William K. Hartmann

Mars Underground, William K. Hartmann

Tor, 1997, 428 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-58039-7

The most unfortunate consequence of Science-Fiction’s fascination for Mars during the nineties is the production of the planet’s definitive future history. From now on, every novel about the Red Planet have to contend with the towering shadow of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, which more or less said everything that needed to be said seriously about Mars until we eventually get there: Lesser Mars novels like Jack Williamson’ Beach Head are eaten for lunch by Robinson’s Mars.

It seemed to me that the only serious way to avoid comparison to Robinson’s story was to go gonzo and write far-out novels like Greg Bear’s Moving Mars, so different from Robinson’s history that it couldn’t be compared. So, I didn’t really expect anything like Mars Underground to succeed, given the way it almost retreads the first half of Red Mars. And yet…

Mars, 2032. We will follow four persons: Dr. Alwyn Stafford is the closest thing to a Martian: He’s been on the planet for almost twenty years and continues his research in Martian life-forms. Carter Jahns (shades of Burrough’s “John Carter”?) is one of the engineers responsible for planning human expansion on Mars. His friend Philippe Brach is the French artist-in-residence on Mars. And, disrupting the cards by her arrival from Earth is Annie Pohaku, news journalist.

One day, Stafford disappears while on a solitary exploration trip. The whole Martian contingent is mobilized to find him, including Jahns. The clues they find are puzzling, suggesting deliberate intent to confuse the situation rather than accidental disappearance. But why, and how, would Stafford disappears? The story gets even more complex when Annie gets much closer to Philippe and then to Carter… serial seduction, or ways to ensure she doesn’t miss a potential scoop?

For a newcomer to science-fiction, William K. Hartmann has impressive credentials: Multi-degree scientist involved with projects such as Mariner 9 and the Mars Global Surveyor Mission, Hugo-nominated author/co-author of eleven science books, be brings both knowledge and technique to Mars Underground, with fascinating results.

The biggest surprise, I suspect, is that despite Mars Underground‘s clear membership to hard-SF, it is written with an elegance uncommon to the subgenre and an attention to characters that is far removed from the quick sketches we’re almost used to read. Uncommonly, this novel centers almost as much on a love triangle than on the promise of a good old-fashioned scientific mystery.

As far as enigmas go, this is a good one. Stafford’s disappearance has a few quirky aspects that can’t be easily explained by Jahns, who presses on further and further until he discovers an explanation, then another, then a conspiracy… The intrepid Annie is with him at each step of the way, but whose side is she really on, besides herself? Hartmann keeps the reader guessing throughout the novel, only letting the answers appear near the end. Even though the conclusion isn’t as strong as it could have been, it’s spectacular enough to be interesting.

Ironically, it’s the reverse that’s true of the novel: While Mars Underground is very strong in terms of characters, plotting and overall writing, it’s not as spectacular as it could have been. Hartmann stays as close as possible to the realm of the possible -his Mars is uncannily *real*- and while the result is commendable, it’s not as awe-inspiring as one might have expected. This is not really a failure as it is a slight disappointment, and even then not very much. Mars Underground is a better-than-average Hard-SF novel that’s surprisingly human and should gather a readership beyond the usual school of Science-Fiction realism. It needs no comparison to Robinson’s Mars to be appreciated.