Sunday, January 16, 2011

Voyage to the Red Planet - Terry Bisson

1990; 236 pages. New Author? : No. Genre : Sci-Fi; Sub-Genre : Space Opera. Overall Rating : 6½*/10.
The book's title says it all - a hardy little troupe of spacefarers blast off on the good ship Mary Poppins, with the goal of becoming the first earthlings to set foot on Mars. But they aren't astronauts (NASA's been sold to the private commercial conglomerate, Chase-Gillette); they're going to Mars to shoot a movie.
What's To Like...
Yet again, Terry Bisson creates a fascinating universe and lets you spend some time there. The USA has just come out of a major depression, and the government has had to sell most of its assets - including the National Parks Department, the US Navy, and NASA. In industry, mergers are the key to survival, and it makes for some strange-but-powerful bedfellows. There is a rumor that Disney-Gerber wants to buy the United Nations.
There is a curious blend of "hard" and "soft" science-fiction here. On one hand, Bisson correctly accounts for time delays due to the huge distances in the solar system. A phone message takes 15 minutes to relay; and the crew of the Mary Poppins goes into hibernation to slow down the aging involved in a several-year trip to Mars.
OTOH, Mars is made out to be a rather temperate planet, with enough oxygen in its atmosphere to allow our heroes to take off their space helmets for short periods of time. Uh-uh. I don't think so.
The storyline is okay. Things don't go as planned (naturally); some amazing things are discovered on Mars; and there's even a "too many folks in the lifeboat" dilemma to be resolved.
"Kirov?" It was Markson again.
"She's, uh" - Kirov was shaking her head and waving her hands - "consulting with Ranger Johnson, the station chief," Jeffries said.
"Then Bass."
"He's consulting with them." Bass was shaking his head.
"Then Jeffries."
"Speaking, dammit."
"Good. You're just the man I wanted to talk to." (pg. 48)
"I can't imagine what it was like in those days," Greetings said. "The government doing everything for you. Building streets, delivering mail; how did people develop any initiative at all? They must have been like robots."
"Wasn't all that bad," said Jeffries as he passed through on his way to the bridge. (pg. 107)
Gravity is the enemy of every boy. (Ray Bradbury)
Voyage to the Red Planet has some weaknesses. The pacing is poor - more than half the book is done before we land on Mars; and there are some major loose ends left unresolved. This screams either for a sequel or a better editor.
But those weaknesses are more than offset by the underlying humor, the neat cast of characters, and most of all, the fabulous world laid out for you. You don't read Bisson novels for their storylines; you read them for their settings.
I enjoyed VTTRP, but if you've never read anything by Terry Bisson, this is probably not the book to start with. 6½ Stars.

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