The Martian Race
by Gregory BenfordIt's 2015, and NASA is preparing to launch a manned mission to Mars. But when it explodes, killing the entire crew, NASA's funding for another mission dries up and it's up to private enterprise to step in. The Mars Prize is now worth $30 billion, and it's up for grabs for the first crew who successfully reach Mars and return with samples and evidence of their research.
The narrative jumps awkwardly between 2015 and 2018, when Julia Barth is making a broadcast from the surface of Mars. So there's no suspense about whether or not they get there. Whether they all get back alive is another matter. The flashbacks are mainly concerned with how they got funding, and who would eventually make up the crew. John Axelrod is the businessman who risks his fortune to pay for the astronauts to go, and although he seems quite a flamboyant character we don't read a lot about him. The focus is on the astronauts, who have to live in very confined quarters for long periods, under constant danger.
It's not only such things as explosions or vacuum exposure that pose a threat. Gregory Benford makes much of the peroxide dust which gets everywhere and corrodes seals and mechanical systems. It is an extremely hostile environment where the slightest negligence could lead to death.
Although Axelrod's Consortium are the first to set foot on Mars, it is the first to return who will bag the prize. The competition arrives in the form of Airbus, manning a three-person spacecraft which travels faster because it is fuelled differently. Paranoia sets in that the rival team will plunder their research or even steal their means of escape. It's a race to see who will be able to return to Earth, but as systems fail and backups fail to arrive it starts to look as though none of them will make it home. The Martian Race of the title also implies another meaning, but we know there are no Martians, right? Benford points out that in spite of the thin atmosphere and extreme temperatures life is still a possibility. Oxygen is not a prerequisite of life, and even on a planet as cold as this sources of heat may be found. A lot of Mars remains unexplored, so we still can't be sure that there is nothing at all out there.
The Martian Race is clearly the work of a scientist, and it's full of details on everything from rocket science and bacteria to Christopher Columbus. If the aim of this book is to enthuse readers about Mars then it succeeds. There is just enough technical detail to spark an interest in all things Martian without being overwhelmingly scholarly.
However, whilst emphasising science the author has skimped on character development. If it comes off a bit dry it's not because of any lack of drama: there are plenty of near-death scenes and revelatory moments. But Julia, Viktor, Marc and Raoul are all very similar people, all level-headed and logical, the way many people imagine astronauts to be. Julia is a little reckless in her pursuit of science, but even she knows when to stop. As such the pace is occasionally too slow, you know no-one is ever going to get mad and punch another crew member.
In reality 2015 has been suggested by NASA as a date for the first real-life manned mission to Mars, and the Mars Prize does exist. This is a well-researched novel, and it's easy to imagine that the way Benford describes it is very close to the way the first trip will pan out. Although it's sometimes a little emotional and hard to engage with the characters, it's worth reading just for that sense of realism.
Review © Ros Jackson