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Letters From Mars: Reviews

Red Planet, written by Chuck Pfarrer and Jonathan Lemkin, directed by Antony Hoffman, 2000, 110 min.

Mars seems to be an obsession of the moment in our culture. In the last decade or so, a vast number of science fiction books about Mars have been published, a phenomenon which I will be discussing at length in this column. NASA has had numerous missions to Mars, which have been well publicized, if not all entirely successful. The trend of Mars mania even made its way to Hollywood, where it collided with the peculiar Hollywood trend of making two similar films in a short period of time. Early in the year 2000, we saw the first big budget Mars movie, Mission to Mars, which was a box office bomb and a rather painful experience for those diehards who suffered through it. A handful of critics dug for aspects of excellence in Mission to Mars, finding obscure bits of meaning that everyone else had apparently missed. Not so with Red Planet, which was released later in 2000. No one would mistake the pulp of Red Planet for the pseudo-cerebral hokum of Mission to Mars. Indeed, the second Mars movie of 2000 is strictly the province of military-robots-gone-rogue and killer algae, square-jawed heroes and half naked heroines, calamity on Earth and explosions in space, and so forth. A noble tradition, if somewhat long in the tooth, but Red Planet has no courage in its convictions, and the movie is a curiously joyless affair. Worse, there's no real reason for it to be set on Mars, which leaves me with little to talk about in relation to the rest of my column. But the pretence of being Mars-related is made, so all of the clever science fiction in print about Mars is pushed out of the mind of the movie-going public by lowbrow, boring pulp. With good reason perhaps: boring is a much worse offence than lowbrow.

The plot setup of Red Planet is delivered with a perfunctory voice-over. Within half a century, we have despoiled the Earth environmentally, and so a massive project is undertaken to make Mars suitable for human habitation. What does this all mean? Not much. It's indeed very likely that environmental degradation will be a major problem by 2050, but how is terraforming from scratch on Mars easier than fixing a functioning, if ailing biosphere on Earth? In any case, the scheme to terraform Mars by use of oxygen-producing algae hits some unforeseen obstacle, and our intrepid ship sets out for Mars to investigate, with the good captain Bowman (played by Carrie Anne Moss) in charge. Too bad that the first solar flare that they encounter, while in Mars orbit, starts their ship on fire. Like much in the movie, the zero gee fire looks nifty, but makes no sense. Bowman is trapped onboard a near-derelict craft and the other crew members wander the surface with dwindling oxygen and little idea of the location of the habitat/lander. It's also unfortunate that the military robot has gone mad and is trying to kill them. Somehow all of this running and screaming and gasping adds up to nearly two hours of boredom.

There's little to say about the characters in Red Planet. They are introduced in the same hasty voice-over in the first few minutes of the film, and that's the extent of their development. The red shirts (Terence Stamp, an actor deserving of better, among them) get killed off early or just on the edge of survival while the two stars of the film, Carrie Anne Moss and Val Kilmer, both live to return to Earth. It's easy to diagnose the problem of the film: we don't care for the people so their predicaments are meaningless. It seems it's more difficult to translate this diagnosis to a cure, as even cardboard characters are not necessarily a problem if a movie can provide other distractions. No such distractions exist in Red Planet, despite the presence of the robot and the algae and the exploding spaceship.

What about the meaning of Mars in the film? It mostly stands in as the new frontier, a new playground for spoiled humans, a new trampling ground for human needs. I'll discuss this tendency at length in the rest of my column, as it seems to recur in most of the imaginings of Mars. Red Planet itself captures a precious few moments of Mars the planet, as opposed to Mars-our-manifest-destiny, but the insights are few and far between, drowned out by the noisy plot.

To repeat my earlier point, I have no pre-existing prejudice against the pulp origins of science fiction. In fact I would be the first to admit the strange appeal that laser beams and exploding spaceships have over me, and Mars has always been surrounded by such things in the history of science fiction (and continues with Niven's Rainbow Mars). But Red Planet, along with its failure as any kind of character piece, is not even successful as pulp.

