Mars Crossing, Geoffrey A. Landis

Tor, 2000, 331 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87201-1

Like with so many SF authors known uniquely for a string of excellent short stories, Geoffrey A. Landis’ first novel was eagerly awaited by readers of the genre. As a particularly gifted representative of the Hard-SF school of writing, Landis had demonstrated, through his stories, a talent for complex characters, lucid prose and a fertile imagination. Mars Crossing arrived on shelves in time for Christmas and the new millennium, hopefully satisfying a legion of eager fans.

Landis plays it safe by setting his first novel on Mars. In the past few years, SF has seen a renewed interest in the Red Planet outstripping even the early-nineties boom which had given rise to, most famously, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. He takes a half-serious, half-adventurous approach to the planet halfway between the nuts-and-bolts of Stephen Baxter’s Voyage and the wild ludicrousness of Hollywood’s Mars blockbusters. The result is uneven, but entertaining.

As with several of the other Mars novels, Mars Crossing spends half its time describing the trip on Mars, and the other half explaining how the various members of the expedition ended up there. The current section of the novel is fine, concerning itself with a series of nick-of-time adventures aimed at getting the astronauts off Mars after a disastrous technical problem shortly after landing. Parallels are made with the exploration of Antarctica, which should give you an idea of the book’s body count. Canyons are crossed, planes are flown, calculations and stupid mistakes are made, people are killed or murdered and during all that time, as with all Mars novels, the stupid people on Earth couldn’t care less about space exploration. Thrills and chills abound and the pacing is snappy.

It’s the other half of Landis’ novel that isn’t so good. In an effort to bring more drama to a survival adventure story, Landis makes sure that every one of his characters (except the guy who buys it barely fifty pages in the novel) is jam-packed with past traumas, deep secrets, unchivalrous motives, hidden identities and severe sociopathologies. While it would have been fine for one or two characters, the cumulative effect invites disbelief. It’s entirely possible to come to a point where you can’t care about the next big trauma that Landis will reveal.

On the other hand, this does make up for a bunch of interesting characters. Those who thought that the “Survivor” casts had interesting problems and treacherous personalities are bound to be pleasantly surprised here.

Fortunately, despite everything, “Survivor” addicts are not the only one likely to derive some satisfaction from the novel. Landis wrote a lot of short stories before sending Mars Crossing to Tor, and it shows through the limpid writing style as well as the numerous short chapters. While the flashback to the characters’ previous lives might be exasperating at the macro-level, they’re handled with the right amount of detail and attention. As with all good adventures, Mars Crossing moves with the proper pacing. And, Landis being a working scientist in his non-writing time, you can be assured of the novel’s aura of technical authenticity. He’s less successful in describing future social trends and musical styles, but at least he makes an effort at it.

The end result, all things considered, is a honest first novel with some flaws, but also with enough strengths to recommend to the hard-SF audience. While a slight disappointment on some levels, Mars Crossing promises a lot for Landis’ future career as a novelist, as well as for his expectant fans.

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