Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Book Review: Marsbound by Joe Haldeman

Marsbound by Joe Haldeman Imagine, if you will, being 19 years old and forced to leave everything behind to spend six years in the middle of a hostile desert with absolutely no pizza. Yah, I don't think I'd like it either. Carmen Dula is a young woman who should be setting off for her freshmen year of college, but her family entered a Lottery and trained their butts off so they could be some of the very few privileged to spend a six year stint at a colony on Mars. However, first she has to deal with two weeks stuck with 36 other people on a cramped space elevator, then six months on a cramped (but slightly larger) rocket with 26 of those people, and then six years with the same hundred or so people stuck in an underground Mars base with no swimming pool. Understandably, Carmen has her doubts about the entire affair - only slightly alleviated by a romance with the slightly older, but quite handsome, pilot of the John Carter of Mars. When she arrives on Mars, Carmen is forced to endure scarce bathing opportunities and a boring schedule of schoolwork (imagine how long it must take to ask your Earth professor a question if you're on Mars), chores, and, to top it all off, a colony administrator who seems to hold a personal grudge against her. However, I don't recommend running out alone onto the surface of Mars to get revenge against Authoritarian figures. Carmen realizes her mistake when she falls down a hole and breaks her ankle. Luckily, humans weren't the first 'people' on Mars and Carmen is about to get her own personal eight-appendaged, potato-headed Angel. This book is separated into three distinct portions of a fairly simple story. Haldeman is apparently a master of weaving real science into Science Fiction and the first part is heavily dedicated to describing the realities of how The Space Elevator might actually function. 50,000 miles of 'ribbon' from a rig near the Galapagos, up to GEO (geosynchronous earth orbit) and the Hilton Space Station, and then beyond. This is all described in gritty detail - from a terrifying, but routine, moment where a robot is deployed to repair a micrometeorite hole, to the utterly humiliating thought of a camera staring at your butt to make sure you don't miss the hole on a low-Gravity space toilet, oh and consuming your own urine because water is scarce up in space! Meanwhile, as you're treated to the wry commentary of young Carmen Dula on her highly technological surroundings, you also get to experience her anxiety about leaving earth and not being able to experience college like a normal person, and her nervous joy about her first real sexual experience and the restrained courtship that follows. The second portion goes into more detail about life on the Red Planet, along with their first contact with the 'Martians' and the problems that arise with such an encounter. The final portion shows the consequences of humankind's past, and how it might impact our future dealings with Alien life. This is a coming of age story at the core, both for Carmen and humankind. What was most fascinating, for me, was how easy to read the book was. It's relatively short in hardback, and in a largish print, so it really only took me a few hours to read. But it was also an easy read because of the simplicity of Haldeman's prose. His style was reminiscent of Heinlein or E.E. Smith. I actually described it as "bubble gum science fiction" to my father. It is very old school science fiction, and essentially came across as Young Adult material. However, don't let that at all dissuade you (if you're an Adult) from reading this. The complexity was not in the prose, nor the characters, nor the superficial storyline; the complexity of Marsbound comes from a very sophisticated exploration of a First Contact scenario and the inevitably catastrophic choices that humankind will likely make. With sympathetic characters all around (except for one truly despicable one that, though understandable in some ways, you'll just love to hate), and some of the best described/most logically designed 'Martians' I have ever encountered, Marsbound is a fantastic, light read that will leave you deeply pondering the future of humankind...

2 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

Sounds really interesting. I actually met Joe Haldeman many many years ago. I've got a couple of his books signed.

LoopdiLou said...

Awesome! This is the first thing I've ever read by him, and now I really want to go check out the Forever War books! Always nice to find a new author to love (as if I don't have enough to read already). I'm really curious to see if this is his usual style. Oh, and apparently the book was originally published in three parts in Analog magazine.