Mars, Inc. (2013), by Ben Bova, is an interesting exploration of how to get to Mars, not by way of NASA or the government, but by privatizing the space industry and using big business, investors, and the like to get there. While you might expect some trips into space in this book, most of the novel takes place on solid ground, watching Art Thrasher gather his investors, headhunt for scientists, and test out his program.
That’s both the strength and the weakness of the novel. When most people pick up a science fiction book, they want something to do with space, or futuristic technology, or something. There’s very little of that in Mars, Inc. Instead, the world is very much like our own. In fact, it is so similar to ours that these happenings could be taking place today, right now. Mars, Inc. is more about speculation regarding the space industry and how it might change rather than far-flung universes and science fiction tropes. That will probably disappoint a lot of readers who are looking for something more futuristic.
The other thing that might disappoint some readers is that there isn’t really a “bad guy” in the book. Sure, there are stepping stones and roadblocks for Art Thrasher. Some bad things happen, and there’s some suspense as you wonder how it will all work out, but there really isn’t an arch nemesis other than the “goddamned government.” While I tend to enjoy more gray-area characters, and the lack of having anyone to root against doesn’t really bother me, it probably will bother some readers.
The character of Art Thrasher represents big business. His aim is to get to Mars, and the virtual programs that he will sell based off the mission will make him incredibly wealthy. Usually I root against big business in a book, and Thrasher is the epitome of that ideal, but I couldn’t root against him here. He’s a big businessman with a plan and it’s kind of fascinating to see how he makes it all work, from the gestation of his idea to when the idea is put into action. Furthermore, seeing a book unfold from the perspective of someone that is far too easy to hate in literature was an interesting mental exercise for me. Art’s viewpoint, and how he managed to accomplish what he accomplishes in Mars, Inc., really made me think about the space industry, and science in general, in a whole new light.
It isn’t all cupcakes, though. Bova does a fantastic job at showing both the negative and positive aspects of business in bed with science. Some of the overarching aims of Thrasher’s company and their Mars mission are so for-profit they kind of make me sick. That’s the point, though. Bova is showing readers how business could positively impact space exploration, while realistically showing us how their impacts would all have to be for some sort of personal gain. The board has to have a cut, so a huge focus has to be on how Mars is going to make Thrasher and his company money.
As a character, Thrasher seems more like a symbol of business than a real person. I never really felt like I got to know him outside of his role in his company. There are occasional tidbits that attempt to flesh him out, but they never really stick. Beyond Thrasher, the other characters are less remarkable still; they all seem rather pastel in comparison to him. The characterization is the weakest point of the novel. None of these characters really felt like they had a life of their own. They were all there to prop up Bova’s ideas.
The pacing is odd. Some of the novel moves really quickly, and some of it drags on and on. Like I said above, Mars, Inc. is all about business, and some of the wheeling and dealing, the meetings and negotiations are fun to read about, but it starts feeling like you are basically reading the same thing over and over again. Art flies somewhere, talks to someone, says some quippy things, they shake hands and he leaves feeling satisfied. However, when the Mars project starts moving, the book gets pretty interesting. Readers who are more into business and how it all works will probably enjoy the wheeling and dealing more than I did. I’ve never had a head for that stuff, so I think my issues with pacing might be a reflection of my own personality than Bova’s writing.
So should you read Mars, Inc.? Sure. While this might not be science-fiction enough for some readers, the ideas that Bova presents to readers are valuable. Mars, Inc. left me thinking about our space industry and wondering what the future holds for it. It’s kind of clunky, kind of weirdly paced, and the characterization leaves a little to be desired, but it will make you look at things a little differently. Agree or disagree, sometimes a different perspective is refreshing and exciting.