Reposting to include Marion’s new review.
How to Mars by David Ebenbach
In David Ebenbach’s How to Mars (2021), humans have made it to Mars, but not via the usual major government initiative. Instead, a group of six was sent as a reality TV show produced by Destination Mars, a corporation whose owner is “pretty eccentric.” Sadly, Mars turned out to be kind of dull (lots of rocks, no life, monotone color) and as the six scientists grew bored so did the audience, leading to the show’s cancellation after just one year. The novel though kicks off with a revelation sure to jump start ratings: despite a prohibition on sex, one of the group (Jenny) is pregnant. It’s a great premise, rich with potential for tension, drama, and an exploration of what it means to be human, especially with the added complication of Martian life, but unfortunately the novel doesn’t fully mine that potential, leaving it less than the sum of its parts.
Structurally, the novel is told via chapters that read as linked stories (an author’s afterword explains the genesis of the idea and the linked story form) from different POVs, intermittently interrupted by excerpts from the relatively absurdist corporate manual. The chapter stories move back and forth in time, so we follow Jenny’s pregnancy and its impact, as well as see some of the application process as well as the training. The flashbacks also fill in the motivations of some of the characters, particularly Jenny, the father Josh, and Stefan, the surly misanthrope of the group and the sole member who seems upset by the pregnancy.
The structure works well, allowing for the slow revelation of one of the burning questions a reader will have — why would someone sign up for a one-way trip to Mars, let alone with five strangers? The interruptions of the present time narrative also creates some nice tension via Stefan’s increasing anger/desire for “peace” as well as through the formless Martians, who are split on these noisy, chaotic newcomers, with some wanting to study them and others wanting to get rid of them. As for the manual chapters, they’re a mostly successful mix of poignant whimsy (or whimsical poignancy) with chapters like “What You Can’t Do” and “What You Can’t Bring With You”, as in this excerpt:
Nor will you be bringing the neighborhood you grew up in, or the real innocence you had then, the large experience you have whenever you stand at the edge of a large body of water … And of course those things are already in some sense gone anyway.
Though it adds some welcome humor as well as broadens the core themes behind the more personal story, it did feel as if the manual overstayed its welcome a bit by the end, a case perhaps where less would have been more.
Somewhat similarly, I quite liked the early chapters from the Martian POV, both their odd nature and the way they struggle with the impact of these new creatures not only on their home but on their way of thinking and being. But this storyline went down too predictable a path before seeming to peter out and overall felt a bit like an unnecessary means of emphasizing How to Mars’s themes, a plot thread that ended up in a sort of no person’s land where it needed to either be expanded/deepened or cut (I could see either option working out).
The main plot, meanwhile, was a bit too simple in terms of the dynamics at play. As noted, Stefan is the only one who shows any negative response to the impending birth and this, along with his desire, expressed both in conversation and via interior monologue, to “do what he wants” makes him a sort of childish and overly simplistic antagonist. Josh, the “psychologist” of the group believes there is “more to Stefan,” but we’re never really given any reason for why he thinks so, which is sort of on the mark with regard to how he performs any of his duties (something that holds true for all of the scientists, who are pretty poor examples of their chosen fields). You would think there would be at least some voiced tension, anger, concern over Josh and Jenny’s flouting of the rules, their selfish behavior that ends with a major, and possibly life-threatening, disruption. But there’s none of that. The characters are pretty much handed a one-track response and that’s all we see: Trixie goes into obsessive doctor mode combined with forced Aussie cheer, Roger makes baby things, Stefan gets more surly, and Nicole tries to create the family she never had. The situation cries out for a complex stew of interpersonal dynamics that we never really get, unfortunately. The backstories somewhat similarly skate along the surface. Loss and grief would have been easy guesses for why someone signs up for the one-way trip, and the tragedies by their nature have an emotional impact, but again, one that feels like it could have been stronger had more been done with it.
The same can be said about the theme of family — both literal and in the form of found family. I like the point, and again it comes with some inherent poignancy and emotionality, but it’s a bit too bluntly presented for my preferences, and the ending, meant to drive the theme home, feels rushed as well as feels like it wraps it up all too neatly and easily (which makes the superfluous epilogue even more so).
How to Mars is one of those light summer reads that flows along smoothly and offers up some chuckles, some ideas to chew on, some poignant moments, but neither the plot nor the characters are particularly compelling, nor will the novel linger long, I’m thinking. Which is too bad, because the potential was definitely there.
Six scientists have been sent to Mars on a one-way trip, as part of a reality TV show. They knew upfront the trip was one way only. The Destination Mars! production company sends regular supplies, and in theory, the scientists are doing “science.” While the travelers were given lots of suggestions for “how to Mars,” there was only one rule: Don’t have sex. There’s a corollary; Don’t get pregnant.
2021’s How to Mars opens with one of the characters announcing she is pregnant. Jenny, the astrophysicist, tells Josh, the psychologist (and the child’s father) first, but there are no private channels on Mars, so the other four scientists know immediately. With this dilemma, David Ebenbach opens his comic social study of groups, isolation, community, and performative culture.
Jenny and Josh broke the rule, but Jenny points out that, for a company that insisted on no sex, they provided a whole drawer of pregnancy tests in one of the supply landers.
I don’t think I understood much of what Ebenbach is exploring in How to Mars. Maybe I didn’t understand any of it. I certainly rolled my eyes enough, and had to tell myself, “This isn’t a realistic story about visiting Mars,” more than once. In spite of all that, I enjoyed it. I laughed throughout the book. When it came to the utter callousness of the Destination Mars! production company I willingly suspended disbelief. (Face it, none of these six “scientists” would have screened in for a trip to Mars. And one way only? Come on!)
Once you accept the Martian “ground rules” of the book, the interactions between the characters are interesting. They have been on Mars for two years, and are, frankly, bored. Although the humans haven’t found it yet, there is life on Mars, and I liked Ebenbach’s conceit of that life. The “human-centered” plot was predictable, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t fun.
As far as that “suspension of disbelief” thing goes, if you decide to read How to Mars, prepare to do it a lot. A lot. Despite the title and misleading blurbs, this is not a story about Mars. It’s a story about people learning how to be a community. For this reason, when the book meanders away from Mars to a slightly baffling backstory about engineer Stefan and his preparation for the trip, I was confused. Fortunately, though, the tale ends this detour and gets back to the “how can we all get along” part of the program. It’s all a bit hand-wavy, but ultimately the life on Mars and the humans work things out.
Ebenbach clearly enjoyed writing the verbose and non-committal Destination Mars! handbook. Several excerpts are included, and a couple were published as short pieces in Analog. I found them the least enjoyable part of the book and wished there were fewer, but your mileage may vary.
The book is fairly short and written in brisk prose, with lots of humor and social satire. I certainly enjoyed it. Just remember: It’s not a realistic book about doing Mars.
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That was my view as well, as you'll see in my soon-to-post review