The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury, Bantam Spectra, 1990, 181 pp. (originally published in 1950)

I'll start the book portion of this column about Mars with Bradbury's famous The Martian Chronicles. It's hard to believe that this book is over 50 years old now (and some of the stories in it were written as early as 1946); in some ways it represents a vast leap ahead of many of its descendants. More on that in a minute. At the time of its publication, the days of Edgar Rice Burroughs' version of Mars were not that far in the past, and anyone seeking more swashbuckling adventure in the vein of Burroughs would have been puzzled, if not disappointed by Bradbury. The Martian Chronicles is something richer and stranger, a vigorous hybrid that disguises itself with the trappings of adventure and works to the purpose of worming into your mind and secreting something unsettling yet rewarding. The Martian Chronicles has a closer conceptual resemblance to Wells' War of the Worlds, but Wells was utilitarian in his use of language. Bradbury's prose is a treat on its own, working at many levels. I remember reading The Martian Chronicles as a child and marvelling at the exotic and the vivid on display, but not really understanding why such melancholy ran as an undercurrent to the book. Now, I'm older, certainly more jaded if not wiser, and The Martian Chronicles strikes a chord with me that the subsequent triumphalist visits to Mars simply do not.

The Martian Chronicles is made up of a few previously published stories and some fix-up sequences to fill in the gaps. A common enough practice in science fiction, but Bradbury writes such glorious connecting segments that we don't mind that the seams show. The book begins with "Rocket Summer," set in the summer of 1999. Various missions set off for Mars, all to effect contrary to the intentions of the men in the rockets. Sometimes this is played for laughs, as in "The Earth Men" where the men are locked up with the inmates of an insane asylum. This part culminates with "--And the Moon Be Still as Bright" about the Fourth Expedition, a famous story which I will discuss at length. The last two-thirds of the book deals with the settlers on Mars, as they re-make it in the image of Earth. Meanwhile on Earth, the same tendencies that led to the conquest of Mars cause a nuclear war. The denouement of the book is one of Bradbury's best stories, "There Will Come Soft Rains." It is not set on Mars, but it is absolutely crucial to the meaning of The Martian Chronicles. Technology, in this case a house built for convenience, lies in ruins, a crumbling elegy to the dreams of an unwise people. However, The Martian Chronicles is not so much about technology, but the human inability or stubbornness to use knowledge for other than selfish purposes. The final story in the collection is "The Million Year Picnic", in which a family escapes from Earth to Mars. Bradbury holds forth the possibility of change, as the humans finally consider themselves Martians first, but a vast price has been paid, with Earth destroyed and Martian civilization wiped out as well. Yes, it's a new beginning, but with little guarantee that things will change. In this way, The Martian Chronicles resembles A Canticle for Leibowitz.

"--And The Moon Be Still As Bright" is probably the best entry point to an understanding of Bradbury's book. The Fourth Expedition lands on Mars, only to find that no one from the previous three missions has survived and that all Martians, millions upon millions, have died of smallpox. One of the crew members, Spender, is horrified by this, and also by the crude behaviour of his crewmates, who seem largely unmoved by the tragedy and are ready to colonize the now-empty planet. Spender wanders in solitude for a few weeks and then begins killing his crewmates, attempting to destroy the chances of human colonization of Mars. Captain Wilder and the other men corner Spender in the mountains, and Wilder talks to Spender under a temporary truce. Spender makes his objections clear: "'Do you remember what happened to Mexico when Cortez and his very fine good friends arrived from Spain? A whole civilization destroyed by greedy, righteous bigots'" (64). At the same time, Spender understands the contradiction in his behaviour: "'Well, soon after I started killing people I realized they were just fools and I shouldn't be killing them. But it was too late'" (63). The story is set up with an acute understanding of the way that fools, such as crewmates Biggs and Parkhill, have a culpability that is not entirely clear cut. Ideology is at stake, but murdering in the name of ideological purity reduces everyone to the same level of cruelty. It's the same story as the speck in the neighbour's eye. It's the story of western nations chastising others for human rights violations -- which do occur; this is not an issue I'm disputing or belittling -- while ignoring the structural violence of a globalized system that creates luxury goods for the few on the backs of many brutalized sweatshop workers. Is there any answer to this dilemma? What is the ethical path for any one person? Spender chooses a "small" act of evil to fight a larger one, but Wilder remains unconvinced and he and other men kill Spender for his murders. But not before Wilder has promised Spender that the beautiful ruins of Martian civilization will be preserved. This leads to the ending of the story, which Harlan Ellison has written about as an example of Bradbury's powerful writing. The last paragraph reads:

