Dec 5 2013 6:00pm

The Triumph of Private Industry: Mars, Inc.: The Billionaire’s Club by Ben Bova

Ben Bova Mars Inc

Arthur “Art” Thrasher, CEO of Thrasher Digital Corporation, has a dream: to take mankind to Mars. But since no single government seems up to the task, with NASA having dropped the ball due to budget cutbacks and so on, and Thrasher doesn’t have the funds necessary to finance his dream himself, he comes up with a new plan. He approaches a number of billionaires—ruthless businessmen and financiers—and hits them up for the 100 billion he estimates it would take. A billion a year for five years for each of them. And Mars would be theirs for the taking.

Even with financing tentatively in place, there’s a million details to be considered over the next five years. Design. Propulsion. Launch capabilities. Orbital mechanics. Crew and personnel. Political hurdles. Industrial sabotage. Economic warfare. Every time Thrasher nails one issue, another pops up. But rest assured, he won’t stop until Mars One has launched on its historical journey.

It should come as no surprise that, once again, legendary author Ben Bova is looking to the future. Mars, Inc. is basically his extended look at how we could send men to Mars, complete with all of the usual technological, political, and economic complexities that usually populate his works. Apart from a subplot revolving around the virtual reality systems that will be used to take mankind to Mars along with the astronauts and scientists who are physically journeying there, there really isn’t much in the way of outrageous or even implausible science.

In fact, Bova seems to have toned down the science across the board for this book. Most of the details are skimmed over or handwaved away. He seems more interested in the day-to-day maneuverings and intrigues of the characters, than he is on delving into the technical specifics of a nuclear propulsion system, centrifugal-generated artificial gravity, or supplies needed to sustain a crew of seven for the better part of two years. A running subplot about using suborbital rocket technology for hypersonic transportation likewise takes existing systems and technology, and projects how they could be used to speed up travel across the world.

The thing that struck me most about this book, is that first and foremost, it’s a Story about Men. Art has a dream, a Very Manly (American) Dream, and the vast majority of the people he deals with as a result, are also Very Manly Men. The story actually starts out in the Kensington Club’s Men’s Bar, where Art and a colleague are talking about why the “goddamned government” won’t go to Mars and why it’s all up to the Heroic Capitalists.  The billionaires, with one exception, are men. The politicians are men. Most of the astronauts and scientists are men. Who are the women? The reporter Thrasher sleeps with for much of the book while she writes about his projects. The virtual reality specialist whom Thrasher pursues. The private detective everyone assumes Thrasher’s sleeping with. (He has a reputation for being a ladies’ man…) The executive assistant who handles all of his affairs and tut-tuts knowingly when he needs help or pursues another woman. (He calls her “kid” and she’s described as having the face of an Aztec princess.) Despite the valuable contributions that certain female characters do play in the book, including a pivotal role during the business negotiations, this still comes off as a very masculine-oriented story.

It gets better. It’s also a book about sex. Thrasher is partially defined by his relationships, as previously noted. His multiple ex-wives. His numerous affairs. He dates one woman, but refuses to let it get too serious, preferring to keep her at arm’s length while he continues to pursue other women. He ultimately gets married again…at which point that character seems to fade into the background. And, of course, there’s the moment when a rocket launch is explicitly compared to intercourse…

“Christ, Thrasher thought to himself, this is like having sex! The tension building, building, and then the release. It’s like building up to an explosive orgasm.”

This is also a book about how awesome Capitalism is. It’s right there near the start, when Thrasher, who literally cannot say “government” without attaching “goddamned” to it, inspires his potential investors by claiming that he wants to upstage the Chinese. 

“And we can leapfrog the People’s Republic of China! With private enterprise! Capitalism beats the communists!”

Yes. A bold book about how the heroic American Capitalists will beat those fiendish Chinese Communists before they have the temerity to go to the Moon. A book where the protagonist wheels and deals and has sex, or considers having sex, with almost every female that crosses his path, while watching rocket launches that makes him think of sex. This book is not subtle.

