Adventure Rooted in Reality: Mars by Ben Bova

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Recently, Ben Bova passed away, and science fiction lost a giant. As both a prolific writer, and an editor of Analog and Omni, he had a profound effect on the field. Reaction to his passing was remarkably positive, with a host of writers, editors, readers and fans sharing stories of how he impacted their lives. Today, I’m going to look at a book, Mars, which he wrote at the height of his career, one of the earliest works in what became known as his Grand Tour series, and a book that was acclaimed right from the start. After all, the book first appeared with a blurb from Arthur C. Clarke himself, “The definitive novel about our fascinating neighbor.”

Ben Bova was well known for being generous to fans. I can confirm this, because I was introduced to him by my father on at least one occasion at a convention. I got the impression they had known each other before they met in fandom, possibly since both worked in aerospace jobs in their younger days. My dad was a huge fan of Bova’s, and read all his work, which was not a surprise, since Bova was an engineer’s ideal of the best kind of science fiction writer, creating works that were carefully crafted and scientifically sound.

While my dad admired Bova’s writing, I was a big fan of his editing. I had always read my dad’s Analog magazines, but when I went off to college, during the era Bova was editing the magazine, I began to buy my own copies, and read them cover to cover. Bova’s story choices were just what I wanted to read, and while I continued to read Analog, I also followed Bova to the new magazine Omni, another magazine I thoroughly enjoyed during that era. And as an aspiring author, I was impacted by Bova’s advice on writing, advice that was contained in one of his many books, The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells.

 

About the Author

Ben Bova (1932-2020) was an aerospace employee who became a noted science fiction author and editor. An excellent summary of his life and career can be found in the obituary recently published here on Tor.com. Bova was a prolific writer of both fact and fiction, with his science fiction career spanning from the late 1950s until his death. His work was varied, and included tales in a wide variety of sub-genres. An early standout were the Cold War space stories collected in the Kinsman Saga. Fans also enjoyed his more humorous Sam Gunn stories, tales of a short, irritating space entrepreneur with a keen scientific and business mind (reminding me of a near future version of Poul Anderson’s Nicholas van Rijn). Bova’s magnum opus was his Grand Tour series, a collection of books which followed mankind’s expansion throughout the solar system, and were set on many of the various bodies within the system.

Upon the death of John Campbell, Bova took the editorial helm of Analog from 1971 to 1978. He broadened the magazine’s scope by publishing stories that would not have appeared under Campbell, including early work by Joe Haldeman (segments of what became the novel Forever War), and Spider Robinson (stories that led to the long-running Callahan’s Bar series). His work at Analog garnered him six Best Professional Editor Hugo Awards. Bova then moved to an editorial role at Omni magazine from 1978 to 1982. Omni, with its big budget, slick paper, lavish illustrations and mix of fact and fiction, was what Campbell had always wanted Analog to be, and in its time was one of the most widely known and widely available science fiction magazines. Bova also edited several anthologies, and his editorial work influenced the entire field, favoring stories with strong themes that at the same time had scientific rigor.

Bova also served as President of the Science Fiction Writers of America from 1990 to 1992, and served as President of the National Space Society. He was a tireless advocate for space exploration.

The Portalist highlights several of Bova’s novels (including Mars and its sequel), and you can find a couple of his early stories from Analog on Project Gutenberg.

 

The Evolution of Mars in Fiction

Mars has long been a focus of science fiction tales, and depictions of Mars have evolved as our knowledge of the planet has improved. Looking back at past reviews that have appeared in this column, when it comes to versions of Mars, it is clear where my heart lies. I have reviewed the John Carter stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Eric John Stark stories of Leigh Brackett, the Northwest Smith stories of C. L. Moore, “Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum, and new but retro style stories in an anthology edited by G. R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozios. The Mars they portrayed was the planet of popular imagination in the early half of the 20th Century: a cold and dying planet, but one with a fully breathable atmosphere, and fully populated with intelligent life and strange monsters. A planet with water ice caps and canals that fed vegetation that varied with the seasons. A planet full of excitement and adventure. One of the last books I read set on a populated Mars was The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, who deliberately set his stories on a Mars that science was already proving to be a fantasy.

I also grew up reading more current and serious books, set on the more realistic version of Mars that was emerging from scientific advancements: a harsher planet, with little if any life remaining, and a thinner atmosphere where breathing apparatus was required. The Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke and “Omnilingual” by H. Beam Piper are two tales that immediately come to mind from that era. In the subsequent decades, Mariner probes landing on Mars found conditions on the planet even harsher than expected. The atmosphere was tenuous, and the planet far colder than previously thought, with polar caps consisting of not only water, but carbon dioxide frozen from the atmosphere as well. The Mars evident from these observations was not one that would support the tales of the past, which threw down a gauntlet to a new generation of writers. And Ben Bova was one of the first to take up the task, writing a tale based on the newest scientific discoveries.

