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$30 billion is a tempting prize that has been offered for the first manned mission to Mars. Everyone assumed that NASA would be the winner. But when NASA loses critical political and financial support the prize is up for grabs. In steps John Axelrod, a billionaire businessman who decides to make the mission a commercial venture. He and a group of backers take over where NASA left off, hoping to cash in on a rich bonanza of endorsements, products and broadcast rights.
However, for the four astronauts, it’s not about riches or glory. It’s about the exploration opportunity of a lifetime. The mission is not a simple case of going to Mars, grabbing a few samples and returning to Earth. To win the prize, the mission must fulfill rigid scientific requirements and necessitates an almost two year stay on the Red Planet. It will provide a perfect opportunity for the intrepid explorers to attempt to answer a mystery that has plagued mankind for years… is there life on Mars?
However, commercial ventures differ significantly from government sponsored ones. Costs must be contained, necessitating shortcuts in equipment development, elimination of costly back-up systems, and possibly even substandard equipment. Also, a rich prize is bound to spur competition. What will be the greatest threat to the survival of the astronauts… greed, cutthroat competitors or the harsh Martian environment?
Set a mere 20 years in the future, Benford does an excellent job of telling a believable story of the first mission to Mars. There are no wild leaps of technology envisioned here. The technologies used on the mission are very realistic given the current state of space exploration techniques. Benford maintains a credible level of tension throughout the novel although he appears to hurry towards a conclusion.
Instead of starting at the beginning of the mission, the novel opens with the astronauts already having spent 18 months on Mars. The first half of the book alternates between present events and flashbacks explaining the origins and planning of the mission. While this could have been awkward, Benford carried it off flawlessly. The characters were likable and well crafted, although the "competition" could have been more menacing. However, the question of life on Mars is handled superbly in a very unusual fashion (unlike any other Mars books you have ever read).
Hollywood is now engaging in an orgy of Mars movies, starting with this month’s release of Mission to Mars. All the Mars hype should boost sales of Mars-related books. However, this novel doesn’t need any help as it stands up quite well on its own. Benford once again proves why he was deserving of two Nebula Awards. Bravo!
Reviewed by Alan
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