Mars Book Reviews

by Mac Tonnies


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FIRST LANDING Robert Zubrin

"First Landing" is Mars Society founder and rocket pioneer Robert Zubrin's first work of fiction, and it shows. His characters have the depth of cardboard, the dialogue is often hilariously stilted, and the prose is riddled with cliches and irrepressible sentimentality. But I really liked this book. For its failings, it has a page-turning premise and a taut, charged plot; I read "First Landing" in two sittings and enjoyed every moment of it. Zubrin's tale of a near-future mission to Mars contains some satisfying moments (including a believably cynical portrait of Washington politics) and not a little genuine excitement. "First Landing" isn't the sleekest Mars novel to roll out of the hangar, but it tells a good story, and Zubrin's enthusiasm is infectious.

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THE FORGE OF MARS Bruce Balfour

"The Forge of Mars" is a fast-paced technothriller set in the 2050s, when Earth has begun colonizing Mars. When strange alien relics become the fulcrum for a conspiratorial powershift on Earth, a Navajo scientist finds himself caught in a tide of deceiving forces. For its length, Balfour's novel has a simple premise: megalomaniac Russians vs. NASA archaeologists on Mars. Balfour tosses in some potentially fascinating concepts (i.e., underground Russian bases and crashed alien spacecraft) but chooses to keep his story relatively conventional. Thus contact with interstellar war machines is useful only in the context of firepower; some of the "sense of wonder" typically instigated by "first contact" is avoided here. On the other hand, Balfour does an excellent job of showing us terrestrial technology in action, from virtual reality workstations to industrial nanotechnology. And the mechanics of spaceflight--as well as the hazardous beauty of the Martian landscape--are described with a certain eloquence. Yes, "The Forge of Mars" has its share of action-adventure cliches. But it's an interesting slant on Martian archaeology and a fun read on a level with Allen Steele's "Labyrinth of Night." Check out the novel's website at www.forgeofmars.com.

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MARS CROSSING Geoffrey Landis

Geoffrey Landis' deceptively breezy Martian odyssey just might be the best "mission to Mars" novel ever written. Panoramic and insightful, Landis' story of a crew of stranded astronauts forced to circumnavigate an alien world is presented in short chapters of one or two pages. Fortunately, the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. Landis accomplishes a taut adventure peopled by interesting characters. And the rigorous portayal of Mars itself is top-notch; never has the stark landscape of another world been rendered with such subtlety and narrative savvy. As with the best of near-future science fiction, "Mars Crossing" reads with a forbidding--and exhilerating--sense of inevitability.

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THE WAR OF THE WORLDS H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" remains a definitive piece of early science fiction as well as one of the best scientific horror stories ever told. Wells' Mars is rooted in the scientific knowledge of his time; the result is an eerily plausible novel that continues to fascinate and inspire.

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A PRINCESS OF MARS Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs' series of novels is mythic, savage, and fun to visit. John Carter, Burroughs' protagonist, engages in endless unlikely adventures on "Barsoom" (as Mars is known to its natives), rescuing a never-ending pantheon of damsels in distress, slaying chimeric creatures, and thwarting the plans of indigenous mad scientists. Goofy, strangely addictive stuff.

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MOVING MARS Greg Bear

Greg Bear's deliciously complex and scenic "Moving Mars" is a fully realized exploration of humanity's expansion into space, written with a cyberpunk's visionary panache, a solid footing in real-world science, and a narrative arc that never falters. Bear's characters, and the futuristic Martian society to which they belong, are well-rounded and believable. And Bear's lush depiction of a colonized Red Planet is every bit as wholesome as his eye for technological wizardry. With an ending as mind-blowing as any in science fiction, "Moving Mars" is a contemporary classic that should attract would-be Martians for years to come.

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THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles" is a haunting and provoking collection of short stories devoted to Earth's romance with the Red Planet. "The Martian Chronicles" probably reflects Bradbury's best short-story output. His anything-but-scientific approach is immaterial to his singular ambience and wordcraft.

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MARS and RETURN TO MARS Ben Bova

Bova's "Mars" and its sequel "Return to Mars" form one of the best contemporary fictional explorations of our neighbor planet, rooted in believable technologies and a panoramic understanding of the planet itself. While Bova isn't the best science fiction prose stylist working, it's terribly hard not to read these books without a mesaure of excitement and sense of discovery. Until we actually visit Mars, Bova's novels may be the closest we can get.

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RED MARS Kim Stanley Robinson

The first of Kim Stanley Robinson's terraformation trilogy, "Red Mars" stands as one of the defining novels of 1990s hard science fiction. This is a sprawling, poetic effort that will leave you slack-jawed and awestruck--look no farther.

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LABYRINTH OF NIGHT Allen Steele

Allen Steele's "Labyrinth of Night," now back in print, is the only science fiction book I know of that deals with the Face and pyramids on Mars, and for that reason may eventually come to be viewed as unusually prescient. Steele is a very capable writer of hard SF, and "Labyrinth of Night" bristles with technical detail. Unfortunately, Steele's preoccupation with hardware overshadows the sheer alien mystery that should rightfully be the core of this novel. Those interested in Cydonia and what we might find there may find themselves aghast at Steele's somewhat meandering fictional exploration of the Martian enigmas, but "Labyrinth of Night" succeeds as a page-turner and as an excellent portrait of the human future in space.

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