Book review: The Mars Girl, by Joe Haldeman / As Big As The Ritz, by Gregory Benford

4 06 2017

This is a review of two SF novellas, published tête-bêche (i.e., back-to-back) in the style of the old Ace Doubles. (My own experience of tête-bêche typesetting—on Flight 404 / The Hunt for Red Leicester—is that it’s simpler to set the longer work ‘right-side-up and right-way-around’ and the shorter work ‘upside-down and back-to-front’ and, indeed, this is the way it’s done here, so Haldeman is nominally first cab off the rank.)

Joe Haldeman is an American SF writer, and veteran of the Vietnam War, whose fiction has won numerous awards, including multiple Hugo and Nebula awards. His best-known work is probably The Forever War.

TheMarsGirl

In The Mars Girl, Carmen Dula is a teenager who has newly arrived, with her parents and brother, at the fledgling Martian base, part of a conscious push to shift the demographic of the slowly-growing human colony on Mars to something more genuinely representative of Earth. Carmen has brilliant parents—she wouldn’t be on Mars with her family if she didn’t—and Carmen herself is quite accomplished, though not everyone in the base is appreciative of her skills. She’s unfairly cast as as a troublemaker by the base’s administrator, Dargo Solingen, who doesn’t believe Mars is any place for children. For her part, Carmen doesn’t believe Mars is any place for fuddy-duddy administrators like Dargo, and she accordingly brings her full powers of teenage rebelliousness into action against the base’s seemingly arbitrary and unfair regulations. All well and good, until a (strongly forbidden) solo nighttime ramble in her Mars suit lands her in deadly danger …

While there were elements to the storyline of Haldeman’s novella that I found unsatisfying (there’s a significant plot twist almost halfway through that substantially alters the direction of the story, in a way I would personally have avoided), it has a lot of credible detail in the worldbuilding of the Mars base, and Carmen is a plausible and relatable narrator. The story hangs together despite, at times, feeling like a weirdly-spliced hybrid of two quite dissimilar themes, with clear tones of near-future space exploration jammed up against (to my mind, misplaced) elements of golden-age SF.

Gregory Benford is an American SF writer and astrophysicist whose work—principally hard SF—has received numerous awards including the Nebula Award, the John W Campbell Memorial Award, and the Asimov Prize.

AsBigAsTheRitz

In As Big As The Ritz, Clayton Donner is the son of asteroid belt prospectors, sent to Earth to finish his education. Pursuing a major in astrophysics, he takes up with Sylvia, the daughter of Dr Rollan, a reclusive magnate whose own asteroid-mining operation, involving a large habitat (known as ‘The Hoop’, a sort of mini-Ringworld orbiting a small captive black hole) in which he conducts his own social-engineering experiment. Rollan’s ‘Brotherland’ is populated (with the sole exception of Rollan himself, and any infrequent visitors) by a large number of male and female clones fashioned from a genotype specifically chosen for its docility and unexceptionality. Clayton has adopted the subterfuge that he is interested in the habitat for his sociology (he is pursuing a social-science minor), and is keeping his expertise in astrophysics tightly under wraps: Rollan guards his technical secrets zealously. The submerged tension between Clayton, Rollan, and Sylvia (who’s also ignorant of her boyfriend’s true interests in her family) provides the requisite clash of personalities while Benford shows off his worldbuilding.

Beyond the commonality of protagonist initials and the categorisability of both novellas as, after a fashion, coming-of-age stories, there’s no particularly apparent thematic connection between the two works. Haldeman’s protagonist is distinctly more likeable than Benford’s: Clayton Donner is a bit of a piece of work, while Carmen Dula’s principal character flaw is impetuosity and a tendency to get in over her depth. While both novellas are definitely interesting, as much for their worldbuilding as for their characterisation, I found ABATR somewhat more rewarding than TMG, both for the ingenuity of the setting and for the concealed problem inherent in ABATR‘s resolution.

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