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Mars Life by Ben Bova

Cover art by John Harris

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Back in the early days of science fiction, Mars was assumed to be the abode of civilizations ancient and wise, thanks to Percival Lowell's speculation that Schiapareli's canali were not natural features, but artifacts. As the planet aged and grew drier, no doubt technologically adept Martians would construct giant aqueducts, perhaps even big enough to be visible from space, to channel water from the polar ice caps to their homes in the lower latitudes.

Thus an entire set of Mars tropes were born, to be worked out by writers as varied as Edgar Rice Burroughs, HG Wells, and Robert A Heinlein. For Burroughs, the ancient canal-side cities of the Martians were a place to have Adventures and find Romance with beautiful, albeit oviparous, Martian space princesses. For Wells, it was an opportunity to write a "be done by as you did" morality play in which Victorian England gets treated much as Europeans had treated the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Australia and Africa. And for Heinlein, writing in the close of the era in which a habitable and inhabited Mars was just barely plausible, it offered the possibility of a new frontier -- but with the twist that the indigenous inhabitants were not going to simply be pushed aside, but could use their mysterious powers as an elder civilization to enforce their expectations of appropriate behavior on the part of the humans who were settling alongside their ancient cities.

Then came the Space Age, and the Mariner and Viking robotic probes that permanently put an end to the possibility of a Mars inhabited by a wise and ancient race, now in decline. The atmosphere of Mars proved to be far thinner than the Golden Age writers had ever imagined, so thin that one would need a full spacesuit, not just a respirator, to walk on its surface. If there was any sort of life to be found on Mars, it would be in the form of bacterial colonies, probably underground in some kind of seep well or thermal vent. And that was assuming that liquid water existed anywhere on the planet, when there was no evidence of current volcanism on the fourth planet.

Yet the dreams of a living Mars, home to intelligent beings, refused to die altogether. Some writers took refuge in alternate history, producing worlds that might have been, such as SM Stirling's The Courts of the Crimson Kings, in which mysterious aliens terraformed Mars thousands of years ago and planted upon it modified Terran humans, uplifting their culture as well so that by the time baseline Terran humans arrive, they face a civilization already ancient when the Pyramids were constructed, when the Shang oracle bones were carved.

In this novel, hard-sf giant Ben Bova chose to place his intelligent Martians in the far distant past. Not mere thousands, but millions of years ago. Back in the days when the dinosaurs were the dominant vertebrate clade on Earth, Mars was still a warm, wet world. Not as lush as Earth, but still enough to have a shirtsleeve environment. A world where complex multicellular life could flourish and develop tool-using intelligence.

And then it was all wiped away, apparently by a fragment of the same space rock which brought an end to the Cretaceous and destroyed all the dinosaurs except for the ancestors of modern birds. The asteroid that struck Mars blasted away most of its atmosphere and its water, leaving it a dry, dead world where only the most extreme of extremophiles could survive.

However, it did not utterly efface all evidence that it had once been inhabited by beings who could look up at the sky and experience awe, who could wonder about their place in the world, who could write hymns of praise for their existence. And thus, as twenty-first century humanity gets its act together and begins to seriously move beyond its cradle and to explore and settle the other worlds of the Solar System, the ruins are discovered.

However, xenoarcheologist Carter Carleton is a troubled man with a troubled past. In many ways he's come to Mars to escape some serious unpleasantness in his past. And those blots on his permanent record could always be thrown back at him if someone were to want to make a serious issue about them in order to shut down his research.

And the Earth of Bova's future is not exactly friendly to science. The author explicitly states in his preface that he has used a worst-case global warming scenario to create a world in which people desperate for order and security turn to authoritarian strongmen.

It is a grimly believable scenario in its broad strokes, but I find the specifics of Bova's development of it difficult to suspend disbelief. In a world in which the drowning of coastal regions has led to the migration of enormous numbers of people, they have turned to an explicitly theocratic organization, the New Morality. Specifically, it's a fundamentalist Christian organization reminiscent of the Moral Majority of the 1980's (remember them?), except with a strong technophobic element co-existing with an episcopal polity that seems to be an unthinking use of the trope of All Christianity is Catholic, given that the Vatican and the Catholic Church exist as an entity independent of and often at odds with the New Morality, and a Jesuit priest is one of the major sympathetic characters.

