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.
As it happens, however, Carmen's trip to Mars ends up being relatively uneventful save for a couple of scary minor hiccoughs with the Elevator cable and an oxygen leak on the space ship, and the fact that she began an affair with Paul the pilot of said ship after quite a bit of wine and a zero gravity dance party. Interestingly, the latter ends up setting off a chain of events that not only leads to first contact, but the near destruction of earth.
A drunken tryst in zero gravity nearly bringing about the annihilation of earth could be used by some as an argument against pre-material sex I suppose, except it's just the sort of person who would make an argument like that who actually sets in motion the chain of events leading up to the near cataclysm. Dargo Solingen, the general administrator of the Martian Outpost, takes such a dislike to Carmen because of her dalliance, she monitors all of her conversations either by bugging her room or eavesdropping on her radio when she's in a space suit in the hopes of catching her doing something wrong. Dargo can't punish Carmen and Paul for having sex, but she's in a position to make Carmen's life miserable whenever possible.
It's a fit of pique at the first of these punishments that sends Carmen unwisely out alone onto the surface of Mars. When she falls through the a thin section of the planet's surface and breaks her leg and damages her back-up oxygen supply she figures she's as good as dead. However she's rescued by beings who have been living under the surface of the planet for thousands of years – beings who mysteriously speak most of the main languages spoken on earth. Technically not Martians as they did come from another planet originally, and definitely not descended from any species ever known to exist on earth as they have eight appendages instead of the usual four of most primates and mammals, they're also more than just another life form. They're an organic early warning system put in place to warn their developers when humanity begins space travel and assess their potential as a threat.
While much of the scenario outlined might sound distressingly familiar to readers of science fiction, Haldeman as usual adds his own flavouring to make it much more interesting than you might think. Experiencing the story through the eyes of an 18 year old young woman on the verge of adulthood gives the reader a far different perspective on this type of situation than they've probably ever experienced before. Haldeman has created a very realistic young person, filled with the insecurities and worries of all young adults learning how to take responsibility for their actions. Her reactions to Dargo are typical of those of any intelligent teenager to an autocratic and vindictive authority figure, it's just the circumstances and the results that aren't what we're used to.
Haldeman's message in this well told story is there for anyone who wants to see it as Dargo uses security as her excuse for compromising not only Carmen's personal rights, but in the end the safety of the whole human race. He makes it perfectly clear which side of the phone line tapping argument he comes down on, as Dargo's continued, and increased, unauthorized and illegal surveillance of Carmen pushes things dangerously closer to disaster. One person can't take the law into their own hands, no matter what their position or their excuse. While Carmen, as the person who first made contact is designated ambassador to the Martians, is being advised by scientists of all stripes, Dargo's actions are based on her personal prejudices and carried out without consultation with anyone.
One of the things I've always appreciated about Joe Haldeman's writing is his ability to make the extraordinary matter of fact. The worlds he creates in his books are all the more believable because the characters go about their business just as you and I do. We might not recognize the circumstances, but we can see ourselves in the people who are trying to deal with them which makes it much easier for us to believe in what's going on. Marsbound is no exception as Carmen is a teenager much like many teenagers – maybe a little smarter than average, but still filled with the same hopes and doubts. We've all been there – but not all of us have travelled to Mars. Part coming of age story, part romance, and part mystery, Marsbound is an excellent read providing a new twist on an old science fiction theme. This is another fine book from one of science fiction's most original and thought -provoking writers.