Earthbound (A Marsbound Novel)
by Joe Haldeman
Cover Artist: Fred Gambino
Review by Ernest Lilley
Ace Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780441020959
Date: 06 December 2011 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
What a long strange trip it's been.
Earthbound finishes up Haldeman's Mars series, of which only the first, Marsbound (2008) actually has anything to do with Mars. In the course of the series, narrated by Carmen Dula, aka the Mars Girl, who moved to the red planet in the first book and stumbled across Martians living in caverns when she stepped out for an unauthorized walk and fell through the crust. They weren't real Martians she stumbled on, or at least they were no more so than the human colonists could claim, except that they'd been on Mars for thousands of years.
The Martians, it turns out, in a development not unusual in these stories, are an advance warning device left by an alien race that couldn't be bother to stick around while humanity struggled up from the dirt, but wanted to have fair warning before we struck out for the stars.
By the time book two, Starbound (2010) rolled around, we'd figured out where the Others lived and mastered some of the basic bits of alien technology, at least enough to turn an asteroid into a basic rocket powered starship, and to send a team off to meet the neighbors. The team consisted of a pair of Martians, Carmen, who the Martians had adopted as Earth's ambassador, her husband Paul, and a handful of international military/spook types as well as some science and linguistic experts.
The Others turn out to be uploaded intelligences with a god complex, and send our explorers home, hacking time a bit so that they don't experience the transit, as though relativistic effects weren't confusing enough. Still, the group arrives home fifty years after they left, and just in time to set down before the Others pulverize the moon to create a no fly zone around Earth, cautioning us to stay on the ground until we grow up.
We don't listen, and the Others don't take it well, pulling the plug on all power sources on Earth, and telling us that we were now a donor world, sending energy to other, possibly better behaved worlds.
Which brings us up to the current story.
Earthbound, is essentially a post apocalypse sf story, following the same party that went to visit the Others as they make their way across the US after the power goes out. For no other reason than to mess with our heads, the Others decide to turn the power back on for a week or so, and the group gets to jet around a bit which is handy, at least until the lights go out again.
Carmen and her friends get co-opted by the President after the power comes back which gives them the opportunity to drop their Martian companion in Siberia, which is handy since there is a research colony there with the only food supply for it on the planet. They then they jaunt off to find the counterculture commune that one of their party grew up in, and fled from, but that was a long time ago thanks to relativity, and with the power out, their back to nature kookiness looks pretty sensible all of a sudden.
Haldeman could have settled the group in at this point, dealing with survival in the new order, but instead he sends them foraging for books, also standard fare in post apocalypse tales. Every trip into the country offers opportunities for attrition though, so we get to see our character set winnow down as the book proceeds, leading up to a final stand at the farm and a classic deus ex machina at the end.
Despite periodic appearances by Spy, the human looking construct the Others use to communicate with us, this is a classic what do you do after the power goes off story, though the author comes up with some interesting wrinkles, as we'd expect he might. Had this been the point of the series, he might have developed it more, but it's more of a wrap up and as a result doesn't get his full authorial effort.
What does carry the story, and the series, along is the main character, Carmen, and the teen to adult transition that she makes over the three books. The cast shenanigans does have a soap opera flavor in the second book, but Earthbound makes Carmen deal with a host of inevitable losses that mark her move into maturity. I'm only sorry we won't get to spend more time with the adult version, who might just have been the person to face them on humanity's behalf.
Ironically, readers of the series may find this book less satisfying than those starting in with this book, because it really doesn't move the human/Other story along much. The author fast forwards a few times so we know that this is the last book, though he also takes time off to demonstrate that there are more questions than answers with regard to the alien's agenda and humankind's place in the game. A window is left open just enough for someone to come along and reopen the issues, possibly one of Carmen's children, or their descendants, but I expect it will take some time for the author to get around to it, if he does.
All in all a good read, but though the author queues up plenty of issues, he stops short of resolving them.