I would have expected an organization such as the New Morality to arise from Evangelical Protestant Christianity, particularly the groups who are behind the Creation Museum and other institutions that promote a literal interpretation of the Genesis 1 and 2 creation accounts, and who tend to view geology and paleontology as morally suspect. Most of these churches have a congregational polity -- that is, a system of church governance by which each local congregation is self-governing, electing its own elders and hiring one or more preachers to be full-time ministers of the Gospel. Although they may network in various ways to fund large projects such as church camps and Bible colleges, they have no overarching governing bodies that dictate doctrine or worship as a church with an episcopal polity can. I would have expected its leader to be someone more like Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, dressed in a suit and tie, rather than an Archbishop who has his subordinates kiss his ring.

The only way I could believe it would be if this Archbishop is a spiritual heir to Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the other Radical Traditionalist leaders who view the Second Vatican Council as an abomination, and the Novus Ordo Mass as not Catholic. But if that were the case, it would be necessary to explain why such an individual would be co-operating with Evangelical Protestants, when most Radical Traditionalists fiercely decry any co-operation with Protestants of any stripe as engaging in false ecumenism and false worship.

However, the author is an avowed atheist, so I'm willing to give him a pass on the details of the various faith communities within Christianity and their relationships with one another. The real point of the New Morality is the peril of allowing fear to drive us into the arms of someone who will take away our freedoms with the promise of certainty.

And one of the most critical freedoms that the New Morality is seeking to abrogate is the freedom of inquiry. To them, scientific research is a threat because it presupposes that discovering the truth about the universe is an ongoing process of asking questions and being willing to accept that your initial conclusions were in fact incorrect. And when those questions relate to matters of human origins or the origins of the universe, it treads upon theological ground that the New Morality guards very jealously, to the point of being willing to use calumny and insinuation to get an entire program shut down.

And that's exactly what they're trying to do with the Marsbase throughout the entire novel. As a result, principal protagonist Jamie Waterman has to leave the life he's built for himself on Earth since his son's death and head back to Mars in an effort to keep things going long enough to produce some conclusive results. The sort of discovery that will make it impossible for the New Morality to cut them off at the knees financially and force them to return to Earth.

Jamie Waterman reminds me a lot of Jacob Demwa, the protagonist of David Brin's Sundiver. Both belong to the indigenous nationalities of North America, although Waterman is Navajo, while Demwa is Cherokee. Both are very aware of their heritage and what it means, yet at the same time are successful scientists within global society -- which may be why neither of them seem to ever appear on any of the Social Justice types' reading lists: because neither of them are Poor Oppressed Minorities, but men who stand up and work to overcome the obstacles to success that face both them individually and their people.

Just to make things even more interesting, Jamie Waterman's wife Vijay is Indian, as in a person whose roots are in Bharat, in South-Central Asia. She has her own mental ghosts and demons related to the death of their son, but she is determined to overcome them to accompany her husband to Mars and try to decipher the riddles of the mysterious cliff structures of the ancient Martians' Neolithic society.

Things become even more complicated when writing is found within the ruins, an indecipherable script. Given that the cliff structures were not actually dwellings, for all they resemble the long-abandoned cliff dwellings of now-vanished peoples of the American Southwest. It seems likely that these writings were some kind of religious or ceremonial matter. And in an atmosphere of scientophobia which equates science with godlessness and almost suggests that the Martians were diabolical frauds, the possibility of demonstrating that these long-gone people also experienced awe before the universe and its wonders and responded to that awesomeness with something akin to worship may well be the key to turning the general population in favor of continued research on Mars.

And that news also propels the desires of a Jesuit scientist-priest, Monsignor Fulvio A DiNardo, to travel to Mars and see the works of the Martians with his own eyes. A man in the tradition of a long line of Catholic priests and vowed religious who saw no contradiction between science and faith, between reason and revelation, he has one huge question to answer: why did a loving God permit an asteroid to exterminate these people, who from all appearances seem to have been gentle and peaceful, even morally superior to fallen humanity?

However, DiNardo comes to Mars with a deadly secret: he has an irregular heartbeat that, while controlled adequately by medicine, could become more severe under stress. And travel to Mars, even in their time's advanced spacecraft with nuclear propulsion systems, is still very stressful. Not to mention the stresses of being in an alien environment for an extended period.

There's also a minor thread about a youngster in an ordinary American town, who wants to do his science project on the intelligent Martians, and meets resistance from the school administration. It's pretty clear that there's a political element to this resistance, that the teachers and administration are afraid of repercussions from the New Morality, who apparently have spies everywhere, if they don't hold the official line.

The ending is somewhat bittersweet, with key scientific questions answered, but at a cost that's personally heartbreaking for several of the characters. Yet even in the midst of loss, there's a sense that those who were lost have completed their journey and done what needed to be done. And Mars is protected from indiscriminate commercial development at the expense of its scientific potential, and that protection involves the Navajo Nation.

Review posted December 4, 2017

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