I've never been much of a fan of what's known as hard science fiction. You know: people flying on space ships to distant galaxies and the alien life forms they meet while travelling. Part of that reason was when I started reading them back the in 1960s and '70s the majority of what I picked up always seemed to in some way reflect the cold war mentality that was prevalent at the time. Obviously there were some exceptions to that rule — Ray Bradbury, for instance, is a great story teller who happens to write science fiction and fantasy — but most else I attempted to read by the supposed big names of the time read like so much propaganda.
I might have even given up on the genre altogether if I hadn't come across The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. A Vietnam war veteran, Haldeman not only took an anti-war stance, he openly questioned the us-and-them mentality and other black and white visions of the world that were commonplace in other books. It's been over 25 years since I first read one of his books and he's yet to disappoint me, and his most recent release, the mass market paperback edition of Marsbound from Penguin Canada,is no exception. Something I've always admired about Haldeman is his ability to take the standard science fiction plot idea and put his own distinct touch to it. In this case it's a first contact story between humans and alien life that he's breathed some much needed new life into.
It's some unspecified time in the future when the story starts and 18-year old Carmen Dula, her mom, dad, and little brother Card are about to go on the longest journey most of them have ever taken. They, along with a couple dozen other people — family groups from around the world — have won the chance to join humanity's first tiny outpost on Mars. Carmen and Card had to spend a year studying so they could pass the pre-evaluation test for children, and once they proved they wouldn't show any psychotic tendencies from being confined in a small space with a couple dozen other people for six months, it was a matter of hoping they would be chosen.
At least — as the original game plan saw it — when they began the process it was a matter of hoping to be chosen: but with the voyage immanent Carmen is starting to experience doubts. Some doubts are, naturally enough, trepidations about the trip itself as there are still plenty of things that could go wrong on the voyage. First of all there's the 50 thousand mile ride in the Space Elevator that takes them out of Earth's atmosphere up to where the space ship John Carter is waiting to take them to Mars. If the cable should break on this elevator it's not the impact at the end of the fall that kills you, it's the burning up on re-entry.