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The Martian Race by Gregory Benford4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsThe Martian Race is the kind of book designed to remind the hard-science crowd exactly why they fell in love with the genre in the first place. It’s a quintessential solve-the-problem space exploration saga with a modern sensibility. The title is a slick double entendre referring both to the near-future race to the red planet that anchors the plot, and the hope that the promise of life may yet be found somewhere on — or underneath? — Mars’ cold and forbidding desert surface. This is Greg Benford with all cylinders firing.

The time is 2018 and the state of America’s space program is total disarray. NASA’s attempt at a manned Mars expedition has ended in a disastrous launching pad explosion, and it is up to private enterprise to get into space. Into the ring jumps John Axelrod, a charismatic and flamboyant billionaire who announces his plans to get the first team to Mars and bring back some real science. But his motives are hardly altruistic. He intends not only to bag a $30 billion prize, but reap millions if not billions more in licensing, merchandising, endorsements, what have you.

Among the four-member team are biologist Julia Barth and her engineer/pilot boyfriend Victor, who’s Russian and speaks in that sort of pronoun-omitting Mittle-European accent that we’ve all heard from the movies, but that Benford still somehow manages to make not annoying. Their marriage is encouraged by Axelrod, and he even turns it into a media event. Benford has a great deal of fun satirizing the crass commercialism on which science must depend in consumerist society. His astronauts endorse products like special-edition Mars Bars and do skits for Saturday Night Live. Instant celebrity descends upon the upcoming mission and its bewildered crew. But it doesn’t take long before Julia, Victor, and team members Raoul and Marc find themselves enjoying the wealth and attention. But looming behind all the spotlights is the threat of a competing mission from the Chinese.

Under the moniker of the Consortium, Axelrod’s team does get to the red planet first. Explorations go smoothly. Then, while exploring some crevices that appear to be vents leading to vast underground cave networks, Julia discovers what can only be life in its most primordial form, a deep-dwelling biomass. But how extensive and advanced a life form is it? And should Julia make the announcement to a news-hungry world with the Chinese Airbus expedition already on its way to Mars? Could her discovery be stolen?

Other problems emerge. The Earth Return Vehicle meant for the Consortium team, originally launched by NASA to serve its tragically aborted mission, is damaged, and a backup ERV is just one of the crucial little corners Axelrod cut to get his crew up and running as fast as possible. Will they make it home, or will they have to ask for a lift from the competition?

The story is swiftly paced and lacking in fat. Simmering tensions between the astronauts are dramatized convincingly, without ever resorting to easy melodrama. There’s a thick tension in the best moments, the ever-present fear that one misstep could lead to any number of unforeseen disasters. And through it all, Benford anchors his story in two extremely likable heroes. I even kind of liked the way Benford resisted making Axelrod a rich slimeball stereotype. He’s ruthless, but in his own bottom-line way, he cares, and he manages to be an okay guy most of the time despite his way of looking at everything he sees as an exploitable resource.

The book ends in a satisfying way on all counts: in the resolution of the scientific mystery as well as the personal and political crises that threaten to erupt at any moment. The final scene is reminiscent of the ending of Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, as the stage appears set for a new chapter in the saga of humanity, but a Martian rather than Earthbound humanity. The Martian Race is one hard SF novel whose appeal can easily spread far beyond the nuts-and-bolts nerd set. Pick it up today and remind yourself what real sense-of-wonder, spirit-of-adventure SF ought to be like.

Followed by The Sunborn.