"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Friday, September 21, 2012

Engineering a Personal 'Mars Crossing'

Mars CrossingMars Crossing by Geoffrey A. Landis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I met Geoffrey Landis recently at NASA Glenn Research Center, I asked him about his inspiration as a writer of science fiction. His answer both fascinated and disappointed me. In the thumbnail sketch Dr. Landis provided, there was no burning-bush moment that preceded his journey into the realm of sci-fi writing. Instead, he described his initial creative forays as almost a whim, just a perfectly reasonable outlet for the knowledge his graduate studies provided. Oh well. That works I guess.

Still, there is no missing the passion and affection Landis has for his subject. Not unlike the late Carl Sagan, Landis is first and foremost a dedicated scientist. His choice to write a novel, whatever deeper personal reasons might exist, comes as a remarkably practical endeavor—a means to popularize his academic knowledge for a wider audience than peer-reviewed journals afford. Such is Mars Crossing, Landis’s award-winning opus for the red planet.

Mars Crossing gets down to business with an exploration team landing on the surface. What needed back story there is Landis splices into the narrative along the way, interlude style. At first, this piecemeal delivery of exposition seems an obligatory choice to make the characters sympathetic. But over the course of the novel, a compelling order develops with each character getting the spotlight in turn, always at the right moment to add human drama to a particular story development. As it turns out, Landis is quite the narrative engineer.

Indeed, engineering is what the plot smacks of. Priority number one is showcasing as much of Mars as possible, from its sun-seared mid-latitudes to its icy polar expanse. Driven into the Martian wilderness by the failure of their return vehicle, the small ensemble must traverse major geologic features of the planet to reach a distant rescue vehicle left by a previous mission. Along the way they experience a range of hazards real explorers will likely face one day. They also rely on an impressive assortment of advanced technologies currently in development. At times they seem dragged along by Landis’s grand design.

Initially I was concerned the novel would prove a literary letdown. Not so. With each new test, the cast becomes more sympathetic. A climactic monologue by one of the characters strikes an especially poignant tone. At last, Mars becomes something more than a dry, impersonal place. It proves extraordinary and capable of resonating with the human spirit.

Mars Crossing had one noteworthy disappointment for me. Landis misses opportunities to milk suspenseful moments. Granted, his storytelling is fueled by a wonderful candidness about everything from racial dynamics to microgravity sex. Yet often Landis’s prose displays a mission report dutifulness that wants for a bit more space-opera panache. In a plot where every new development displays a utilitarian quality, always serving the author’s scientific agenda, the prose sometimes exhibits a drama-sapping succinctness.

Then again Mars, not humanity, is the main character. And few people are as qualified as Landis to serve as tour guide. In person and on paper, he has taken me there twice, and both times I have come away satisfied. It’s also a credit to Landis, whose NASA research depends on public funding, that he doesn’t shy away from depicting the considerable risks inherent in a Martian voyage. As with his straightforward answer to me about the choice to write science fiction, Landis’s novel tackles directly the dangers of venturing to Mars. I thoroughly recommend Mars Crossing to readers interested in getting to know the red planet in a personal way.

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