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Mars Crossing by Geoffrey A. Landis2.5 stars

Buy from IndieBoundAfter many years collecting awards with an impressive catalog of short fiction, Geoffrey Landis’s first novel is a streamlined, gritty, but flawed tale of a team of astronauts who travel to the red planet and almost immediately fall victim to a brutal application of Murphy’s Law. Like William K. Hartmann, who offered a promising debut in the similarly-themed Mars Underground, Landis is a scientist who has actually worked on real missions to Mars, particularly the Pathfinder. He writes about Mars with such comfortable familiarity that it sounds eerily as if he goes there often.

Set in 2028, Mars Crossing tells of the third international expedition to Mars, following two prior expeditions that ended in doom for their crews. Effectively humanity’s last chance to show an economically depressed and politically shaky Earth that space exploration can provide us all with a future, the Don Quijote (the very name of the spacecraft seems to serve as a cynical metaphor for its imminent disaster) lands on Mars under the command of the stoic John Radkowski. The landing is so successful it seems charmed. The lander is a mere 15-minute walk from the return vehicle, which has been waiting six years fully fueled and ready to for the trip home. The Don Quijote’s crew is the expected mix of diverse men and women, with the interesting addition of a civilian, a kid named Trevor barely out of his teens whose presence is due to winning a lottery set up back home to complete the financing of the mission.

It doesn’t take long for everything to go pear-shaped. A systems check of the return vehicle results in a devastating malfunction of the fuel tanks, which kills one astronaut outright and dumps the entire precious supply of fuel into the ochre soil of Mars. There is now no way home, unless the crew is willing to trek from their location, just south of the equator, to the location of the return vehicle of the first expedition and take it home — a little matter of 4000 miles, near the north pole. And the really big trouble is that even if the team makes it, the other RV is only designed to hold two people, and there are five of them. But they simply have no choice but to get going.

And so begins a race for life, as the five survivors embark on a journey whose chances of success seem absurd at best. They must cross the Valles Marineris, a canyon that makes the Grand one back home look like a pothole. They must endure dust devils, disorienting storms, and endless stretches of repetitive and dull terrain. But mostly, they must endure each other and their own strained emotions and thoughts as the enormity of their crisis is made clearer with each passing, dusty mile.

Landis’s story is paced very briskly, a good thing for a novel whose action consists mostly of wandering a wasteland. He interweaves his characters’ backstories with the main narrative. His handling of character isn’t as good as his science, to put it politely.

There are clichés and melodrama aplenty, and often he stretches credibility to hazardous levels. You aren’t going to fall in love with any of this cast. We learn Radkowski killed a guy in a bungled robbery in his youth, and his implausibly self-sacrificing big brother took the rap! Estrela Conselherio was a Brazilian street urchin. Taken in by a kindly priest, she grew up, finished school in the US and married the commander of the first Mars mission. How’s that for bootstrapping? Ryan, second in command, has had a series of girlfriends who’ve all dropped dead from Girlfriend Illnesses like Ali McGraw in Love Story. And there’s a thing with Trevor’s brother that’s as far fetched as it gets. It seems that almost everyone has tragic family issues, and at times you wonder how on earth any of these people possibly passed the pre-flight psych evaluation. 

But the book’s most profound disappointment comes at the tail end. A mild spoiler follows in white text. Where Landis should have ratcheted up the suspense to unbearable levels over which two of the team will actually get to go home, he instead resolves everything much too quickly and conveniently within literally the last three pages.

Readers more inclined to care about the science, however, may forgive the novel’s character weaknesses. Landis successfully conveys the ordeal of the Mars crossing — its moments of wonder, ennui, dashed hopes, and barely-suppressed despair — with appropraite levels of tension. Inspired in part by the disastrous 1912 expedition to the South Pole led by the inept Robert Falcon Scott, Mars Crossing does duty as a cautionary tale about the very real hazards future real-life explorers to other worlds may face. Absolutely nothing can be allowed to go wrong on a voyage to another planet, where all you will have to help you are the resources on hand and the nearest rescue is several million miles away. And even if you do plan the best you can, there’s no guarantee against something utterly unforeseen. Not for nothing does Landis open the novel with a quote from Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who wrote that adventure only happens when “something has gone wrong.” A message from the past to the future: be careful out there.

Still, it would take several more years, and a fellow named Andy Weir, to package these ideas into a story with the capacity to become a huge hit.