A Princess of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs

Burroughs is better known for his Tarzan books, but he actually shot to fame with the John Carter books (starting with this one) about the adventures of a Civil War veteran from Virginia on Mars.

These books have a big role in SciFi folklore. While the adventure is engaging, I found the character of John Carter himself (the novel is narrated in the first person) a bit off-putting. He is rather full of himself as only an expert in self deprecation can be. Perhaps it is just a bit too dated for me. So while the old fashioned writing style was manageable, I was a bit disappointed with the whole thing due to the annoyingly condescending attitudes displayed. It is high adventure in any case, complete with absurd situations and plenty of flirts with deus ex machina.

Test of Fire – Ben Bova

Although a bit dated, and somewhat simplistic, this rough and ready tale of Martian grassroots insurrection is fun. The coming of age story contained within is, although not terribly original, well written and engaging. If you can look past the nineteen seventies vintage stuff, this will keep you entertained for an evening or two.

Red Lightning (Thunder and Lightning II) – John Varley

The sequel to the wonderful Red Thunder does not disappoint. A generation after the events of Red Thunder, the children of Ray Garcia and Kelly Strickland are growing up on Mars. An unexplained impact in the Atlantic and a consequent tsunami to dwarf all previous tsunamis are catalysts for the action. But this is not a disaster novel. It’s a novel about how Ray Garcia-Strickland grows from just another teenager into a man. Told strictly in Varley’s favored first person, we see the world through the eyes of an adolescent who wants to be a man but hasn’t quite figured out how yet. The tone is authentic and as usual Varley delivers on his characters. Thoroughly well imagined and believable, they feel like old friends by the end.

Varley’s novels, and especially the Red Thunder series, leave me with a feeling of well being after every section I read. The characters are so likeable and authentic it makes me want to be with them, in their world. Add to that the long section set in a fascism-leaning America logically and quite frighteningly extrapolated from today’s fear of terrorism as a convenient excuse for governmental power grabbing (the historical parallels are remarkably sinister), and it makes for a great novel.

Red Thunder (Thunder and Lightning I) – John Varley

RedThunderFor some odd reason I had never read Varley, an author who was first published in 1977, before I picked up this book. After this experience, I realized my mistake. Red Thunder makes some rather preposterous assumptions in order to underpin a story. A decade or two from now, two lower class Florida youngsters dream of going to space. They and their girlfriends accidentally run into (actually run over) an ex astronaut who has fallen from grace. Said ex astronaut has a quasi autistic genius cousin who has accidentally invented an immensely efficient and cheap form of energy generation/propulsion. Seeing as the Chinese are on their way to being first to Mars and the American expedition will not only be second, but may well have an accident on the way, this motley crew builds a spaceship.

Appalled yet? Most authors would have made a hash of this and turned out unreadable drivel. But Varley concentrates on the people aspect. The whole thing becomes an excellent, funny and exciting coming of age story.

 

Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein

This classic novel tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised on Mars, by Martians. He is brought “back” to Earth and soon whisked away by a nurse and a reporter. He can perform seemingly miraculous feats of bodily control, telekinesis, and more. He ends up at the house of Jubal Harshaw, author, professional cynic and bon vivant; a man who surrounds himself with three secretaries to take down prose or poetry at any time. “Mike” Smith, the “Man from Mars”, after an education at the hands of Jubal, goes out into the world, spreading his ideas about sharing, love and “grokking” under the guise of a new religion.

Stranger in a Strange Land is widely acclaimed as a genre classic, and I cannot help but agree. The evolution of Smith from uncommunicative quasi-cripple with the blank mind of a baby to mental giant with a huge following is masterfully described. Jubal Harshaw (Heinlein’s “ideal” alter-ego, perhaps?) is equally interesting as a character, with his honest modesty but sharp intellect and wisdom. The book is VERY heavy on the dialogue and rather light on the action. The risk an author takes with an reliance on dialogue is that the whole things becomes rather boring and long-winded. Such is not the case here. The characters talk about interesting things as wide ranging as religion, politics, art, jurisprudence and morality. Furthermore, they actually learn stuff and develop as people as they do so. They do not merely talk to support the action. Their talking IS the action. The view of females is somewhat rooted in the 50s and 60s but even so Heinlein was being rather “modern” in his views. The views expressed are very interesting, especially since Heinlein doesn’t take the obvious (for scifi) route of dismissing religion as nonsense. THAT really intrigued me. The way he manages to meld religion into Smith’s “message” is mindblowing. This is not the lightest of reads but I must recommend it. It is both interesting and entertaining but most importantly it makes the reader think long and hard about the accepted truths of our society.

Voyage – Stephen Baxter

Definitely my favorite Baxter. Unlike most Baxter fare, there is no “big thinking”, no Xeelee, no looming destruction of the universe. It is, quite simply, a novel of what might have been (and very nearly was) if NASA had been allowed to continue in the footsteps of Apollo all the way to Mars. It is written in parallel perspectives, looking at the mission itself as it runs its course, and at the preparations, political wangling and engineering that precede it. The heroine, Natalie York, is followed closely as Baxter explores her long personal journey in parallel with the preparations, as it becomes clear to the reader (and to herself) just how much one has to sacrifice to become an astronaut. The quiet geologist becomes an astronaut and an unwilling hero as she reaches for the ultimate prize of both her professions. Despite being fiction, it is in my opinion one of the best portrayals of the culture and politics of NASA during the Apollo and post-Apollo era.

Baxter did in fact apply to be an astronaut. Unfortunately, he was required to speak a foreign language and thus failed to get in. In Voyage, his love of astronautics and space exploration clearly shows. If you liked the movie Apollo 13, you will enjoy this book.