The next afternoon Parkhill did some target practice in one of the dead cities, shooting out the crystal windows and blowing the tops off the fragile towers. The captain caught Parkhill and knocked his teeth out. (72)

This story is a clear, yet nuanced rebuke to the lingering and weird neo-colonialist ideas in science fiction; apparently humans feel the need to go out into space and conquer the unruly natives, a kind of white humanoid's burden. In 1999, John Clute wrote an article for entitled "In Defence of Science Fiction", in which he talked about some of the reasons that science fiction is a critically disregarded genre. One of his points is this precise history that Bradbury rebukes (although Clute does not mention The Martian Chronicles). To quote Clute's summary of the way science fiction used to be: "It was the story of the technology-led triumph of the American Way in the star-lanes of the big tomorrow. It is embarrassing nowadays because it is racist, technophilic, provincial, arrogant and because it is wrong." Clute seems confident that things have changed, a confidence that might not be entirely borne out, in my opinion.

Moving Mars, Greg Bear, TOR, 1993, 500 pp.

Bear's Moving Mars comes early in the recent Mars obsession, and was published in the same year as Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, the first novel of his epic Mars trilogy. Moving Mars and the Mars trilogy resemble each other in another way as well: both are motivated by a deep-seated longing for a new start, in this case on Mars. Far from searching for a new frontier as a way of extending American/corporate hegemony, this is more of a utopian yearning. Perhaps entrenched interests are perceived as too strong on Earth, and a new planet is needed for a genuinely fresh start. The American Revolution all over again? Not really. In the case of Moving Mars and the Mars trilogy, the tyrannical authority is late-stage capitalism, the endpoint of blind individualism and frontierism run amok, the greedy, righteous bigots singled out by Bradbury. Moving Mars reimagines the frontier as an opportunity to identify and evade the mistakes of the past. Bear may arrive at a different conclusion than Robinson about the steps necessary to successfully negotiate a path between the old and the new, but both writers examine the issues in the framework of interesting stories.

Moving Mars is the story of Casseia Majumdar. Casseia lives on Mars, and joins the struggle to gain independence for Mars. While still young, she was in love with Charles Franklin, a brilliant physicist, but their romance drifts apart. However, their lives are intertwined as they both struggle to gain independence for Mars, each contributing unique talents to the cause. Casseia chooses the political route and ends up with critical responsibility in the Martian legislature when events grow dire. Charles chooses to immerse himself in his studies to the point of endangering his health. He also sees the political implications of his scientific discoveries, making him unusually perceptive. The plot is centred around these two people, but there are many other things happening. Moving Mars has nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, Martian lifeforms, and so on; hard science fiction junkies will be pleased with Bear's treatment of all of these things, and I was pleased with their integration in a noteworthy story.

Character-wise, Bear pulls off an incredibly difficult feat in Moving Mars. He uses a first person narrator, who begins the novel as a naive young university student and ends as wise statesperson guiding crucial events. The change in tone in Casseia's narration is gradual, nearly imperceptible, and thankfully there are no interjections early in the narrative from the older and wiser version of herself. Bear also works hard to make Casseia's personal life believable and interesting. This is not as successful, due to some melodrama sprinkled here and there. But as far as Mars novels go, Moving Mars is notable for the grace and extent of its characterization.

Bear's Mars is a partially settled planet that sometimes figures largely in narrative and sometimes takes a back seat to the political maneuvering. Colonization is taken for granted but not the meaning or method of the stay on Mars. Moving Mars has many undeniable parallels to Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (but Bear is less preachy!); in some ways, the moon and Mars reduce to the same battleground. However, Moving Mars also reminded me of Le Guin's The Eye of the Heron, especially for the ending. I don't want to reveal the concluding sentiments of either novel; suffice to say that I was surprised that both Le Guin and Bear would feel such lengths necessary to solve their respective conflicts. I guess a safe summary would be that old, hurtful ways persist past all endurance, and conflicts can impose a vicious cycle into the future if both parties carry on in those old ways.

