Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Book Review by Jonathan M. Sullivan
Who says Mars belongs to Kim Stanley Robinson?
Here’s a confession: I never finished Robinson’s Mars trilogy. I know that’s a little like saying you’ve never sat through ne With the Wind or made a pilgrimmage to Mecca, but hey, the nineties were a really busy time for me. Robinson’s epic was just that–a supreme feat of human imagination, sweeping, majestic, awe-inspiring and… well, epic. Long.
Don’t get me wrong. I have every intention of kissing the Blarney Stone and finishing the Mars trilogy… someday. But thank heavens Geoffrey Landis hasn’t bought into this “Mars belongs to Robinson” nonsense I hear from time to time, because he’s given us a more digestible Red Planet adventure that actually made me think about going back to the Robinson sooner rather than later.
Mars Crossing opens with the landing of the Don Quixote, commanded by one John Radkowski and carrying a total compliment of five crewmen and one lottery-winning teenager, on the plains of Felis Dorsa. Nearby sits the Dulsinea, the unmanned return vessel that’s been busily refueling herself while the Don Quixote was en route. By the mid twenty-first, traveling to Mars seems a bit like tilting at windmills; two missions have met with complete disaster already. An earlier American attempt literally came down with a lethal case of athlete’s foot–sounds silly, but Landis’ portrayal of a manned space mission brought to its knees by tinea pedis had me completely creeped out. And the members of a Brazilian expedition simply dropped dead.
Two tough acts to follow for the complement and crew of the Don Quixote. This being a science-fiction novel, things do not, as you might imagine, go according to plan. The Dulsinea, as it turns out, has rusty pipes, and an improvised attempt at repair costs the mission one crewman and all the fuel for the return trip home. When you have to lotto off a seat to a member of the public just to get the mission off the ground, you’d best not count on any rescue attempts. If the crew of the Don Quixote are ever going to get home, they’ll have to do it themselves.
The only option is to appropriate the return craft left by the Brazilians. It should still be fully fueled and operational. But Necessity is a Muthuh: that rocket’s half a world away, and it only seats two. Maybe three, if you don’t go for any of the options.
So begins a trek across Red Planet, a vivid and beautiful world as seen through Landis’ eyes, full of marvels and dangers. As the stranded astronauts work their painful way across a landscape dominated by rock and dust, they’re confronted by a suspicious death, failing equipment, awesome geography, and the question of who gets to go home. As Landis puts us inside the heads of his characters, that question becomes the itch that you can’t scratch through your spacesuit–merely nagging at first, but after a while it’s driving you insane. It’s a time bomb that helps to propel the whole story. The author uses it shamelessly, and to great effect.
Landis is a scientist who’s worked on a number of Mars missions, including the Pathfinder, and it shows. His competence shines through every passage. No surprise there, if you’ve ever followed Landis’ short fiction. He’s been one of hard sf’s brightest stars for almost two decades, although this is his first novel. His short fiction always rings with verisimilitude and a fierce rigor, although it can be a bit short on the humanity. Some of Landis’ characters have fallen flat for me in the past, upstaged by his mastery of both science and intricate plot.
Not so in Mars Landing. Each character is etched into sharp relief by Landis’ skillful use of backstory, and each character’s personality ultimately has an impact on the desperate mission. This is a tale of five people confronting a beautifully and accurately rendered alien landscape, armed with technologies described by a man who will probably have a hand in building them someday. Landis knows Mars, and Landis knows how to get to Mars, and how to work on Mars, and how to survive on Mars. But as this novel shows, Landis knows people, too, and Mars Landing is such a terrific read because it’s about five very interesting people in a lot of trouble. It may not be epic, but it’s prime-cut hard sf: meaty, tasty and lean.