Review of MARS LIFE by Ben Bova (see his website)
Tor, August 2008
Scientists have made an incredible discovery--structures left behind by intelligent beings on the planet Mars. These beings appear to have been wiped out in the same destruction that eliminated dinosaurs and most other life from Earth, but they left behind writings, and possibly other remains buried deep beneath Mars's surface. Unfortunately, the scientific mission to Mars is split by personalities and under attack by increasingly powerful and anti-science religious groups. These groups have not only lobbied the government to eliminate direct subsidies for science of any type, they also lead boycotts of companies who support science through private contributions, as well as encourage parents (and intollerant children) to cut off all contact between themselves and scientific research.
With the Mars mission he's dedicated his life to on the brink of collapse, Jamie Waterman resolves to return to Mars, to find a way to make the program continue--despite all of the obstacles to success. Waterman must find a way to resolve the political bickering on Mars, persuade Seline colony (on the moon) to take over funding responsibilities abdicated by Earth, and find some way to overcome the deliberate ignoring of scientific evidence by the people back on Earth. Even his allies doubt he can be successful, are proposing programs he'll never be able to support (e.g., tourism-funded Mars projects), and the Mars writing remains hopelessly stuck--lacking a Rosetta Stone to make it intelligible.
Author Ben Bova (see more BooksForABuck.com reviews of novels by Bova) provides a grim but not too way-out look at a world (Earth) beset by runaway global warming, increasingly dominated by ultra-religious fanatics who share a hatred for the science that proves many of their cherished beliefs to be false, and unable to overcome its fear of progress. Even Bova's heroes, especially anthropologist Carter Carleton, in charge of the excavation of a suspected Mars village, are deeply flawed--being a scientist doesn't make a person perfect, after all. As time ticks down and the evacuation of the Mars mission seems inevitable, Waterman still struggles to bring the Mars scientists together around a unified goal--or even around the idea that a single goal is appropriate.
The strength of Bova's story lies in its view of a dangerous future in which the intollerant and ignorant have largely succeeded in shutting down the voice of science. A few characters, especially priest DiNardo, stand out as fully fleshed and interesting. As a priest and scientist, DiNardo wrestles with his faith, his science and a God who can permit so much suffering and evil to exist. Most of the other characters are less fully developed, furthering the story but not really engaging the reader's interest. (Bova tends to write plot-centered rather than character-centered stories).
I found the ending to be hopeful and enjoyable--although a bit far-fetched. Still, what Bova is really trying to do is remind us that while science can have both positive and negative aspects, ignorance is surely evil and must be fought. While Bova's delivery is occasionally heavy-handed, in today's world, this is a message that needs to be heard.
Too generous? Too stingy. Or did I miss the whole point? Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll publish the best letters I get so let me know if I can use your name.