Moving Mars is one of the best Mars novels. Highly recommended.

Rainbow Mars, Larry Niven, TOR, 1999, 369 pp.

Niven's Rainbow Mars is somewhat of an oddity here. It's a conscious throwback to the garish pulp origins of science fiction, and Niven himself characterizes the book as fantasy. While Rainbow Mars is far from perfect, it attacks the problem of entertaining the audience with endless gusto, leaving something like Red Planet gasping in the dust. I was really not expecting to like Rainbow Mars, and despite the flaws and a lingering sense of I-shouldn't-be-enjoying-this, I came around to Niven's side.

Rainbow Mars is actually a fix up book, but much less successful in integrating the segments than The Martian Chronicles. The short novel "Rainbow Mars" was written in 1999, as a type of sequel to a sequence of short stories that Niven wrote nearly 20 years earlier. However, Niven puts the short stories at the end, so the internal chronology is messed up. He was perhaps wise to put the focus on "Rainbow Mars," as the earlier stories are often one-joke trick stories. The main character, Hanville Svetz, has to go back in time to retrieve various animals or beasts from the past, in order to satisfy his masters in the future where many species are extinct. Things go wrong, but Hanville pulls through.

"Rainbow Mars" takes up the first 260 pages of the book, and it's a little more rewarding in its pulp pleasures. Hanville and two women, Zeera and Miya, get sent back in time to Mars and discover that Mars had a populous civilization. Various adventures ensue, involving a sentient species of space elevators and struggles between other races over the elevators. The other races will be familiar to anyone who read other Mars novels; "Rainbow Mars" is like a lavishly illustrated tour of a Mars commingled from the books of Heinlein, Bradbury, Weinbaum, Burroughs, and others. Niven pulls off this homage because the events are so fevered and melodramatic. Everyone speaks in purple prose and the day is saved at the last possible moment. All in good fun.

There's not much to say about Niven's concept of Mars here, as it has no basis in reality. That's part of the pleasure of the read, as the events become more and more outlandish and bizarre. I'll be the first to admit that the book is probably too wacky, or too reminiscent of the self-indulgent rambling of late Heinlein, or some other criticism. Point raised, point carried. As I said, Niven's gusto is refreshing, if for nothing else than showing up Red Planet as boring and self-important.

One final word about the cover. TOR has an unusually canny ability to match the cover art to the contents of the books it publishes. However, in the case of Rainbow Mars, the book should not be judged by its cover, but for the opposite reason than typically happens to science fiction novels. The elegant gold colour scheme and the dignified landscape painting by Bob Eggleton--it's all wrong. This book needs something brash and tasteless on the cover!

The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must, Robert Zubrin with Richard Wagner, Free Press, 1996, 328 pp.

The Martian Race, Gregory Benford, Warner Aspect, 1999, 340 pp.

The Case for Mars is a non-fiction attempt on the part of Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society, to drum up support for a mission to Mars. Benford's The Martian Race is the fictional counterpart to Zubrin's book. Zubrin's plan for the trip to Mars, Mars Direct, is laid out for us in well-argued, technical detail. Benford takes Zubrin's ideas and writes about them in the context of a fast-paced and exciting story. Unfortunately Zubrin's ideas of why we must go to Mars are off-putting, not inspirational, and Benford's book has a number of related problems.

Mars Direct itself takes up the first four chapters of The Case For Mars, with a brief digression for some history of space flight. I'm not confident of my understanding of the technical or scientific details of Zubrin's plan, but it seemed impressive, and best of all, workable. i.e., fundable. Mars Direct is an inexpensive plan, costing anywhere from $5 to $30 billion, depending on the configuration, which is clearly far more likely to happen than the $450 billion NASA plan of the early 1990s. A brief summary: Mars Direct relies on rockets launched from Earth, propulsion for the return manufactured on Mars, and as simple a flight plan as possible. Mars Direct also uses as much off the shelf technology as possible, further reducing the price tag. All in all, it's a convincingly assembled argument, and The Case for Mars lists many converts to the cause.

