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Marsbound by Joe HaldemanThree stars

Buy from IndieBoundGood gravy, is everybody trying to write Heinlein juveniles these days? Joe Haldeman’s Marsbound falls four-square into the aesthetic of the late Grand Master’s legendary space adventures, with only a handful of digressions into adult content, such as a frank (but not creepy) approach to its heroine’s budding sexuality. I had a good time with it, as it’s the kind of quick read that simply flies by, the sort of unpretentious book so few of SFF’s epic-obsessed writers seem to bother putting out anymore. I enjoyed Marsbound just enough that the fact its freakishly paranoid aliens don’t seem to have a lot of sense didn’t really bother me, and in fact, somewhat enhanced its cheesy neopulp appeal. 

I say “Heinlein juvenile,” but Marsbound is more Heinlein via a brief Clarke detour. Quick pitch: Teenage girl goes to Mars with her family, finds aliens. Slightly more detailed synopsis: It’s half past the 21st century, and 18-year-old Carmen Dula arrives on the red planet for a five-year stay, during which she will pursue her college education long-distance while her parents participate in scientific research. On her voyage she hits the usual coming-of-age benchmarks, such as her sexual awakening courtesy of the pilot (slightly older but not gorge-risingly so), and running afoul of the Cruella de Ville administrator of the fledgling Martian colony. 

It’s her rebelliousness towards the latter that precipitates the chain of events leading to first contact. The book’s jacket blurb makes this all sound more malevolent than it really is. True, Carmen and the other colonists do seem to get rather quickly used to the bizarre, multi-limbed, potato-headed aliens they all start calling Martians, even though they’re from a distant star. But it turns out these perfectly friendly beings are simply messengers for an even more ineffable and strange race they call the Others. And the Others are a bit more reactionary and fearful, as well as cagey about their intentions.

Haldeman creates a warm and empathetic heroine in Carmen, and she’s believeable mainly because Haldeman doesn’t try too hard to make her “sound” young. Often, you’ll see older writers piling on the slang and trying for any number of pop-culture references, with the result that their teen characters can and do sound forced and fake — and really, nothing will date your story faster than hip lingo and name-checking some band. Haldeman never goes near this trap, and makes Carmen real just by making her human. Haldeman also successfully handles what were potentially the cheesiest tropes, such as explaining how the Martians understand English and other human languages. He impressively never lets Carmen’s relationship with Paul, the pilot, nosedive into mawkish gloop, and he also avoids letting Carmen’s little brother lazily default into the role of cute-kid-comic-relief. (In fact, he avoids that so well that her brother ends up barely appearing in the story, surfacing only to help her with some vital task in key scenes where that’s needed.) But Haldeman doesn’t do much to develop any of Carmen’s friends among her peer group. Carmen could have used a gal pal for a foil, as Gretchen was to Zoë in John Scalzi's Zoe’s Tale

Mostly, the Others are the problem. I don’t know, or I’m not confident enough to speculate, if Haldeman’s intentions were to establish them as utterly irrational. Fearful, yes, I got that. But in the end they seem awfully dumb for beings humanity may never have discovered at all, even if we were to develop interstellar travel some centuries hence, had they not called attention to themselves in the first place. (Brief spoiler in white Conceal-o-Text: If they had a plan in place to obliterate life on Earth, it seems a bit like overkill for the one Other stationed in the solar system to suicide as well. But considering how easy the plan was to thwart, it might have been a good idea.) Maybe the ultimate lesson of Marsbound is that, if we ever do discover life elsewhere in the galaxy, there’s a pretty good bet that our celestial neighbors will be just as dumb and irritating as the people you see ranting in comment sections.

Followed by Starbound.