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The Martian Race

A book by Gregory Benford

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Perhaps not fiction for too much longer ... we can but hope!

  • Nov 18, 2010
  • by
Congress just couldn't stomach NASA's estimated $450 billion price tag to send a manned mission to Mars. So the USA and a group of other interested countries agreed on a different approach - a $30 billion prize to the first people that went to Mars and returned with a completed set of specified scientific explorations including geologic mapping, seismic testing, studies of atmospheric phenomena, core samples and, of course, searches for water, fossils and life. This was obviously much more than a flash and grab mission in the style of the first moon landings where the objective was to basically plant the flag and return. The stakes were enormous but, of course, so were the risks and there didn't seem to be any takers until a private consortium headed by flashy billionaire entrepreneur, John Axelrod, took up the challenge. Julia and her husband, Victor, along with Marc and Raoul, a team of ex-NASAnauts, hired on as crew for the mission found themselves facing a similar operation from China that had also tossed their entry into the ring. "The Martian Race" was on in earnest.

Set only in the very early 21st century, the familiarity and apparent reality of Benford's novel is breathtaking - the politics and governmental interference; the buffoonery of political protests launched by any number of right and left wing fringe groups with a variety of axes to grind; the media coverage and the outpouring of world adulation for the team's "right stuff"; the real hard core valuable first time scientific research; the money-grubbing and the commercial offshoots of the entire venture; the legal squabbling over contracts and the prize money; the hard core mechanics of how the landing is achieved; the daily crises, dangers and emergencies; the psychology of extended living in confined quarters; the inevitable boondoggles associated with such a mammoth undertaking and much, much more. As Julia was conducting some analysis protocols on samples obtained in an out-gassing vent on Mars to determine whether they were organic in nature or, perhaps even more exciting, whether they constituted Martian life, dead or alive, the tension was palpable and I found myself turning pages at a frantic pace. Who would have thought it possible for an author to inject that much excitement into a laboratory experiment?

Benford's dialogue was consistently witty, credible and germane to every situation and sounded appropriate in the mouth of each speaker - business-like yet casually slick for the entrepreneur, Axelrod; earthy, warm and romantic for Julia and Viktor as lovers, yet curt and workmanlike in the context of their roles as scientists and astronauts. Descriptive moments (not something I'd look for in a sci-fi entry that was so obviously geared to the hard side of the genre!) were beautiful and approached poetic in their eloquence:

"A ruby radiance suffused the horizon and above it rose a lustrous blue-white dot. Earthrise. A resplendent smudge, brimming brighter than Venus. She peered closely and could make out the small white point to one side. The only primary-and-moon visible to the naked eye in the solar system. Until now, that tiny little interval had been the full extent of the human reach. On the bigger creamy-blue dot, a million years of hominid drama had been acted out, blood and dreams playing on a stage a few miles thick, under a blanket of forgiving air."

The climax ... an eloquent statement of Benford's clear hope that "The Martian Race", should it come to pass, would result in a new Martian race, as it were - one based in teamwork and cooperation and a new paradigm of exploration and cooperative problem-solving that has thus far eluded the best intentions of an earthbound mankind. Bravo, Gregory Benford! A magnificent tale!

Paul Weiss

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Quick Tip by . November 18, 2010
A modern twist on a very old, tried and true approach to capitalism, enterprise and exploration - - a $30 billion prize to the first people that go to Mars and return with a completed set of specified scientific explorations including geologic mapping, seismic testing, studies of atmospheric phenomena, core samples and, of course, searches for water, fossils and life.
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Paul Weiss ()
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   A modern day dilettante with widely varied eclectic interests. A dabbler in muchbut grandmaster of none - wilderness camping in all four seasons, hiking, canoeing, world travel,philately, … more
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Esteemed Mars guru Bob Zubrin callsThe Martian Race"one of the finest novels about human exploration of the Red Planet ever written. "But then again, Bob is acharacterin the book (albeit in the briefest of cameos), so what else could he possibly say? That notwithstanding, Zubrin's right--he couldn't have picked a better book to show his face in. By popular assent,Martian Racedeserves top honors among the millennial wave of Mars exploration tales, propelled as it is by the skillful storytelling of physics doyen Gregory Benford, a Campbell and two-time Nebula winner.

Martian Race is near-future SF, set in the twenty-teens (just before Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars saga kicks off), which may contribute to its being a bit of a slow starter; this is realistic, nuts-and-bolts speculation on a mission using pretty basic technology. But the pace picks up considerably as our heroes--the likable Julia and her Russky hubby Viktor and crew, backed by the Mars Consortium and its biotech billionaire CEO John Axelrod--begin to duke it out with a Euro-Sino concern to claim the $30 billion Mars Prize and, of course, get back from the Red Planet in one piece. Benford's work throughout is engaging and thorough, exploring every aspect of why we should make this trip at all (and even a few arguments against it, like Mars Bar marketing tie-ins). --Paul Hughes --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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ISBN-10: 0446608904
ISBN-13: 978-0446608909
Author: Gregory Benford
Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy
Publisher: Aspect
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