Marsbound by Haldeman, Joe, 2008
Carmen Dula can't decide if she is lucky or unlucky. Her family has just won a coveted lottery award: The right to emigrate to Mars. But at nineteen years old, and a member of the first group of colonists to include children of any age, her social prospects are pretty dim. Haldeman starts us off with a very typical Heinleinian juvenile/Y.A. adventure story about a young woman who is thrust into an alien environment before she can learn for herself what it means to be adult. At nineteen years old with no serious responsibilities in the Martian base, she does not seem to be in much of a hurry to figure it all out. But things change quickly for Carmen when fate, or something else, forces her to make some serious choices quickly. While EVA one afternoon Carmen falls and breaks her leg seriously. Unable to communicate with home base and with her suit heaters broken, Carmen is rescued by an alien creature, an eight-limbed centaur-like beast with red coloration whom she later christens "Red." Saved from certain death and returned against her will to her home base, Carmen develops a Martian fungus in her lungs that risks her life, and spreads to other children in the base. She travels to Red's city and asks for help, and succeeds in bringing humans into first contact with an intelligent alien race.
The "Martians" are a peculiar race. They have been on Mars for thousands and thousands of years, and only dimly remember the race that made them, called The Others. They believe that that they were engineered and placed on Mars as a form of "distant early warning system," whose purpose was to warn The Others when humans became technologically advanced enough to be able to reach Mars. The Martians are simultaneously complex and advanced, yet simple and primitive. They are inquisitive, but know nothing about how their own nanotechnology industry works. They have a complex signal receiving station in their city, but they did not even know what it was until it started receiving radio signals from Earth in the twentieth century. They do not even have computers, but instead have a class of Martian (the "Yellows") who pass on racial knowledge through an oral history. The Martians prove themselves to be a friendly enough race, and despite some well placed human paranoia they begin formalized relations and agree to transport a few of their numbers to a hastily constructed station above Earth. The real problems begin when The Others become aware of the human's technological capabilities. One of The Others who is stationed on the Neptunian satellite Triton begins communicating with Earth, and reveals to Red that his job is to evaluate the risk to his race which resides on a cold planet 27 light years away. Distrust and spying by those in charge on the station end any chance of convincing The Others that humanity is no risk. When the assault comes in the form of a fusion weapon that has been engineered into Red's own body, it may very well end life on Earth.
Haldeman uses quite a few themes and motifs in Marsbound. Itís a Y.A. adventure that is rooted in scientific realism, and tells a story of first contact and alien attack on Earth. Haldeman borrows pretty heavily from Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Orson Scott Card, Greg Bear, James Gunn and Larry Niven, but blends it all together pretty well. Haldeman also uses linguistics in a passable way, but just barely. The Others evolved in a super cold environment, and because of that they move very slow physically, but have a very quick speed of thought. Their environment is so cold that their brains are essentially superconductors. Because of this they are unable to communicate at all with "water/carbon" races, so they engineered the Martians and the creature on Triton as intermediaries, translators and tools. At the time of first contact the Martians have had spent so much time on Mars that they have developed their own culture, and seem to have a natural affinity for humans who they have much more in common with. Despite that, and the wholesomeness of their actions and deeds, the Martians are never really trusted.
The one problem that I had with the book was Dargo's character. Dargo was the base administrator, and my problem was that her bitchiness was never explained, other than Carmen's rationalization that she "hates kids." At first I resigned myself to putting up with her flat character. After all, every Y.A. book that comes out these days needs a bitchy and evil foil for the main character. But the Y.A. characteristics dropped off in the latter parts of the book after Carmen had aged several years. Haldeman never went back and explained her motivations any better than when Carmen was a kid. The resolution of the book turns quite a bit on her actions, and I never thought I had any understanding of why she did what she did, other than the fact that she was the "bad-guy." Additionally the rest of the book is not written very well. The seams of the narrative are pretty visible. It is full of the sarcastic wit and humor that makes a Haldeman book worth the effort, but it doesn't save the book from being pedantic and plodding. Most of the humorous parts are scatological, for example, about zero-g toilets, Carmen says:
The zero-gee toilet wasn't bad once you got used to it. It uses flowing air instead of water, and you have to pee into a kind of funnel, which is different. The crapper is only four inches in diameter, and it uses a little camera to make sure you're centered. A little less attractive than my yearbook picture.
Actually, there is quite a bit of potty humor in this book. But given the calisthenics that people have to go through to crap in zero-g, I imagine that it would be on everyone's mind all the time. Ill just chalk this one up to realism too.
Even if a reader were to find this story interesting, I'm afraid that there is really nothing new. The authors I mentioned above have collectively covered just about everything here in their own books. Haldeman's protagonist is a bit older than the typical Y.A. main character, so he puts her through the horror of sexual experimentation as well as the chaos and loneliness of one's teenage years. Carmen gets herself caught up in a sex scandal too, which did not help her touchy relationship with Dargo. But the coming-of-age motifs disappear between the second and third acts of the story when Haldeman jumps ahead five years from first contact with the Martians to first contact with The Others. Haldeman's characters may be young, but they are certainly not naive, and know well that Red may be lying to them. They also know that if he is, they and the human race will probably die quick deaths, as The Others have no interest in allowing humanity the opportunity to reach them first. Haldeman does show a strong understanding of human nature and psychology, But unfortunately it feels like he's phoning it in.
Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell