William K. Hartmann,
Mars Underground
(Tor, 1999)

William K. Hartmann is a working American scientist who has participated in many Mars missions, including the current U.S. Mars Global Surveyor effort, and has written many books of non-fiction and technical articles. His first novel, a work of hard science fiction about the near future of human settlements on Mars, Mars Underground quickly reveals that Hartmann knows whereof he speaks.

Set in the year 2031, the story concerns the disappearance of biologist Alwyn Stafford, the Grand Old Man of Mars, after he takes a dune buggy into the Hellespontus desert to examine an artifact that turns out to be an old Russian probe, Mars-2. Following along the trail to search for Stafford is his close friend, troubleshooter Carter Jahns (the moniker being a sly nod to Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic fantasy version of the fourth planet), accompanied by Mars Colony's artist-in-residence Philippe Brache and visiting journalist, the plucky and resourceful Annie Pohaku (of fascinating Hawaiian background). Investigating the mystery, Carter figures out that Stafford had been picked up and flown to the South Polar Station, a faked disappearance and cover-up. To find out why that was necessary, Carter, Philippe and Annie journey to the pole to inquire, but the neo-cold-warrior head of security Doug Sturgis stonewalls and holds them incommunicado. It turns out that Staffod is alive and well and ensconced at the pole to use his expertise to help in the examination of a momentous discovery that will change the lives of everyone on Mars -- and redefine humanity's place in the cosmos. Our intrepid protagonists manage to get the word out and the resulting consequences are believably and paradoxically profound and ironic.

Hartmann is a skilled writer, managing to combine a dramatic, character-driven plot with loving and vivid depictions of Martian terrain and geology. Mars becomes as much a character as the three protagonists, whose romantic triangular relationship is well-developed and engrossing for its surprising harmony. The author also uses his expertise to provide for his novel a detailed background delineating humanity's founding of a colony on Mars, the impact of that colony's foundation on Earth and the subsequent changes on Earth. Hartmann is also quite perceptive in showing how, in the media, Mars -- which when first established, represented so much for Earth's future -- has become yesterday's news. The author uses this poignant irony of the home planet's minuscule capacity for wonder and lack of interest in absorbing knowledge, to underscore the ultimate message of Mars Underground -- the necessity to look beyond ourselves and appreciate the world around us so that the small but vital things that happen in our lives can be equally valued.

Mars Underground, by having such deeper meanings serving as subtexts beneath the entertaining narrative that builds to a satisfying climax, is a science fiction novel that deserves a place besides the other excellent Martian novels that have been published recently. That Hartmann's book is also a convincing and believable extrapolation from modern science to explain the settlement of a new world and to convey the excitement of exploration and discovery is icing on the delicious Martian cake.

[ by Amy Harlib ]

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