NESFA Members' Reviews

First Landing

by Robert Zubrin

Ace, 2002 [2001], ISBN 0-441-00963-8

A book review by Elisabeth Carey

Zubrin is the author or editor of multiple nonfiction books about space exploration and expeditions to Mars, including The Case for Mars, was a technical consultant on the movie Mission to Mars, and is the founder and current president of the Mars Society. This is his first novel, its subject is his professional obsession, the first manned expedition to Mars, and it has a technical appendix.

All this naturally caused me to approach First Landing with some trepidation.

The good news is that Zubrin gives us a solid, entertaining plot. The five-person crew of the Beagle manages a safe landing on Mars after the first of numerous malfunctions, far too many to be the product of mere coincidence. It soon becomes clear that they have a saboteur working against their survival and return to Earth. When they find primitive life on Mars, political forces on Earth manipulate this into a public panic, demanding that they not be allowed to return, and that they be shot down if they try to return anyway. Fighting the saboteur, equipment not intended to last as long or do as much as they need to make their new launch window, and stresses among the c rew, the three men and two women find ways to stretch their supplies, grow more food, and even refuel their return vehicle after the saboteur vents the original fuel supply. (Not that that's the last of their disasters. By no means.)

That's the good news.

The bad news is that the level of characterization is almost unbelievably low. These characters are not cardboard; they're tissue paper. Among the crew, we have:

Colonel Andrew Townsend, Air Force fighter jock. He's one of three people in the book, the others being a cynical fundamantalist preacher, and the president, who have any detectible living relatives--in his case, a wife and two children. I could almost like this character, except that when necessary for plot purposes, he suddenly becomes relentlessly by-the-book at risk of losing the mission altogether. Later on, he almost vetoes the only possible plan for saving all their lives because it's ungentlemanly to have ladies (Llewellyn and Sherman--a career army engineer who's seen combat, and a scientist who not only volunteered but worked very hard to get chosen for this expedition) do heavy labor. Neither of these incidents is consistent with what minimal other characterization Townsend gets.

Major Guenevere Llewellyn, coal miner's daughter, engineer, redneck, Bible-thumping fundamentalist, who claims the Bible says there's no life on other planets. This false, she knows it, she tells McGee she said it only to score a point against--

Dr. Rebecca Sherman. The good Major describes the doctor as a "liberal atheist bitch." Sadly, the depth of the characterization in this book is such that this is not inaccurate. She's politically liberal, from New York City (Central Park West, we're reminded more than once), an atheist who equates all religion with primitive superstition. In this book, of course, she's pretty much right. McGee points out to her, eventually, that her cherished multiculturalism doesn't extend to people who actually think significantly differently than she does. She's also the smartest person on the ship, and on nearly all issues of survival of the ship and crew, she's right--not Townsend the military commander, not Llewellyn the engineer, nor Luke Johnson the geologist, but Dr. Sherman, medicine woman. As far as she is concerned, the only purpose of the Mars expedition is to find life on Mars.

Luke Johnson, geologist, straight out of the oil industry, a redneck like Llewellyn, but not a Bible-thumping fundamentalist. Probably this is because he's studied Real Science--not very well, of course, in Sherman's opinion, because he's a product of Texas A&M, not of Cornell and Radcliffe. As far as he's concerned, the only purpose of the Mars expedition is to make useful minerological discoveries; if there had been any life on Mars, the Viking landers would have found it. (In the course of the novel, each of the characters demonstrates that they have read something other than their own professional literature. I find it interesting that, in the context of the "purpose of the mission" debate, no one comments on the fact that the ship is named the Beagle--not even the expedition's doctor and biologist, Sherman.)

Kevin McGee, the expedition historian and authorially-designated Nice Guy. In a crew limited to five, which is going to be beyond immediate assistance for three years or more, they have included one person with no technical qualifications whatsoever--and it's a good thing, because he's the only one who keeps within shouting distance of reality nearly all the time. I was frankly surprised to find that Zubrin does not have a degree in history.

On Earth, we find that 100% of all politicians are completely lacking in honesty, integrity, or concern for anything other than the next election. They're also stupid; the President's staff includes two people who are actively supporting the opposition candidate, and working to undermine the President.

There's a problem with NASA; although it does have a mole, it's not quite screwed up enough to have chosen this crew of dangerously mismatched personalities accidentally, but there's no hint whatsoever that this was part of the sabotage.

Both liberals and conservatives are represented here only by their worst elements: cartoon anti-human ecological extremists ("ecogoths") (is "cartoon" redundant in this context?), and a fundamentalist preacher cynically exploiting the Mars expedition and the ecogoth opposition to it. No one else has any political views, certainly not the politicians. The only people who have any honor and integrity are a press secretary, some of the NASA people who aren't political appointees, and the military. All the decisions made on Earth about the expedition are unbelievably stupid, when they aren't active sabotage or decisions to sacrifice the lives of the crew for political advantage. For instance, early on, right after the Beagle has landed on Mars, NASA remembers the Skylab mutiny, and decides that they need to tighten the leash on the Mars crew. Huh? They remember the Skylab mutiny, and decide they need to reproduce the conditions that caused it? Is this more sabotage?

I could go on, but it hardly seems necessary. The plot did hold my attention, but this one is definitely not recommended.

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