by Gregory Benford



340pp/$23.95/December 1999

The Martian Race
Cover by Don Puckey

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The lure of the red planet seems to call, at one time or another, to almost all science fiction writers. H.G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, Ray Bradbury wrote The Martian Chronicles, and the 1990s have seen a profusion of titles such as Red Mars, Mars, Labyrinth of Night, Mars Prime, Moving Mars, etc. As the decade comes to a close, hard science fiction author and scientist Gregory Benford presents his own flight to Mars in The Martian Race, a book which shares many incidentals with Ben Bova's Return to Mars.

Rather than follow the model of a space race between mutually antagonistic nations which the United States and the USSR followed leading to the Apollo landings, Benford's world sees national efforts to reach Mars cease following a Challenger-like explosion of the first Mars mission. A consortium of countries instead offer a thirty billion dollar prize to anybody who can reach Mars, accomplish specified goals, and return safely to Earth. Multi-billionaire John Axelrod picks of this gauntlet and assembles a team made up of many former NASA employees.

The story follows one of the astronauts, Julia Barth, as she is named to Axelrod's four-member team and reaches their destination. While the novel begins in 2018 as the team is about to prepare for their departure from Mars, Bendford also covers the period in 2015 leading up to the launch of the mission. The events of 2015 don't always seem to jibe with what we know is happening three years later, and Benford uses that dichotomy well to build story tension as the reader wonders how the changes come about.

However, the relationship between Benford's characters seems somewhat strained. Although Marc has every reason to believe that Julia was responsible for getting him cut from the Mars team, he never really seems to act on the anger and dislike he must feel towards her. Other characters with reason to feel enmity towards each other also fail to display much emotion, leaving the novel with a certain clinical feel to it.

Rather than a Mars populated by Burroughsian monsters or the strange creatures of Stanley Weinbaum, Benford's Mars is based on the latest scientific research. It stretches out as a long dormant planet whose geological secrets await discovery. Julia, the team's biologist, feels that there may be regions which would be conducive to her search for remnants of Martian life, but the short amount of time remaining to the crew before their return to Earth seems to preclude her search for any signs of native life.

Benford's easy style and intriguing look at Martian geography and terrestrial politics makes The Martian Race a welcome addition to the Martian literature which has recently been appearing. Benford, as many of the other recent Mars authors, seems to believe that Mars will be the next great adventure for humans and that the twenty-first century will see human footprints on the Martian regolith. If books like this help achieve this goal, they will have more than served their purpose.

Purchase this book in hardcover from Amazon Books.

Return to