If you’re a fan of hard science fiction, and I mean really HARD, then you will love this book. In fact, I’m inclined to say that it’s only on the borderline of sci-fi, that it’s more what I would call science faction, i.e. so close to being reality that it’s not even that futuristic. Indeed, many people reading this book are likely to live to see a Mars colony in their lifetime. If you loved the movie “The Martian” then this story is a great follow-up to keep your imagination well-grounded on the Red Planet.
The Mars base the author designed is brilliant. She has thought of just about everything imaginable and described it at a technical level detailed enough to make you feel as if you’re there. She has hab modules, jumpships, walkabouts, surface suits and any number of other goodies. At the least, you know she’s not just making this up because her engineering background truly shows. Since I worked as a NASA contractor for over 20 years, I found many familiar things in this story, from the space technological presence in Noordwick, The Netherlands, since I’d been there more than once, and other terminology such as “frangible nuts” used with explosives to release their hold in various spacecraft applications.
By the time you finish this story, you feel as if you’ve completed a tour of duty on Mars. Anyone who may aspire to go there someday can get a very sound idea of what it would be like, from eating worms to the various hazards that abound on a planet that is not fit for human habitation without serious, high-tech intervention. There are radiation issues, maintaining an appropriate pressurized volume with the correct oxygen mixture, psychological challenges, vehicles for getting around on the surface, sometimes at a great distance, and so forth. In this respect it is exceptionally well-done. The author’s knowledge and undoubtedly a whole lot of research is evident and available for readers to enjoy. The side stories were excellent as well, adding additional detail and background which I highly recommend readers take the time to enjoy. They’re not required, but add to its richness. Thus, as an outstanding science fiction novel, I give this book a strong five stars.
However, if you want a bit more than engineering and science in a story, there are a few things I would have recommended be included, had I been a beta reader for this book. I realize that all reviews have a high degree of subjectivity, and the comments that follow are strictly my opinion and may not be shared in the slightest by other readers, especially if all you want is hard sci-fi. Nonetheless, that’s part of the point of a review, to share one’s opinion, and why over all I give this story four stars, so here we go.
While the numerous characters clearly had different personalities, to me they were faceless. Their physical descriptions were lean at best and missing at worst. She did a great job giving them very diverse and memorable names, many of which implied the individuals’ international heritage, but I never was able to “see” them in my mind, other than perhaps Yin and Yang, which were handled in a very clever manner that worked. I like to be able to picture the characters in a story and didn’t feel I had enough description of the others to do so.
The point of view (POV) was limited to one member in particular named Emma, with whom I connected somewhat. One thing to be said about the single POV is that it does lend the feeling that you were Emma and experiencing what she did. Nonetheless, with so many characters, it would have been interesting to get into their heads and viewpoint as well. The first half of the book contained a lot of description about the base and getting things set up along with the challenges involved, which could have been handled through other crew member’s POV so the reader got to know them as well. This would have rounded out the other characters a bit more and provided an opportunity to describe their appearance.
A little more conflict among the crew members would have added a bit more realism as well. This was touched on a little, but it’s highly likely that roughly a dozen people confined as they were under stressful and sometimes life-threatening conditions would have had a few clashes along the way. There was some tension, but people simply aren’t that mature and logical all the time, even if they’re engineers. This I know, given I’ve managed them in my previous life.
Another thing that bothered me was the cat. As a cat owner and lover, I expected the cat to have a more significant role, perhaps along the lines of Pete in Heinlein’s “The Door Into Summer.” I couldn’t believe it that when this kitten was taken onboard as they began their journey that he was not immediately given a name! Maybe I’m just a crazy animal lover, but I can’t imagine that someone in that group wouldn’t have done so. At the least, when they arrived on Mars, someone already there would have done the honors, since it was that group who’d requested the cat in the first place.
The cat could have been worked into the plot more as well. The base’s AI even recognized the cat as a team member! Cats are curious, (Curiosity would have been a great name, in honor of a previous Mars mission) they get bored just like people, and he would have undoubtedly had some interesting experiences in the zero-gravity environment during the journey as well as once they arrived on the base. Mine get into trouble all the time in a regular earthbound house. Owning a pet isn’t simple and it certainly wouldn’t be on Mars. He could have caused any number of problems and conversely, even provided ways to solve others.
Why did the previous crew request a cat in the first place? Pets add warmth, affection, and a new dimension of “home” to say nothing of comic relief. He could have contributed an additional touch of reality to an unreal situation. I probably wouldn’t harp on the cat issue so much other than the fact the cat is so prominently displayed on the cover. I found this very misleading, since the cat played essentially no role in the story, whatsoever, other than a few cameo appearances, where he could have easily become an endearing and potentially major character.
That precious piece of visual real estate known as a book cover would have been much better used to fill other gaps in the story. It would have been very helpful to have a drawing of the base, for example, with all its modules and such, which was well-described in the text, but not always easy to picture. Any artist would have had a blast with that. It also would have benefited by some people as well, which could have compensated for the lack of description in the text. A newly designed book cover would be a great investment for this story and thus represent its content more accurately. Potential readers for this book include hard sci-fi fans, preppers into self-sufficiency, and cat lovers, based on the cover. The cat on the cover could actually turn off some readers who would enjoy it the most.
Speaking of preppers, a bit more of the self-sufficiency side of growing food, raising fish and so forth would have been great as well. The use of heritage seeds, saving some of the potato harvest to plant for the next generation, or even the use of aquaponics could have further enhanced the story and also fit nicely with switching viewpoints.
In spite of all my grumbling above, I truly did enjoy and appreciate this book and what it took to write it. As a physicist and former “rocket scientist” myself, I found very few things I wondered about on the technical side. There were a few places where I thought about making a few calculations, then reminded myself it was only a novel and to lighten up! It provides a realistic view and excellent vicarious experience of what it would be like to be a space pioneer. For that, I highly recommend it. Just don’t expect much from the cat.
You can pickup your copy on Amazon here.
I was excited when I saw that cover, but disappointed to hear the cat was such a non-entity in the plot that it didn’t even have a name. Kinda seems like false advertising, so I agree with your assessment that a new cover would be something to consider.
Yes, it could have added another dimension to the story if the cat had been a bonafide character.
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Actually, I’d hoped the story was from the POV of the cat. I wouldn’t have minded the cat to be an engineer, or spew solid scientific information, but to not even have a name?!? Why include it?
That’s a cool idea! A new sci-fi adventure for Xander de Hunter! He could accidentally get included in a Mars mission, perhaps snooping around or getting trapped in some equipment or something on the manifest.
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That or another series…