Thursday, December 21, 2023

"Life and Death on Mars"

Edward M. Lerner worked in high tech and aerospace for thirty years, as everything from engineer to senior vice president, for much of that time writing science fiction as his hobby. Since 2004, he has written full-time.

His novels range from near-future techno-thrillers, like Small Miracles and Energized, to traditional SF, like Déjà Doomed and his InterstellarNet series, to (collaborating with Larry Niven) the space-opera epic Fleet of Worlds series. Lerner’s 2015 novel, InterstellarNet: Enigma, won the inaugural Canopus Award “honoring excellence in interstellar writing.” His fiction has also been nominated for Locus, Prometheus, and Hugo awards.

Lerner’s short fiction has appeared in anthologies, collections, and many of the usual SF magazines and websites. He also writes about science and technology, notably including Tropeing the Light Fantastic: The Science Behind the Fiction.

Lerner applied the Page 69 Test to his latest novel, Life and Death on Mars, and reported the following:
Page 69 of Life and Death on Mars finds Xander Hopkins, newly drafted into the NASA astronaut program, reviewing a SNAFU in his impending mission to Mars. (Drafted into the program? It’s complicated.) NASA’s lead aerospace contractor is inexplicably turning down orders for the required spacecraft. The Chinese Manned Space Agency surely won’t face such obstacles ….

Page 69 offers an accurate – but incomplete – sense of the novel. On the plus side, there’s a window into a new Space Race, this one between the United States and its new national competitor. There’s the tantalizing implication that private aerospace companies have their own hidden agenda with respect to the race’s outcome.

What this page doesn’t begin to capture is the novel’s sweeping scope: the mad scramble to be ready by the soonest launch window. The months-long flights to Mars. The epic struggles once there. The human drama between and within competing missions. The quest for any trace of possible onetime Martian life. The parallel stresses and strains of an all-too-plausible near-future Earth.

Certainly nothing on page 69 even hints at the title’s teaser that there’ll be a death(s) on the Red Planet ….

Might NASA in the near future send astronauts to Mars? Yes! The technology “merely” to return to the Moon – and NASA’s going to do that, right? – is almost sufficient. That’s not to say a Mars mission would be easy. Or cheap. Or that survival on Mars wouldn’t be challenging. (Hint: the Martian “soil” isn’t soil. It’s inert dirt. Also, highly toxic with perchlorates and peroxides. A recent, otherwise excellent novel to the contrary, no one is going to grow potatoes in Martian dirt.) Or that everyone on this world will be onboard with the idea of looking for alien life, much less of bringing home possible samples.

Will NASA move anytime soon toward a crewed Mars mission? My guess it’ll take some external impetus – just as the first Space Race was America’s response to the embarrassments of Sputnik and the Yuri Gagarin orbital flight. An impetus like, as Life and Death on Mars posits, China boldly setting out to leapfrog the US space program ….
Learn more about the author and his work at his website.

The Page 69 Test: Fools’ Experiments.

The Page 69 Test: InterstellarNet: Origins

The Page 69 Test: Déjà Doomed.

Q&A with Edward M. Lerner.

My Book, The Movie: Life and Death on Mars.

--Marshal Zeringue