First Landing, Robert Zubrin

Ace, 2001, 262 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00963-8

There have been, shall we say, quite a number of science-fiction novels about Mars over the past few years. After the grandiose sweep of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, the intricate nuts-and-bolts detail of Stephen Baxter’s Voyage or the adventurous spirit of Geoffrey Landis’ Mars Crossing, can the marketplace sustain yet another Mars novel?

Apparently so. Robert Zubrin’s First Landing slipped in bookstores in paperback format in late 2002, unnoticed by anyone save for the most dedicated hard-SF fans (which is to say, people like me). Though Zubrin is a first-time novelist, he’s a scientist with some serious credentials as a science writer. After all, he’s the author of The Case for Mars, one of the non-fiction books credited for much of the late-nineties resurgence of interest for the colonization of the Red Planet. (It also formed part of the inspiration behind the film MISSION TO MARS, but the least said about that is best, I suppose.)

It’s not a particular surprise if First Landing turns out to be so readable. By sticking to a clear and descriptive prose, Zubrin gives energy to his narrative and propels the plot forward. Here too (as in Geoffrey Landis’ Mars Crossing and Gregory Benford’s The Martian Race, not to mention MISSION TO MARS again or even RED PLANET), a catastrophic mishap strands a team of astronauts on Mars while rescue efforts are hampered by oh-so-evil politicians on Earth.

The usual Hard-SF gallery of freaks and villains is fully present here: Rabid environmentalists, short-sighted politicians, Bible-thumping fundamentalists and trash-science “experts” manipulate popular opinion, sabotage the mission, create strife between crewmembers and generally behave in ways that seem almost too over-the-top for conventional fiction.

But don’t roll your eyes yet: Keep reading. Despite the unsubtle characters, the good-old ecofreak villains and the stock premise, something quite wonderful emerges from First Landing. This novel starts to be fun. Good fun. Compulsively readable fun. “I want to know what happens next” fun.

Over the pages, some of the early excesses of the novel even start to lose their edge. The astronauts (once so mismatched it was a wonder they’d been allowed on the same mission) start to gel and to bond together through strife and miscommunications with planet Earth. Everyone pulls together with an all-American can-do attitude. By the triumphant finale, even the short-sighted politicians finally “get” the message of Martian colonization. Cue the ticker-tape parade. Cheers!

That may sound trite and/or cynical, but it’s exactly what’s needed for First Landing to succeed. It’s that kind of novel. Furthermore, Zubrin avoids many of the flaws that had so dogged Landis and Benford’s efforts. His characters are flawed, sure, but they don’t carry around closets full of pesky secrets like the full cast in Mars Crossing. The novel is short enough that it sticks to the essentials, avoiding the dilution of suspense that ended up harming The Martian Race. All and all, I’d put Zubrin’s book above the last two, if only for sheer efficiency. It’s a lean, mean (but not too mean) hard-SF novel that doesn’t try to be anything else. Even its flaws only reinforce the feeling that this is a real Hard-SF story.

I sure hope Robert Zubrin is hard at work on a second novel; authors that get both the science and the fiction right are rare enough that they all should be encouraged. If he can make even an overused premise like Mars colonization interesting again, who know what else he’ll be able to do next?

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