But is it interesting?  Oh, sure. Bova’s always had an eye towards the future, and a finger on the pulse of cutting edge technology and science. He’s constructed as plausible, realistic, and likely a plan about a manned Mars mission as we’re likely to get. This is pretty much a blueprint for possible success.  His characters, while sometimes exaggerated or one-note, are nevertheless fleshed-out and believable. He understands what makes people tick, especially where self-motivation and greed are concerned.

And yet…this isn’t as good as his usual stuff. It feels like a step down from any of the Grand Tour sequence—this is apparently a stand-alone, or at least unconnected to the larger series—in terms of complexity, sophistication, and depth. It’s character-driven, with very little tension beyond the inevitable political or business setbacks and conflict, making for a more subdued read. 

While reading Mars, Inc. and writing this review, I was struck by a powerful feeling of déjà vu (deja review?). Finally, it came to me. This book reminds me greatly of one of the first things I ever reviewed for, Winning Mars, by Jason Stoddard. Also a story about a man with a dream of going to Mars, who has to wheel and deal and connive every step of the way, who has to secure backers and develop technology, who has to go to the private sector when NASA proves incapable. And once again, part of the appeal hinges upon mass communication and entertainment technology making it possible for humanity en masse to travel to Mars by proxy. In that review, I said that Stoddard reminded me in part of Bova. Now things have come full circle, as Bova’s story reminds me of Stoddard’s premise.

Mars, Inc. is a fun story, for all that it feels like “Bova Lite” compared to what I expect from him. If we’re lucky, maybe it’ll give someone ideas on how we can get men to Mars. Or maybe it could be turned into an HBO television series. There’s a five year plot built in, and the perfect ending shot, right there. With the freedom to really develop the complex interpersonal dynamics between the characters, the intense backroom deals, and the fairly straight-forward premise, it could easily do well. But as it stands, in this moment and in this form, Mars, Inc. is really just another one of Bova’s throw-away thought experiments, a plot wrapped around a good idea, and a fair amount of entertainment.


Mars, Inc is available now from Baen.

Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Southwest VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who translates Geek-to-Mundane for him. He is the self-proclaimed High Pornomancer of the Golden Horde, and the editor of Scheherazade’s Façade. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.

1. Gerry__Quinn
According to Wikipedia,' "For example, as of June 2013 and in the United States alone, ten billionaires have made "serious investments in private spaceflight activities"' All ten are men. So the male billionaires of Bova's story seem entirely realistic.
2. Eugene R.
A billion a year for five years from each of them. And Mars would be theirs for the taking.
But ... to where would they be taking it? It's not like they are going to emigrate there, is it? If so, I'd be willing to chip in a few bucks to see them off. Mars, I suspect, is a harsh mistress.
Michael M Jones
3. MichaelMJones
@1 - This is true. A look at real-life billionaires does turn up a disproportionate amount of men. I'm also fairly certain that two of the main backers in the book, Charles and David Kahn, are very thinly-veiled versions of Charles and David Koch. (You THINK?) And another backer, Will Portal is... gee, I wonder, Bill Gates? So he's definitely steering pretty close to real life. The point being, it's still a male-dominated storyline, in a way that's not easy to overlook.

@2 - Most of the billionaires involved are in it for the money. Whether it's in the real estate or infrastructure needed to create the Mars One project from the ground up, or the virtual reality equipment that will be sold to allow people on Earth to visit Mars, there's significant money to be made. I might have indulged in some hyperbole with the "for the taking" but it's still a project run by very rich people who tend to enjoy getting a return on their investment. :)
Tom Smith
4. phuzz
So basically it's Elon Musk's autobiography from the future...
Steven Rogers
5. srogerscat
I'm having a Willing Suspension Of Disbelief problem here.

If Billionaries saw a way to make money with a Mars Mission, they would already be lining up to do it.
Christopher Andrews
6. DrBlack
@5 - Isn't this what all the wheeling and dealing would be about? Convincing them that there is a way to make money with a Mars mission? A considerable amount of innovation is a combination of someone with an idea and someone with money. Where would we be if we just relied on those with money to also have all of the ideas?

