The Martian Race, Gregory Benford

Warner Aspect, 1999, 340 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-446-52633-9

The nineties have been an excellent decade as far as Mars and Science-Fiction have been concerned. SF writers returned to the Red Planet en masse, virtually re-inventing our SFictional view of the planet in light of NASA’s latest discoveries about it.

The crowning Mars work of the decade, of course, goes to Kim Stanley Robinson’s masterful Mars trilogy, which set the tone for a series of scientifically accurate novels perhaps more concerned with writing future history than overblown SF. A refreshing chance after Burroughs’ fantasy Mars.

Interestingly enough, even though there was a first Mars boom in the early nineties, (Bova’s Mars, Williamson’s Beachhead, Anderson’s Climbing Olympus, etc…) the Pathfinder expedition of 1997 (as well as the flap about Martian “fossils” in 1996) rekindled interest in the fourth rock from the sun. As Hollywood re-discovered Mars on its own (with MISSION TO MARS, RED PLANET, at least one TV movie and persistent rumors of a James Cameron film project), written SF went back to Mars another time: Bova’s Return to Mars, Baxter’s Voyage, Hartman’s Mars Underground, Robinson’s The Martians all went back, sometime literally, to the red planet for one more adventure.

Now Gregory Benford packs up his rockets and also blasts off to Mars, in an adventure that suffers from a few problem but manages to provide a satisfying read.

The setup innovates somewhat: Instead of the government directly financing a martian expedition, a series of mishaps convince the government to do business differently: They offer a prize of thirty billion dollars to whoever can get to Mars, perform some exploration and return safely. The novel opens as one expedition financed by a billionaire comes to a close. Of course, disaster strikes, a second expedition pops up, a pair of significant discoveries is made and money threatens to run out.

The novel begins with a chronologically fractured narrative, which isn’t as successful as a straight timeline would have been. (An approach more similar to Robert J. Sawyer’s usual middle-of-novel-scene-as-prologue might have been more successful than the attempt to pass of the flashback exposition interleaved in the main story.) But as the context is straightened out and the stakes rise, the novel gets steadily more interesting.

Of course, it helps that Benford has learned how to write clearly. His first novels (even the much-lauded Timescape) were embarrassments of pretentious prose masquerading as depth. Though he always had the capacity to do it (His mainstream thriller, Artifact, dates from 1985) it is only in the last few books (Cosm, most notably) that he’s shown a willingness to stick with an uncluttered, transparent, elegant prose.

The Martian Race is ultimately a pretty good -though not exceptional- novel of hard-SF. Though the idea-density is low for experienced readers of the genre, they are well-developed and the novel can survive quite easily on its increasingly engrossing narrative. Before long, the title begins to acquire a double meaning that is eventually proven right. Not much suspense, but it doesn’t really matter.

Though I doubt that Benford’s predictions will be realized -all his wishful anti-government thinking aside-, The Martian Race is another brick in the pro-Mars SF wall. It holds up well to Kim Stanley Robinson’s standard-setting trilogy and represents a good choice for almost any SF enthusiast. Now, if only Mars movies could be as good as Mars books…

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