 

Mars

I enjoyed this book the first time I read it, but found it far more satisfying the second time around. While I read a lot of Bova’s work, in my younger days I found it kind of cool in tone compared to other works I enjoyed. It lacked some of the things I was used to in science fiction. The prose was straightforward, descriptive without being evocative. His stories rarely featured larger-than-life heroes, grand hero’s journeys, princesses to be rescued, or evil villains. His characters were flawed, and sometimes failed. His technology played within the lines of established science. This re-read made me realize Bova followed the writing advice he gave to others, and unlike the pulp and adventure authors I had grown up with, he was writing for a more mature audience. When I first read the book, I wasn’t quite ready for it!

Thankfully, instead of being a linear narrative that would have taken half the book to get to Mars, the book starts with the landing on the planet. What we need to know about backstory is then presented in small doses, interspersed with the adventures of the astronauts. While Bova writes in the third person, the viewpoint varies between the chapters, which also gives us insights at just the right time to move the story forward. This works very well, another example of his careful craftsmanship.

The book was written in the era around the fall of the Berlin Wall, a time of optimism, filled with hope that the end of the Cold War would bring on an era of international cooperation. The pilots are all Russian and American, but the scientists represent a host of nations from around the world. This adds a lot of tension to the venture, as there are competing agendas and outside politics constantly impacting on the expedition.

While three decades have passed, the book is remarkably free of details that would date the story. There are a few references to cameras with film, and audio and video tapes. The spirit of international cooperation that undergirds the expedition has sadly not materialized, and space exploration has not progressed as quickly as Bova predicted. The book also did not anticipate the growing role of private industry in space exploration. But the science and technology that brings the expedition to Mars is well within the realm of possibility, and the description of conditions on the planet is accurate.

The primary viewpoint character in the novel is geologist Jamie Fox Waterman, half Navajo, half Anglo, who was raised by parents who ignored his native American heritage. Jamie was strongly influenced by his grandfather Al, and summers in New Mexico, where Al introduced him to Navajo beliefs, and took him on trips into the mountains, including excursions to the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. Jamie may be a scientist, but he has a romantic attachment to Mars, informed by Native American beliefs. In his first minutes on the planet, Jamie gets in trouble with politicians, including a ruthlessly ambitious Vice President of the United States, when he forgets his prepared statement, and says only a short phrase in Navajo, “Ya’aa’tey.”

One of the prime movers behind the Mars expedition is visionary Brazilian Alberto Brumado, the man whose powers of persuasion have brought together the nations of the Earth to support this grand venture. His doting daughter, Joanna Brumado, is on the expedition as a biologist, hoping to find signs of life on Mars, and make her father proud. Although Joanna refuses to engage in romance, Jamie becomes enamored of her. The surgeon on the mission is Englishman Tony Reed, an unlikeable and manipulative man who wants to sleep with every woman on the expedition, and is only rebuffed by Joanna.

The pilot and leader of the ground team is Mikhail Vosnesensky, a dour and cautious Russian. Jamie soon goes off with him in a rover to explore nearby canyons, and finds him a good companion once he gets past the gruff exterior. Based on what he is seeing, Jamie proposes a side trip to Tithonium Chasma, part of the Vallis Marineris complex. This side trip stirs up controversy on the team, as it is not in the plan. But when they get there, Mikhail and Jamie discover warmer than expected conditions in the canyons, and even a nightly mist that fills the chasm. Jamie also sees a formation that reminds him of the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings, although he does not have time to get close enough to confirm what he is looking at.

While this is going on, the political fallout of Jamie’s unscripted remarks (which were simply a greeting that meant, “it is good”) has the Vice President unhappy. Jamie has become quite popular in the news, and the VP feels he, and the Mars program she does not approve of, could become a political threat to her. One of her advisors suggests that they could try to get Jamie to issue a clarification of his original statement, and later suggests they pressure him for a statement of political support for her. When the request for political support is presented to Jamie, he has two conditions. First, that Vice President support additional expeditions to Mars, and second, that the expedition change their schedule to go back to Vallis Marineris so he can further look at the unexpected conditions, and possibly that formation that looked like a cliff dwelling. This does not win Jamie many friends, especially with a fellow geologist who finds his own expedition to nearby volcanoes cut short, but Jamie wins out in the end.

Jamie and others, including Joanna, head out to explore the canyons and when they arrive, find signs of living organisms. But then an unexpected storm partially buries their rover in dust. And some sort of malady is affecting all the expedition personnel on the ground, except for Tony Reed. Their health is deteriorating rapidly, and they are not able to explore the formations Jamie thought looked like cliff dwellings. They run into even more problems as they try to return to the base camp. The rescue of the exploration team and efforts to solve the mystery of the illness that grips everyone gives the second half of the book a lot of energy. And seeing the sometimes-fractious members of the expedition work together to overcome these difficulties is inspiring. The book ends with a plea that not only applies to the fictional world Bova has constructed, but also our real world: “Mars waits for us.”

 

Final Thoughts

Mars is a book that got a lot of hype when it appeared, and it lived up to it. It is a very well-constructed and scientifically believable tale, populated by realistic characters, and keeps the reader engaged from the first page to the last. Reading it is a good way to remember Ben Bova, his enthusiasm for space exploration, and his contributions to the science fiction field.

If you’ve read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts. And I’d also like to hear what other books on Mars you have enjoyed. And what type of Mars stories you prefer; the old Mars of the pulp days, or the Mars we know exists today. And of course, any recollections of Ben Bova and his life would be more than welcome.

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.

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