The latest in Bova’s Grand Tour series, Mars Life takes Navajo geologist Jamie Waterman to Mars for a third time. In the first trip (Mars) Waterman’s team discovers that there is indeed life on Mars. In the second (Return to Mars) Waterman finds cliff dwellings dating back sixty-five million years; incontrovertible evidence that intelligent life once existed on the Red Planet. Such a discovery would seem to assure that there would be a permanent scientific outpost on Mars.
Or so one would think. In the intervening years, the movement known as The New Morality has taken the reigns of power in a number of western powers, particularly the United States. Those familiar with the Grand Tour series would have encountered The New Morality before. For the rest of us, it is a devotedly theocratic anti-intellectual movement of a hodgepodge of very conservative Christians. This movement has already effectively shut off all teaching or study of natural selection at all levels and now sees any evidence that there might have been rational creatures outside terra firma as suspect at best and more likely a secularist plot. Compounding the situation is that global warming has started to take hold with a vengeance. Coastlines across the globe are now flooded and populations are retreating to the interiors, creating whole new categories of refuges. The continued exploration of Mars becomes a flash-point. It is a danger to The New Morality, and–given daunting problems on earth–its leadership seems to have persuaded most of Mars’ erstwhile backers that continued exploration is trivial in the face of a global crisis. To the scientists, the cost of exploring Mars is trivial compared to measures taken to deal with the consequences of a changing climate and Mars offers the last best chance to reverse the forces of ignorance. If any of this sounds familiar, it is little wonder. Whether the debate is over evolution, the superconducting supercollider or NASA’s budget, these lines have been drawn before and are well rehearsed here.
As one might suspect, on this third mission, Waterman and his team will make a discovery that changes the entire dynamic–say a fossil of one of the Martians who lived in those caverns. Not surprisingly, that expectation is foiled. A member of the team (Carter Carleton, an anthropologist) does discover a fossil early on in this tale, but that only serves to intensify the tension between science and The New Morality, threatening to close down the Martian outpost sooner rather than later. Instead, it is two surprising but wholly consistent breakthroughs at the end (plus a little bit of old-fashion capitalism) that helps secure the scientific outpost.
How Bova wends this tale is sure to hold any almost any reader, from those hold science fiction the the high bar of hard science to those whose nodding acquaintance with science and method are greatly eclipsed by a need to understand the human equation. There is, of course, political intrigue and maneuvering. At every course reason seems outflanked by fear and greed, just as it seems to find hope to smile. It is also features some brilliant personalities. As it turns out, chemists, geologists, biologist, anthropologists, and even computer scientist are not necessarily geeks. The way Bova brings out interactions of the scientists in a confined space in a vast world utterly cut off from home is refreshing.
The same cannot be said of the way Bova draws members of The New Morality. If the scientists are fully sculpted, the conservative Christians are cardboard-cutout villains. They tend to be shallow, smarmy, cynical, conniving and wholly unpleasant. One has to wonder how such gang would have ever bamboozled the western world. Not all of Bova’s religious characters are part of The New Morality, some are even scientists. Yet with one exception, none of these hold to their faith with the same sort reflection or rigor that Bova grants to his angels. Perhaps Bova thinks that’s just the way religious people in general and Christians in particular are. Given the dismissive attitudes and arguments or benign indifference offered by his protagonists, one would have reason to think so. More’s the pity. With a little effort, Bova could have given Waterman and his compatriots a more complex and worthy opponent, and left us all thinking a bit harder.
If Mars Life looks good, here are some other interesting Baker and Taylor Books. . .
- City at the End of Time, by Greg Bear.Call Number: PS3552.E157 C58 2008
- Juggler of Worlds, by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner.Call Number: PS3564.I9 J84 2008
- The Prefect, by Alistair Reynolds.Call Number: PR6068.E95 P74 2008