Chapter 5 is entitled "Killing the Dragons, Avoiding the Sirens. " Here, Zubrin answers technical or medical objections raised by critics of the need for a mission to Mars. These include: radiation hazards for the crew, the dangers of a lengthy stay in zero gee, human factors on such a long trip, the dangerous dust storms on Mars' surface, back contamination of Martian organisms returning to Earth, and the expense of building a lunar base (which is not necessary at all for Mars Direct). Zubrin addresses each of these in a satisfactory way.

Once the main idea of the launch has been hashed out in sufficient detail, and the conceptual obstacles overcome, Zubrin goes on step by step through the colonization of Mars. Chapters 6 through 9 are titled, respectively: "Exploring Mars," "Building the Base on Mars," "The Colonization of Mars," and "Terraforming Mars." Each step is answered with a logical plan and Zubrin marches through this section with zest. But the ideas here are less attached to reality than Mars Direct itself. By the time we get to Mars, likely later than Zubrin hopes, this kind of technology will be vastly different and our reasons for being there will likely differ as well. Zubrin is best at whittling the NASA plans into something workable -- no small feat of course! -- and when he strays further into the future, the focus gets blurry.

Chapter 10 is entitled "The View From Earth" and deals with funding plans. Zubrin makes the case for a Mars Prize, a sum of money on the order of $20 or $30 billion awarded to any private effort that fulfils certain conditions, like sending humans to Mars and back. I'll discuss this in the context of Benford's book.

It's the Epilogue of The Case For Mars that raised most of my objections. Here Zubrin tries to argue on grounds other than technical for missions to Mars. His rhetoric needs to be quoted at length:

Today, a century later [after the close of the American frontier], we face the question that Turner himself posed--what if the frontier is truly gone? What happens to America and all it has stood for? Can a free, egalitarian, innovating society survive in the absence of room to grow?

Perhaps the question was premature in Turner's time, but not now. Currently we see around us an ever more apparent loss of vigor of our society: increasing fixity of the power structure and bureaucratization of all levels of life; impotence of political institutions to carry off great projects; the proliferation of regulations affecting all aspects of public, private, and commercial life; the spread of irrationalism; the banalization of popular culture; the loss of willingness by individuals to take risks, to fend for themselves or think for themselves; economic stagnation and decline; the deceleration of the rate of technological innovation... Everywhere you look, the writing is on the wall.

Without a frontier from which to breathe new life, the spirit that has given rise to the progressive humanistic culture that America has represented for the last two centuries is fading. The issue is not just one of national loss--human progress needs a vanguard, and no replacement is in sight.

The creation of a new frontier thus presents itself as America's and humanity's greatest social need. Nothing is more important: Apply what palliatives you will, without a frontier to grow in, not only American society, but the entire global civilization based upon values of humanism, science, and progress will ultimately die.

I believe that humanity's new frontier can only be on Mars. (296-297)

This probably all I need to quote.

Firstly, this is an odd way to argue. If it turns out that popular culture is not banal after all, then we don't need to go to Mars? And if some people think pop culture is banal, so what? That's hardly news. Arguing that the rate of technological innovation is decelerating is also somewhat foolish; maybe Zubrin was frustrated with the slow pace at NASA, but in the few years since 1996 a little thing called the Internet happened. Real innovation is hardly ever a strict extrapolation of the present, and the advances in information technology will loop back in surprising ways to change and augment other technologies.

Secondly, it seems odd that Zubrin would follow the talking points of right wing extremism so closely. The evils of big government, the necessity for individual action, the dangers of decadent youth culture--these have always been bruited about loudly, and this call to action does not necessarily spring off in the direction of Mars. Simply put, it might not be helpful to draw such a deeply political line in the sand and say that only the right-thinking people on the proper side have a stake in getting to Mars.

