Hello, readers! Each time I finish a book in 2018, I will be dropping a Reading Reflection. These not-reviews are just a collection of thoughts I have after reading a book. Give me a shout in the comments if you agree (or disagree). Warning: spoilers for each of the books I reflect on may be discussed.
Mars (Grand Tour #1)
So I read Ben Bova's Mars almost five years ago when I was still in college. I loved it back then, and since my wife is a big fan of the series--and I stopped reading it for reasons I can't really articulate--I decided to return last year. I began with Moonrise, which was a new-to-me read, and then Moonwar, which I've reflected on here. Mars is technically between the two, but I wanted to read something new before I returned to Mars.
The basic gist of the story is that humanity's first mission to Mars is plagued by a bunch of set-backs and re-writes due to emergencies. It's a story of people learning to work around one another's shortcomings, if not get along, and to survive against tall odds. Jamie Waterman, a Navajo geologist, is a last-minute replacement for a more politick choice, and becomes the de facto leader of the expedition once the ground team is on the ground. Waterman's chance sighting of water vapor, and what he thinks is an arroyo-like settlement along the walls of the Valles Marineris--the biggest canyon in the solar system--leads to the entire mission being rewritten to check it out, in case there are signs of life there. Due to complications, they're all very ill by the time they get to the valley...and while they find signs of life, they are unable to follow up on the "ruins." Quick thinking and some seriously brass nerve save them, but at a cost.
The story is not as straight as that, however. Interspersed through the book, particularly in the first half, are flashbacks and "dossiers" meant to flesh out characters in a way that the story, staffed by professionals with a mission and on a schedule, can't do very well. These flashbacks tell the story of how Waterman came to be on the mission, what training was like, who is important to him, and lay out the groundworks for the trickle political situations surrounding the last-minute changes. The book has tons of characters, but Albert Brumado and Kris Cardenas both make appearances in the book, and the Stravengers/Mastersons from the Moon books also get a frequent nod. In the second half of the book, the interruptions take place as side-steps back to Mars orbit, or Earth, where the supporting cast deliberates over every decision Waterman makes, weighing implications and giving the entire mission the kind of mythic feel you'd expect the real deal will have.
Mars keeps the reader engaged throughout. However, it is showing signs of wear. Every character is effectively a national or racial stereotype, sanitized enough to be palatable, but not enough to get rid of the laziness of relying on sour shorthands. All the computers use floppy disks, as well, which is fun. Last, and perhaps by biggest complaint, is that the book's final conflict--a breakout of scurvy due to oxygen-deterioration of the crew's vitamin pills--doesn't make sense in today's food climate. Every meal they would have had packed for them would be rich in vitamins. If my college campus can manage to provide wedge fries with 300% vitamin C, NASA can work it in, too.
So, with a few complains about the characterizations, and the slightly limp scientific basis for the book's final conflict--which, to be fair, is grippingly and painfully rendered--Mars is still a win. I recommend it as a book about the planet, because it has a lot to teach readers about our baleful, dead neighbor. Or maybe it's not so dead...we'll have to follow up in the sequel!