The Martian Race
by Gregory Benford
Review by Ernest Lilley
Aspect Mass Market ISBN/ITEM#: 0446608904
Date: 01 January, 2001 List Price $6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
The good news is that this is a pretty good book. Once again, every obligatory element of Mars fiction is represented. By now, I'm trying to think of this stuff as the requirements of an art form. Mars epic's must have; too many stranded astronauts for the return vehicle to carry and the discovering an abundance of life somewhere on the red planet. Those are the required parameters, and the author meets them, but he does it with style. This is a reprint of a 1999 hardcover, so in truth, he was even ahead of the curve.
The central character, Julia, a Mars astronaut on the commercial first mission to Mars is a good point of view person. She's a biologist, serious, married to the Viktor, the expedition's leader, and the only woman on the planet.
After NASA scrubs the Mars program when it loses the prime crew, its launch vehicle and the launch assembly in a spectacular fireball, a private consortium buys up the surplus space hardware, including the astronauts, to make an attempt to claim a 30 billion dollar prize put up by the world's governments. Cheaper than actually launching a space program...let private industry fight it out and cut corners on their own.
As in Mars Crossing, the long trip is made possible by splitting the ship into two parts and spinning them on a long tether. The author points out that what we have learned by long experimentation in Zero-G is that it's a bad idea. This being physicist/author Greg Benford, it's no surprise that the science is uniformly good throughout. Anything less would be unthinkable. There's quite a range of science too. Nuclear rockets (the Chinese entry), Martian geology, biology, and a fair amount of psych thrown in for good measure. While it's not a "plant flag and run" mission, but one with a 500 day layover, neither is it colonization. Having watched the US Space program go through this with the Moon Race, I keep wishing they'd do it one step at a time, and all this rush to get to the prize at the center bugs me.
There are several sources for plot tension. NASA doesn't like being used for a fire sale, and rankles at being prodded by the private industrialist that's engineered the trip. The Chinese/Airbus contingent will stop at nothing to win the prize...even (gasp) lawyers. Then there's the one woman (married) to three men (her husband's the captain) crew ratio. Oh, no! It's the same setup as the year 2000's worst Mars movie...Mission To Mars!
The common elements between this and those two later Mars stories make you pause, but The Martian Race kept me going to find out what happens next. Benford is always credible, and this is one of his better stories as well.