Thirdly, as a Canadian and thus not an American, this Yankocentric agitprop leaves me cold. It seems crazy to me that such baldly stated hogwash is the extent of Zubrin's vision. Don't mistake me: I have no beef with Zubrin's conclusion that we should go to Mars. But it seems that I have entirely opposite reasons for wanting to go. Like Bear and Robinson, I want a utopian experiment, even though I'm not quite as willing to give up on the chance of change here on Earth. And while Zubrin's rhetoric might be wrong-headed at times, he does get some things dead right. For example, he talks about polar exploration, and the failure of those who attacked the problem in a pre-determined way and the success of those who understood living on the land. This is more than a technical problem; rather it's a social perception, and an adept one at that. So I'm not ready to give up on Zubrin. He has done good work for the cause of Mars, and I just wish he would tone down his disturbing rhetorical excesses.

I'll move on to Benford's The Martian Race. Benford sets out to use Mars Direct as well as the Mars Prize as the basis for the book. Zubrin's technical insights make the Mars Direct sections fascinating and convincing, but the Mars Prize is a little more problematic.

The billionaire John Axelrod decides to go for the $30 billion prize, buying what technology he can from NASA and hiring disillusioned astronauts who have given up on NASA's chances at getting to Mars. After some initial melodrama over crew selection, four astronauts head off to Mars: the main character Julia, her husband Viktor, Marc, and Raoul. They arrive at Mars well before a rival crew that threatens their chance at the prize, but events on Mars conspire to throw the two teams together. As well, Julia makes an important discovery that changes priorities. The plot of The Martian Race is serviceable if not always compelling. Benford touches on all of the points necessary to such a hard science fiction work, and to the cause of inspiring the faithful.

However, Benford's depiction of Axelrod and the astronauts worried me. The astronauts desperately want to go to Mars and don't protest very long at the hoops Axelrod makes them jump through to keep the money flowing. They don't ponder the meaning of it all very long, as the cash talks and the faceless cogs in the spaceship can be replaced by anyone. An old story. But I was astonished at how blithely it all went over, as everyone cheerfully lies down in front of the steamroller. For example, Axelrod sells the right to name parts of Mars (not too surprisingly, another trait of the conqueror mentioned by Bradbury): "He even published a map showing prominent craters, plains, and mounts with their proud new names. Olympus Mons became Gates Mountain" (133). Benford is poking fun at Bill Gates, and I recognize this, but the fact remains that the old world order is replicating itself and Benford seems to be in the cheering section. At what psychological or moral cost do we settle Mars? The answer here: at any cost whatsoever. Getting to Mars is obviously an expensive proposition, so the money has to flow from somewhere. And the astronauts are physically past the reach of Axelrod when on Mars, so they have a certain amount of autonomy. But the prospect of Gates Mountain makes the trip to Mars seem much less worthwhile to me.

River of Dust, Alexander Jablokov, AvoNova, 1996, 326 pp.

I've saved an oddity for last. River of Dust is not a well-known novel, and it often ignores the trends discussed in this column. Jablokov's specialty is the evocation of the cultural density of the future. In a typical Jablokovian society, people of the future don't speak exclusively of the artistic and scientific achievements and questions of the 20th century. There's never a sense that Jablokov was so lazy as to assume that progress stopped at the point of his writing and there was no need to add an enormous amount of history as a milieu for the people in his novels. Often times science fiction lets humanity expand across the solar system but leaves that gap of time as a cultural blank (Clarke's 3001 is a good example of a thousand years in which almost no societal triumphs, failures, or detritus have accumulated). And so River of Dust takes place hundreds of years after Mars has been colonized -- taking for granted the kind of imperialistic urges I've discussed in this column -- and Mars has a rich social history. Little is mentioned about the 20th century. Best of all, Jablokov can be trusted to convey all of this exposition as an organic part of his story.

Lon Passman is an important political figure on Mars. His two sons, Hektor and Breyten (whose name is misspelled as Breyton on the back cover!), try to live up to their father's legacy. The plot of the book has to do with growing unrest on Mars, and the heavy hand of interests on Earth. Sound familiar? In Jablokov's able hands, this story is fresh and new. It seems that the Passman family has a shared history with Rudolf Hounslow, leader of a revolutionary group, the Pure Land School. Lon and Rudolf were friends as young men, until a falling out between them. Now Breyten seems to have fallen under Rudolf's spell, while Hektor works for the government to keep the peace. Except that the situation is not quite so simple.

