Gregory Benford,
The Martian Race
(Warner/Aspect, 2001)

Gregory Benford, a working physicist and a renowned, award-winning SF writer, tackles the popular theme of near-future manned Mars exploration in a nuts and bolts hard SF adventure The Martian Race (expanding on a 1997 novella "A Cold, Dry Cradle" co-written with Elizabeth Malartre).

The punning title refers to both a race to reach the red planet and a living race of Martian biota. After a NASA expedition to Mars blows up, wealthy bio-industrialist John Axelrod comes forward to fund an expedition to claim a Mars prize of $30 billion offered by a consortium of governments to the first private manned mission to complete a scientific survey and return successfully to Earth. Also stepping forward is a Chinese/European Airbus joint venture offering stiff competition.

Benford's narrative is satisfyingly character-driven, focusing on the efforts of Axelrod's team: Russian captain Viktor Nelyubov, his American biologist wife Julia Barth, hotshot pilot Marc, and Latin engineer Raoul -- all highly trained ex-NASAnauts. However, Benford also details Axelrod's wheeling and dealing with his own money to finance the endeavor, selling the rights to everything involved, requiring the crew to fulfill media commitments. The marketing and media frenzy surrounding the Mars matter is astutely and humorously depicted.

Of course, the expedition suffers complications: the repairs run into snags on the abandoned NASA equipment (damaged in landing) they had planned to use to return to Earth; then Julia's explorations reveal a network of warm, damp tunnels containing "marsmat," a vast, complex, anaerobic, communal, sort of plant-like but weirdly motile life-form -- a discovery so exciting, the study of it could seriously jeopardize making the launch window to return to Earth. Finally, the Airbus ship arrives (nuclear-powered, faster and more fuel efficient), a real threat to the protagonists winning the prize.

Skillfully jumpcutting the text between 2015, portraying the burgeoning excitement leading up to the launch of the mission, and 2018, where things are gradually spinning out of control, Benford is able to vividly delineate all of the personal stresses and strains with which a group of brilliant, driven, emotionally repressed persons all under a huge amount of pressure must cope. The book also spares no detail about the technical and environmental hazards facing the mission, yet the writing quality is such that the effect is riveting and the narrative's gripping pace never falters -- the race to do the science, win the prize and survive to return home being always compelling. The best part of this plausible work of extrapolation is Mars itself -- geography beautifully described and with its strange and intriguing imagined ecology utterly fascinating. Also Benford's smooth and solid prose style, fully fleshed-out characters, believable background details on Earth and Mars, and a plot full of intrigue, adventure, wit and a touch of romance and suspense makes The Martian Race a hard SF novel that's a real winner!

[ by Amy Harlib ]

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