A new book from Gregory Benford - an occasion for your humble reviewer to get quite excited, since Mr Benford is a smart fellow and I've enjoyed - and, more importantly, respected - a lot of his work in the past.
The Martian Race is set in 2015. NASA's big manned Mars mission has just Challengered on the launch pad and the prospect of anyone setting foot on Mars is looking increasingly remote until a venture capitalist steps in. By renting, cannibalising, corner-cutting and some radical thinking, a new mission is soon up and running, aiming to win its backer, a genial American billionaire, the $30 billion international prize for the first successful landing on the red planet.
Soon, four astronauts (a Tom Cruise look-alike American pilot, a macho Mexican engineer, a bearded cynical Russian captain (!) and a largely unrealised Aussie narrator - the only woman on board) are clunking their way to Mars on a mission plan that NASA could sue Benford for copyright over. The narrative covers this mission from inception to… redefinition.
The Martian Race is a most contemporary sf novel in it's depiction of an interplanetary mission basically funded by the sale of marketing rights, sponsorship deals and advertising space (no pun intended). But it's an uneasy marriage: Benford's speciality is the scientific community, not the business one, and the two are uneasily juxtaposed throughout. I couldn't escape the feeling that the media and big business were meant to be the bad guys, the valiant scientists and engineers struggling not only against the overwhelming difficulties of manned interplanetary flight, but also against media lowest common denominators and the demands of early 21st century capitalism (a slightly hypocritical stance, I thought, given the fact that the scientists and science agencies had tried and failed to send their own mission).
It's the scientific parts of The Martian Race that read best, particularly the later sections where it becomes apparent the title has a double meaning. But ultimately the book is disappointing.
The best way I can describe it is that I found myself turning the pages eagerly enough but rather too quickly, not really very interested in the characters but just wanting to find out what happened next. There isn't enough detail; or rather, what is there is too unevenly distributed, such that the personal experience of being part of a Mars mission is stretched too thinly across the bare bones of the mission's technical aspects.
Now I think I understand the size of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy; these days' 472 pages are not enough to get your teeth into a planet we know (comparatively) as well as this one.