journey was a delight, and Bova an excellent guide to this alien world. Return to Mars might have its faults, but it has cemented Bova’s place in my reading plans, and I can’t wait to get to the rest of the Grand Tour series.

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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