After many years collecting awards with an impressive catalog of short fiction, Geoff Landis finally delivered his first novel in good old Double-Oh. And it's a streamlined, gritty, but flawed tale of a voyage to the red planet that almost immediately falls victim to a vengeful case of Murphy's Law. Like William K. Hartmann, who offered a promising debut in the similarly-themed Mars Underground, Landis is a scientist who has actually worked on real missions to Mars, particularly the Pathfinder. He writes about Mars with such comfortable familiarity that it sounds eerily as if he goes there often.
Set in 2028, Mars Crossing tells of the third international expedition to Mars, following two prior expeditions that ended in doom for their crews. Effectively humanity's last chance to show an economically depressed and politically shaky Earth that space exploration can provide us all with a future, the Don Quijote (the very name of the spacecraft seems to serve as a cynical metaphor for its imminent disaster) lands on Mars under the command of the stoic John Radkowski. The landing is so successful it seems charmed; the lander is a mere 15-minute walk from the return vehicle, which has been waiting six years fully fueled and ready to for the trip home. The Don Quijote's crew is your expected mix of multi-ethnic men and women of diverse experience, with the interesting addition of a civilian, a kid named Trevor barely out of his teens whose presence is due to winning a lottery set up back home to complete the financing of the mission.
It doesn't take long for everything to go pear-shaped. A systems check of the return vehicle results in a devastating malfunction of the fuel tanks, which kills one astronaut outright and dumps the entire precious supply of fuel into the ochre soil of Mars. There is now no way home, unless the crew is willing to trek from their location, just south of the equator, to the location of the return vehicle of the first expedition and take it home. The trouble is the other return vehicle is something like 4000 miles away, near the north pole. And the really big trouble is that even if the team makes it, the other RV is only designed to hold two people...and there are five of them. But they simply have no choice but to get going.
And so begins a race for life, as the five survivors embark on a journey whose chances of success seem absurd at best. They must cross the Valles Marineris, a canyon that makes the Grand one back home look like a pothole. They must endure dust devils, disorienting storms, and endless stretches of repetitive and dull terrain. But mostly, they must endure each other and their own strained emotions and thoughts as the enormity of their crisis is made clearer with each passing, dusty mile.
Landis's story is paced very briskly, a good thing for a novel whose action consists mostly of wandering a wasteland. At over 400 paperback pages, it reads more swiftly than several books I can think of that are half the length. Landis interweaves his characters' backstories with the main narrative. His handling of character isn't as good as his science, to put it politely; there are clichés and melodrama aplenty, and often he stretches credibility to hazardous levels. You aren't going to fall in love with any of this cast. We learn Radkowski killed a guy in a bungled robbery in his youth, and his implausibly self-sacrificing big brother took the rap! Estrela Conselherio was a Brazilian street urchin; taken in by a kindly priest, she grows up, finishes school in the US and becomes the wife (and soon the widow) of the commander of the first Mars mission. Ryan, the second in command, has had a series of girlfriends who've all dropped dead Love Story-style. And there's a thing with Trevor's brother that's as far-fetched as it gets. It seems that almost everyone has tragic family issues, and at times you wonder how the hell any of these people possibly passed the pre-flight psych evaluation.
But the book's most profound disappointment comes at the tail end. A mild spoiler follows in white text, which you will have to highlight to read. Where Landis should have ratcheted up the suspense to unbearable levels concerning the central issue of which two of the team will actually get to go home, he instead resolves everything in a much too pat and convenient fashion within literally the last three pages. Very big letdown.
Readers more inclined to care about the science, however, will forgive the novel's human failings. Landis successfully conveys the ordeal of the Mars crossing — its moments of wonder, ennui, dashed hopes, and barely-suppressed despair — without actually depressing you into the bargain. Inspired in part by the disastrous 1912 expedition to the South Pole led by the inept Robert Falcon Scott (read this incredible book for that real-life saga), Mars Crossing does duty as a cautionary tale about the very real hazards future real-life explorers to other worlds will face. Absolutely nothing can be allowed to go wrong on a voyage to another planet, where all you will have to help you are the resources you've got on hand and the nearest rescue is several million miles away. And even if you do plan the best you can, there's no guarantee something utterly unforeseen won't go wrong. Not for nothing does Landis open the novel with a quote from Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who wrote that adventure only happens when "something has gone wrong." A message from the past to the future: be careful out there.