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Book Review – Voyage to the Red Planet by Terry Bisson

VoyagetotheRedPlanetTitle: Voyage to the Red Planet
Author: Terry Bisson
Publisher: William Morrow and Company
First Published: 1991
Genre: Near Future Science Fiction / Space Exploration / Cultural Satire

What struck me when I was reading this near future space adventure is how dated it is. Much has happened since this was originally published in 1991 (not all that long ago), such as further (robotic) exploration of Mars and the collapse of the Soviet Union, both of which never occurred in this story. A couple of the things that did happen in this fictional tale were a rapid decline of the American space program and the privatization of most aspects of government, including NASA and the U.S. Navy. The book does not present a very hopeful future as a result, but it does provide a bit of subtle cultural satire.

It is told from and omniscient point of view with multiple characters, although the central one is Bass, an aging astronaut from NASA’s glory days. He is approached by an entertainment conglomerate to help ‘salvage’ a spacecraft built (but never used) by NASA and the Soviets, and to bring a crew of movie stars to Mars to make a movie and, as a result, a lot of money.

The writing is good, the characters are plausible and their individual motivations make sense, but the premise itself, in addition to being dated, just doesn’t. At least not much. I accept the exaggerations about corporate takeovers of government functions for the sake of cultural satire, but how could a huge spaceship be built in orbit without it being common knowledge? Why would it be fully provisioned and then abandoned until it is salvaged by a movie company twenty years later? And sunlight digitized and stored on CDs to provide a power source? Sorry. That’s not ridiculous enough to be funny or realistic enough to be believable.

All in all, this is a fairly enjoyable hard science fiction tale. It has some satire, a bit of humor, decent characters, and a plot that hangs together well. I can recommend it for Science Fiction fans looking for a good, old-fashioned story of near space.

Mars Life and the Nature of Science

On 20 November 2012, NPR broke a story that NASA was in the process of discovering something ‘earthshaking’ on Mars. John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the rover mission, was quoted as saying, “This data is gonna be one for the history books.” (See the NPR broadcast here: Big News From Mars?)

The data he is talking about comes from the Sample Analysis on Mars (SAM) instruments incorporated into the Curiosity rover. The purpose of these is to ‘investigate the past and present ability of Mars to support life.’

Because of this, my guess is that the earthshaking discovery is the existence of organic compounds that are strongly indicative of past life or, perhaps, even evidence of present microbial life on Mars. It could be something else, of course. I’m only guessing, but it’s my blog, so I can guess what I want to.

This is a significant difference between the busy folks at NASA and my humble self, a simple science fiction novelist. I can make a wild guess about something like this and share it with the world, or at least with the miniscule portion of it that reads what I write. The people at NASA are more constrained. What they do is science, real science, which means they have to question and test their conjectures before they proclaim them. They also have to try to prove that their assumptions, their expectations, the things they think are reasonable, and especially those things they wish to believe, are not true, or at least not conclusively demonstrated. They have to be careful not to jump to unwarranted conclusions, especially if those conclusions are what they hope to find because this is where we are most likely to deceive ourselves. That’s what real science does. As Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence.” Life on Mars would certainly qualify as extraordinary in my opinion, not in the sense that it is unlikely, but in the sense that it would be the first evidence of life somewhere other than Earth. The chemicals required for life are common in the universe, so the surprising thing to me would be if it did not exist elsewhere. We’ve never found any, though, but then we’ve only just developed the ability to search for it.

Undoubtedly, many dedicated men and women around the world will be spending long hours collecting and analyzing the SAM data, trying to determine what it implies, and trying verify and, at the same time, discredit their own conclusions. This is how science does things. It’s meticulous and inherently skeptical, and it is the best method available to us to know the universe.

I understand that NASA’s conclusions about this earthshaking finding will be released in December. I look forward to seeing them.

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