Zubrin's Mars Novel Envisions First Steps
by Ari Armstrong, July 9, 2003
"Life to Mars, Mars to Life."
Perhaps no person has done more to make that goal a reality than Robert Zubrin. Zubrin, formerly a scientist with Martin Marietta Astronautics and currently the president of the Mars Society, spoke at the Colorado LP Convention earlier this year. The author of The Case for Mars, Zubrin also has a credit for consulting in the film Mission to Mars.
In 2001, Zubrin published a novel, First Landing, and I regret it took me so long to buy a copy and read it.
Zubrin describes a Mars mission that begins in 2011. The technology for such a mission exists today, as he explains in his previous book, and the fictional mission is based on the plan Zubrin played a major role in developing. Only financing and the work of a team to implement the plan are needed to make Zubrin's vision a reality.
The details of setting up camp on Mars are explained in detail, as one might expect in a hard-science fiction novel. But the story line does not revolve around the challenges of conducting the first human mission to Mars. Instead, the plot involves political intrigue back on Earth and the personality conflicts among the five-member crew. A series of improbable "accidents" has the crew wondering if sabotage is involved and, if so, if the responsible party is on Earth or on Mars.
In some respects, the story would have been more satisfying had it involved only the inherent challenges of Mars. After all, the sort of problems Zubrin describes are unlikely on a real mission. On the other hand, Zubrin creates a scenario in which survival on Mars takes priority over scientific studies. He also puts in concrete form a number of very real political and cultural problems that impede the exploration of space.
Fickle politicians are perhaps the single greatest obstacle to opening up the "final frontier." The government space program is at best lackluster, and arguably a hindrance to real progress (as Victor Koman posits in his novel, Kings of the High Frontier.) While Zubrin shares many libertarian sentiments, he basically is looking for a government-sponsored Mars program. However, he recognizes politics is a risky and uncertain business, and programs are subject to short-term special-interests. Shifting political winds place Zubrin's Mars crew in grave danger. Even if the scenario Zubrin lays out is overly dramatized, the underlying political problems are very real. (Zubrin's novel was written before the last explosion of the space shuttle, an event that raises troubling questions about the way NASA is organized.)
Likewise, the personality conflicts between the crew members are perhaps overplayed. But they are rooted in real conflicts in today's culture. Specifically, some of a conservative religious background tend to find common cause with the anti-technology left in opposing progress. Zubrin describes such a coalition on Earth that threatens the very survival of the crew on Mars.
At the same time, Zubrin adds to his Mars mission a religious conservative person and a progressive liberal one. Implicitly, then, Zubrin is arguing the nasty anti-space coalition on Earth isn't representative of either the left or the right, but rather a perverted variant of both. The Mars crew represents a (sometimes tense) collaboration among people of very different backgrounds and ideologies. In other words, Mars is for everybody.
Zubrin does some very nice things with his characters (especially considering it's his first novel and he specializes in non-fiction writing). The crew consists of a Christian engineer, a liberal biologist, a Texas geologist, a military pilot, and an egg-head historian. The first two on the list are women, by the way, which plays not an insignificant role in the plot.
The most interesting development of character comes with the historian, who was put on the mission more for political reasons than because he was really needed. He has a crush on the biologist. I can't discuss his ultimate significance to the mission, as that would reveal too much of the plot, but the story works well.
At the end of Zubrin's novel, the story evolves from one of political conflict and the struggle to survive into one that touches on the very meaning of what it means to be human. We still don't know if Mars is a dead planet or if it once hosted life. What we do know is that Mars can host life -- human life. And in so doing, Mars may breathe new life into human civilization.