MarsboundMarsbound, by Joe Haldeman (Ace Books 2008) [B&T Books] PS3558.A353 W37 2008.

I had just heard a retrospective on the sci-fi1 B-movie classic, The Blob, which celebrated 50 years since first appearing on the silver screen. For who didn’t grow up in 50s (that would include me) or get hooked on B horror flicks when they flourished on the small screen in the 60s (sigh, that would be me), The Blob featured an alien parasite that was a cross between an amoeba and a crude-oil slick, inept government officials and bureaucrats, puzzled scientists, and heroic teenagers. Apart from a very different set of aliens, Marsbound is very similar.

Set some fifty to one-hundred years hence, Marsbound is told from the perspective of a young woman–Carman Dula–being hauled off to Mars with her genius parents more or less against her will (so “Mars-bound” has double meaning and the closest thing subtly that Haldeman will offer up). When the story opens, Carman is about to ready herself for the first leg of the trip, the space elevator (yes, Arthur C Clark’s other major proposal after the geosynchronous satellite makes an appearance). At the start, her biggest concern is whether she will lose her virginity (or not) among poor prospect. She 19, but what do I know about teenagers in the late 21st or early 22nd century? This is, among other things, a coming of age story so (a) things follow their natural course and (b) Carman is faced with bigger issues. These bigger issues include (but not limited to) discovering that there really are Martians, that there are extraterrestrials from beyond the solar system that far more advanced than we, that we haven’t heard from these being because they would just assume that we exterminate ourselves before they have to bother with it, and yes the possibility of the end of the world.

Haldeman is quite good and presenting this future to someone who really doesn’t give a flying fig about science. This is a task that is far more difficult than it might appear. If one goes far enough into the future, then almost anything seems plausible and almost any explanation will do. Place events close at hand and things have to seem believable given what we do now. If things don’t seem believable, they have to be explained and therein lies the problem. One must care about science to put up with the explanation. Haldeman’s trick is to have the story told by Carman, who is anything but a science geek. The problem with Carman relating this story is that she does so from the perspective of one writing about what has transpired. This takes some of the edge off the whole end-of-the-world theme. The other problem is that her voice is one of the nineteen year old, not the more mature narrator that she in fact is. There is also one bothersome section where one of the Martians goes off on a long detailed account that resolves many of the mysteries surrounding their presence on Mars (I’m not giving anything away here by saying that the Martians are no more native to Mars than the Humans). Talk about a spoiler. This is the stuff of bad detective novels, and it wouldn’t be so irritating but that this mini-narrative is actually critical to moving the plot forward.

Leaving aside that incongruity, Carman is a fun character. For instance, her perspective on the administrator of the Mars station is almost as entertaining as the pointy-haired boss of Dilbert fame The adminstrator is also about as one-dimensional; perhaps evil is not as much fun as snarky. The petty knot-headedness of the chief administrator is clear from the beginning but takes takes off in a peculiar twist of officiousness with the discovery of the Martians. It reaches a crescendo when administrator in her paranoia listens in on the Martian’s explanation and singlehandedly sets forward a doomsday clock for Earth.

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