When Carmen Dula leaves Earth with her younger brother and their scientist parents, she is not entirely at ease with the notion of a six-year sojourn on Mars. The change of address requires a 50,000-mile ride on a Space Elevator, and then six months aboard a cramped shuttle. And like many 18-year-olds, Carmen is concerned about beginning her college studies, making friends and maybe even conducting a love life. All this in a new hometown, partway across the solar system.
The first section of Marsbound is science fiction with an emphasis on the science. Joe Haldeman lays out a fascinating course for one potential future of space travel, complete with an orbiting Hilton hotel. The reader is treated to an in-depth tour of the Space Elevator, with insights into the technical as well as the human challenges. Carmen's narration of the trip, charming and often wry, keeps the story fun and the science accessible.
Once on Mars, Carmen quickly earns the enmity of the colony's chief administrator. Their mounting antagonism results in an act of transgression with unexpected and far-reaching results. When Carmen strikes out across the surface of the planet in a stolen Mars suit, she falls and injures herself; rescue does not come from the human colony, but from members of another species already inhabiting the planet.
Marsbound then becomes an intriguing story of first contact. The tale's inventiveness lies in the fact that the aliens are a mystery not only to the earthlings who encounter them, but also to themselves. They have only a limited sense of their own history, origins and purpose—and only a vague, half-remembered notion of the forebears who left them on Mars millennia before. As the consequences of the encounter take on global, and then intergalactic significance, Carmen must gather what allies she has in order to avert a catastrophe of horrific proportions. The stakes are high, but at its heart Marsbound is a thought-provoking meditation on time, history and the potential for human evolution.
Jedediah Berry is the author of a novel, The Manual of Detection, forthcoming from Penguin Press in February 2009. He is an assistant editor of Small Beer Press.