Jablokov writes exceptional characters. The rivalry between Hektor and Breyten is another overly familiar story that gets a fresh retelling. But the strength of the book is in the secondary characters. I especially liked the character of Fabian, a journalist among other things, and his wife Egypt. They become involved in the struggle, but not in a way that they might have wished for. The struggle between the brothers is the central dynamic, but Jablokov adds enough of a cast to keep up the level of variety.

The best part of River of Dust is the vividly imagined texture of the society. Mars has its own myths and histories, stories of martyrs and fools that the people of the day use as props in their own continuing stories. The social rituals of Martian society are also richly tapestried, and Jablokov makes some interesting commentary on what it might be like to live in a stressful environment that can kill you at the slightest mistake. This is something we've seen before in science fiction, most notably with the Fremen of Herbert's Dune. But Jablokov makes the idea his own, and it's not overtly mentioned until very late in the book. Breyten is ruminating about a development in the ongoing conflict, trying to analyse who might have taken a certain unusual risk:

A Martian was used to sawing a stress slot to prevent crack propagation. Most of Martian society was a stress slot, from down-corridor duels to worship of surface death, a way of living with a situation that would otherwise break the culture clean open. As Hektor had more than once told him... (284)

From this idea, Jablokov spins out an entire culture. People might have blithely settled Mars, but Mars in turn has made them anew, for better or for worse. River of Dust seems so odd compared to the other books about Mars probably because it's less of an exhortation or tract, like The Martian Race, and more of an examination of what might happen if a Martian society develops over a few hundred years. Mars here is considered less in light of Earth and more on its own, and violent forms of human behaviour less as glorious frontier-expansion and more as mass sociopathy that may or may not be inevitable. It's by no means a perfect book, but it's quite interesting.

Writing a column about Mars is largely a process of omission. The books about Mars that I've ignored are almost too numerous to mention, but I'll do a brief run down. H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds has many descendants and variations, and I wrote an entire column about that in issue #9 of Challenging Destiny. There are many famous books about Mars that predate the recent craze, by such authors as Burroughs, Heinlein, Leigh Brackett, C.S. Lewis, Philip K. Dick, and Frederik Pohl. Of the recent books, the most famous is Kim Stanley Robinson's epic trilogy, Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. These novels were simply too long to deal with properly in the scope of this column and still leave room to talk about other works. Although the Mars trilogy is somewhat flawed, I think that it will have a profound effect on science fiction for years to come; Robinson is a canny writer who raided hard science fiction's tropes for his own purposes, and created something unique. Other writers who have dealt with Mars in the last decade or so include Baxter, Bova, Hartmann (referenced in Niven's Rainbow Mars), Steele, and Williamson. For more information about these books and others, the best and most complete bibliography can be found at SciFan (

I'll close by pointing out an interesting fact about Mars mania in science fiction. One of the reasons I enjoy reading science fiction is that female authors have an equal voice, which was certainly untrue in the past but which has changed for the better in print in a way that still has not in the male-dominated movie industry, for example. But of the books reviewed in this column and mentioned here in the afterword, there's only one woman's name on the list, Leigh Brackett. Brackett wrote in the 50s and 60s, and all of the recent books have been the exclusive domain of men. What does this mean? I'm not sure. Perhaps the narrative trope of conquer-the-virgin-planet does not appeal to women, although I don't think the problem reduces quite so neatly, along such essentialist dichotomies. Some of the Mars books are sophisticated enough to transcend the wild-frontier mentality, partly or completely, but it seems as if the female authors in the field simply have other concerns. This makes me uneasy about the Mars trend itself, even if I can't quite decipher the reason for the gender imbalance.

James Schellenberg would like to visit or live on Mars, but without repeating the mistakes of the past. He is currently living on Earth.

Last modified: March 3, 2001

Copyright © 2001 by James Schellenberg (

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Reviews | Columns | Issue #12

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