After Hours

Weekend Reading: The Martian Race

In Gregory Benford's new novel, the race to Mars heats up as biologists find life on the red planet—and trouble in space.


You've been staring at your monitor too long. Relax and curl up with a book unrelated to IT, end users, or networks. Weekend Reading has your review.


By Gregory BenfordLittle Brown & Company, 1999340 pp., hardcoverISBN: 0-446-52633-9Price: $16.75 at fatbrain.com .



John Axelrod is sponsoring a manned expedition to Mars. He’s not especially interested in advancing science; he’s in it for the money. To win the Mars Prize, a $30 billion reward put up by the advanced nations of the world, Axelrod has to launch more than just a “flags-and-footprints” expedition. His crew must perform a series of scientific explorations, including geologic mapping, seismic testing, core sample collecting, and, of course, looking for life (or, at least, fossils).

That’s the premise of The Martian Race by Gregory Benford, a professor of physics at the University of CA, Irvine, and a science fiction writer who has received several honors, including two Nebula Awards and the United Nations Medal in Literature.

Trapped on Mars
A character in The Martian Race who is interested in science is Julia Barth. She’s a member of Axelrod’s crew and a biologist who discovers a mysterious form of Mars life. However, the other crewmembers—including Julia’s husband, Viktor—are preoccupied with how they’re going to get home (after learning that Axelrod has cut corners on the equipment for the mission and that the return vehicle is damaged beyond repair). In short, the crewmembers are trapped on the barren, dangerous planet.

They also learn that a nuclear-powered spacecraft sponsored by the Chinese/European Airbus consortium is landing on Mars, which will create serious competition in the race to claim the prize. A crewmember from the second spacecraft offers to rescue Julia from the planet if she will give him the biological samples she has collected. When she refuses, two members of the three-person Airbus crew set off to do their own research and are killed in a strange accident deep in the thermal vent where the Mars life form makes its home.

That leaves five people and a ship that will carry three. Who will return to earth, and who will embrace the challenges of remaining on Mars?

A realistic adventure story?
In an afterword to The Martian Race, Benford says, “This novel attempts a portrayal of how humanity might explore Mars in the near future, at low cost and with foreseeable technology. Undoubtedly, reality shall prove the details wrong. Still, I hope to sound a note of realism in the sub-genre of exploration novels, to depict just how demanding true planetary adventuring will be.”

His realistic approach and unadorned prose serve him well in many aspects of the novel—especially in the depiction of the Mars life form. It is just eerie enough to be interesting, and I’m glad Benford didn’t go overboard and turn it into a Hollywood monster.

But his story sometimes gets bogged down in the political and technological details of mounting a Mars mission. In addition, the ending is a bit predictable and unnecessarily drawn out.

The recommendation
I can’t recommend the novel to everyone, but if you have a special interest in Mars exploration, you probably will appreciate the minutiae of the mission, and The Martian Race will make good weekend reading. If you prefer highly imaginative Mars stories with masterfully rendered human drama and even some social criticism, consider reading or rereading Ray Bradbury’s classic The Martian Chronicles .

Thomas Pack is a freelance technology writer.

Have you read any book worthy of Weekend Reading? If so, post a comment below and tell us about it. If you have a book you’d like for us to review, please drop us a note .

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