I was offered a review copy of Mars Life by Ben Bova — it’s the first time I’ve agreed to review something sight-unseen. I don’t read as much hard-sf as space opera, so this will be a bit different than most reviews I plan for future posts, but hey, I’m game….
Mars Life concludes the saga started by Mars and Return to Mars, but explains itself well enough from the start that it can easily be read on its own. As the title suggests, the plot revolves around the controversial discovery of ancient, now-extinct intelligent life on Mars, and how this discovery impacts (and is impacted by) religious and political movements back home. The author earnestly expresses his opinions in the book, and as such, it may not be for all fans. Since the plot deals with very current hot-points, I have a feeling people will either love the religious and political angles, or find them profoundly offensive.
The setting is what I call “plausible future” — respecting physical/natural constraints, technology has clearly advanced, yet nothing mentioned strikes the reader as particularly far-fetched. The Moon is its own nation, with permanent colonies; a base has been established on Mars. The book has a lot of science in it, but doesn’t overload the reader with jargon.
One aspect of Mars Life I find particularly intriguing is how the governing of Mars is handled. According to the Outer Space Treaty, “outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” If a nation wishes to claim exclusive use of a celestial body, however, they can do so, and their claim will be maintained as long as at least one citizen of that nation is in residence — no idea if this is a genuine legal loophole, or one fabricated for the purpose of the story. Mars exploration, therefore, is governed by the Navajo nation, fully ratified by the international community. A fascinating choice — and an appropriate one, in the context of the story! (I presume the other two books expand on how Mars came to be Navajo-governed.)
My stylistic issues with the book are expressed by one reviewer (covering a different book in the Grand Tour series), who complained of “too many characters with too many agendas.” If I could add, “in too many locations”, that would about sum it up. It must just be part of the author’s writing style; the tumult of people and places was overwhelming at times.
I admit, I did not enjoy this book. The author’s portrayal of Western religion is deliriously misinformed by opinions clearly based on the most extreme fundamentalist views. These opinions do not intersect reality. Beyond that, the author lacks sufficient knowledge in the beliefs he lambasts — believers may find themselves questioning their faith at any point in life, but to have an elderly priest asking why God is mean to people is unrealistic at best. A minimal amount of research yields ample explanation for that basic question. (Had he done so, he could have picked something more appropriate?) Christians are referred to as “psalm-singing sons-of-bitches” repeatedly in the text; I’d be interested to see evidence of the scientific community being similarly attacked, to give rise to such grossly offensive slurs?
Unfortunately for the reader, Mars Life‘s sole purpose is to deliver the author’s view of current affairs in the United States, especially conflicts between the scientific community and Christianity (intelligent design, global warming, Darwin, etc.) As such, the book is a conceit, and I have little appreciation for conceits. Mr. Bova writes for a very specific audience, and it’s clear that audience doesn’t include me.