Jere Gutierrez is the head of Neteno, a television network dedicated to keeping the art of linear entertainment alive. Unfortunately, it looks like Neteno’s brand of impressed-reality shows and scripted lives isn’t enough to compete against the new breed of interactive games and MMOs. The writing’s on the wall and the judgment has come down from on high: Neteno must change or fall by the wayside. That’s when Evan McMaster comes to Jere with an audacious, impossible idea. Resurrect the reality show, and take it to Mars. Go where no man has gone before, and turn it into the ultimate competition. Combining extreme sports with a race against time in a lethal environment, it’s as ambitious as it is perilous. With nothing left to lose, Jere accepts the challenge.
Unfortunately, Jere and Evan are the only ones who believe such a plan is possible. To get to Mars, they’ll have to fight every step of the way. They’ll need massive amounts PF funding, unprecedented cooperation from dozens of corporations and countries, people bold or foolish enough to risk their lives, and plenty of chutzpah. Worse, Jere’s making some powerful enemies, including the influential risk management firm of 411, rival entertainment company Gen3, and the all-powerful U.S. Department of Sustainability.
And even if Jere acquires the funds he needs, through deals with the devil and an utter lack of shame, even if his partners and sponsors develop the technology needed, even if he puts together a cast of competitors who aren’t afraid of the risk, no one can predict what will actually happen on Mars. That far from home, using untested technology, operating on a shoestring budget, they’ll be lucky if anyone survives to win the prize and claim victory.
Winning Mars is a fascinating story, thought-provoking and insightful. Stoddard manages to evoke authors like Walter Jon Williams, Ben Bova, and Cory Doctorow as he painstakingly examines every aspect involved in heading to Mars in a future not too far removed from our own time period. Certainly, it’s easy to see how we could go from Here to There, given the way the economy, the government, and the entertainment industry have performed and evolved in recent years. I found it extremely easy to believe in a world where a risk management firm has near-final say in any ambitious endeavor, where a government program is given free rein to do anything and everything in the name of “keeping it green and sustainable,” and where a cash-strapped NASA gave up going to the stars long ago.
Moreover, Stoddard actually addresses a question I’ve contemplated for years, something which has become something of a reality recently. If government-funded space programs are falling behind, why not privatize space travel? Why not give Disney and Microsoft and Apple the room to do what’s needed to put a Disneyworld on the Moon and a Hilton in orbit? Well, Stoddard lays out reasons why companies and individuals might or might not buy into such a plan. He looks at the need to develop more specialized technology, the resources needed to get into space, the hard choices made at every step of the way. Is it wholly realistic? Well, it’s science fiction, so there has to be some level of hand-waving going on, but it’s fairly well grounded in what’s possible and available. Real life corporations and people made appearances as Jere makes the rounds, further linking this to our own sphere of experience. Stoddard’s suggested plan for making it to Mars and back with the aid of interested sponsors is believable and interesting. Some are in it for the publicity, some for the challenge, some for the potential return.
Earlier, I mentioned several prominent authors. There’s a bit of Bova in the juxtaposition of hard science and in-depth characterization, mixed with a “can do” attitude and a sense of wonder. The virtual reality and gaming aspects are a recurring theme these days, with any number of writers weaving those themes into their works. Cory Doctorow’s influence can be seen in the way Stoddard plays with culture and technology, pushing boundaries and exploring the potential paths of change and exploitation. It’s certainly a complex blend of elements.
And yet, parts of Winning Mars don’t quite fit together properly. There’s so much build-up to the mission, that everything after the cast arrives on Mars feels almost anti-climatic. While there’s still a major bit of story, some serious problems in need of resolution, and some significant character development, it’s not as compelling as the first two-thirds of the book. It’s as though once Stoddard finally got his characters where they were going, he either ran out of steam or switched gears. The fate of one team is shockingly sudden and all too brief. The competition portion of the reality show feels glossed over. The ending is abrupt, with all of the interesting details left out. Just when I wanted to know and see more, Stoddard skipped forward to hit a few high points before calling it a day. As a result, the book feels unbalanced, disproportionately focused on the initial process of putting together the Mars mission, while leaving so much of the show vague.
Furthermore, I have to say that I didn’t really find much to like with most of the would-be contestants. Sadly true to form where reality shows are concerned, they ranged from deluded to self-absorbed, with little to redeem most of them. The more sympathetic contestants get very little time to shine. On the other hand, I found Jere to be quite likeable, and his girlfriend, media star Patrice “YZ” Klein is a whole lot of fun in her own strange way. I certainly appreciate the multi-cultural cast and the global scope.
It’s worth noting that this is actually the third iteration of Winning Mars. It first appeared as a novella in Interzone, before being expanded into a full-length story and posted on Stoddard’s website. For this version, it was expanded and drastically altered even more. However, most of the story beats remain intact through each version, maintaining continuity and structural integrity. I’ve taken a look at these previous versions, and I can definitely say that this is the best by far, for all of my above criticisms. My final verdict? Winning Mars is a fascinating, entertaining, quite possibly prophetic book, and I had a lot of fun reading it. Given time and opportunity, Stoddard may yet grow into his potential and leave his mark upon the genre.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. He’s still holding out for that trip to Oz.