That all said, I had a strong sense of deja vu just from the description. Substitute the moon for mars and remove some of the sexual hijinx and you basically have Heinlein's 'Man Who Sold the Moon'.
Michael M Jones
7. MichaelMJones
For what it's worth, I've long argued that the future of space travel lies in private enterprise. I always figured that if we let Coke, Disney, and Marriott have first dibs on the Moon, we'd have Disney Luna and regular trips there within five years. :)

I can't fault Bova for telling a story about what we all know to be coming, especially with privatized space travel already a thing in the works. But this book, as executed, just seemed less...well, flawed in various ways. With someone like him, you come to expect a lot more in terms of storytelling and scientific exploration. This felt kind of dumbed down and underwhelming by comparison.
Steven Rogers
8. srogerscat

Well to be syure, But this is not the 1950's, billionaires are, I think, a fairly imaginitive group. And ideas? They have People for ideas on how to earn money.


I glumly suspect that the future of manned space travel lies in the mastery of artificial gravity technology.

Microgravity is bad for us. Real bad, we have boatloads of evidence about how bad.

Now of course, other than the obvious benefit of allowing us to have healthy normal gravity en route and at our destination.... if we can Do artificial gravity, we can do all sorts of other nifty propulsion related stuff as well.
9. tWB
Imma take the other side of that argument -- I don't see any financial case for getting out of orbit. Sure, there's a business case for lifting satellites into orbit and maybe -- maybe! -- some fringe engineering efforts that require vacuum conditions and low gravity, but barring sci-fi scenarios what else is out there that could possibly justify the insane dollars, high probability of failure and overwhelming safety risks necessary to get outside our gravity well?

There's no evidence of anything worth getting to on the Moon or Mars. Asteroids are too far out and, even if you used probes to steer a NEO into L-5, you'd (A) have every nation on Earth hammering you for trying to put a potential planet-killer in a parking orbit; (B) have to figure out a reasonable method of mining it for valuable minerals; and (C) possibly end up with so much material that, if you didn't play De Beers and ration it, it would be effectively economically worthless.

Basically, if you want to go plumb a mineral-rich inhospitable wasteland, try the ocean floor. It's cheaper to get there, less hostile than off-planet, the distances are comprehensible to the human mind, and private organizations have already gotten further than governments.

I believe that the best justifications for space exploration are those of scientific curiosity, the lure of the frontier, and the need to expand human habitation beyond our own planet. All are compelling; none are remunerative.
10. Eugene R.
MichaelMJones (@3): Excellent point about the money to be made from the infrastructure and support equipment sales and rentals and whatall. Historically, that approach is a good way to make money. Take the California Gold Rush - people selling supplies to miners got weatlthy, not the miners themselves (save for rare examples). So, the Mars Inc. business plan should include lots of advertising to build up the "gold rush", then have the investors earn profits off the supply train.
Steven Rogers
11. srogerscat

The financial case may be even worse. The Japanese are doing some very interestiing research on extracting metals from seawater. Being a very mineral poor(in relatin to their industrial output at least) nation, they of course have ample incentiv to deal with this problem.
Alan Brown
12. AlanBrown
Mr. Bova cut his teeth in the professional world during the early days of the space program, in the time of steely eyed missile men, surrounded by earnest fellows with short cropped hair and horn rimmed glasses, when supervisors were veterans of the battle with fascism, and women were few and far between in the workplace. While he and we realize times have changed, it is common for an author's work to reflect the way the world was during their formative years.
As a contrast, think of Spider Robinson, a few years younger than Bova, whose tales always have a feel of hippies and communes about them.
We are all products of our environments, and the times of our youth.
Steve Taylor
13. teapot7
Alan Brown - spot on with Bova writing the era that formed him.

I was particularly taken with:

“And we can leapfrog the People’s Republic of China! With private enterprise! Capitalism beats the communists!”

which seems to hark back to the China of the Little Red Book and Maoist self criticism sessions, rather than the strange oligarchic state capitalism it now is.
Steven Rogers
14. srogerscat
Not so strange. It seems like fairly standard crony oligarchic capitalism to me, with the Commnist thing as window dressing.

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