Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Mars, Inc by Ben Bova

Mars, Inc (subtitle: The Billionaire's Club) by Ben Bova is a new standalone novel not set in the same universe as his Grand Tour solar system books. There were a few confusing moments where I wasn't sure about the universe, particularly as someone called Yamagata showed up and didn't do anything that went against the Yamagata in the Grand Tour books. But maybe it was an homage. Or something. Blurb:
How do you get to the Red Planet? Not via a benighted government program trapped in red tape and bound by budget constrictions, that’s for sure. No, what it will take is a helping of adventure, science, corporate powerplays, a generous dollop of seduction—both in and out of the boardroom—and money, money, money!

Art Thrasher knows this. He is a man with a driving vision: send humans to Mars. The government has utterly failed, but Thrasher has got the plan to accomplish such a feat: form a “club” or billionaires to chip in one billion a year until the dream is accomplished. But these are men and women who are tough cookies, addicted to a profitable bottom-line, and disdainful of pie-in-the-sky dreamers who want to use their cash to make somebody else’s dreams come true.

But Thrasher is different from the other dreamers in an important regard: he’s a billionaire himself, and the president of a successful company. But it’s going to take all his wiles as a captain of industry and master manipulator of business and capital to overcome setbacks and sabotage—and get a rocket full of scientist, engineers, visionaries, and dreamers on their way to the Red Planet.
I had previously only read Grand Tour books by Bova and I was hoping that Mars, Inc would be as sciencey as some of those were, particularly the Mars trilogy, which I enjoyed. Alas, it was not to be. It's not that the science in Mars, Inc is soft, but it's not a book about science or scientists. It's a book about a businessman. It's a how-to guide for funding and organising a crewed mission to Mars. I am firmly of the opinion that science is significantly more interesting than business, so I can't say I found this an overly interesting read. It wasn't boring enough for me to stop reading, but still, fans of science fiction beware.

Being a book primarily about rich businessmen, it is heavily populated by old white guys and packed full of much of the unpleasantness that entails. And why couldn't there have been even one female billionaire in the mix? Oh, that's right, women can only be secretaries and journalists. It's a very sexist book, with references to tokenism sprinkled throughout. Calling a black woman a "two-for" (or however it was spelled) and a "dark-skinned Latina" a three in one is distinctly not cool. I could almost have forgiven it if it was clear that the characters were the ones being dicks, but there was too much of that sort of thing in the narration (as in, the parts not clearly in Thrasher's head). There was no need, for example, to point out that in a meeting with the US President and others, the President's secretary was the only woman in the room. Obviously it wasn't necessary to set the scene up that way in the first place, but pointing it out did not help. Far too often the (very minority) presence of women is pointed out in a self-congratulatory way by the characters. They "even" have two female astronauts (out of seven). Someone give them a medal.

(Also aren't secretaries in the sense of assistants and organisers usually called PAs or EAs these days? They certainly are in Australia.)

Thrasher is a "reprobate", which is the euphemism of choice for sleaze in Mars, Inc. There is a supposedly wholesome romantic relationship "developing" throughout the book but I found it nauseating, especially when it was the female character hero-worshipping him for no clear reason, before he'd even begun to think of her as an option. (And then he keeps calling her "kid" even after they get together? Ewww.)

There are a lot more instances of rankling sexism, but it's been a few days since I finished reading (I kept using jetlag as an excuse to put off writing this review) and the reading was done on Kobo which doesn't lend itself to easy highlighting. Suffices to say, what I've mentioned in this review is not at all exhaustive.

It's not that I didn't have previous evidence of Bova writing sexist stuff, but I had the futile hope that, since not all of his other books (that I've read) were that bad, maybe this wouldn't be either. (I mean, Saturn and Titan made me a lot angrier than the other Mars books, for example.) I was wrong. The Old White Man aspect of the plot didn't help either.

Rampant sexism aside, the plot was fairly readable, despite being about businessmen rather than scientists. There's an organisational aspect and the quest for funding, there's a bit of intrigue thrown in, there are Thrasher's personal issues with which woman he wants to sleep with which night, there's a side story about rocket powered commercial flight... (the latter being driven by Thrasher's desire to not spend too much time flying between cities, a sentiment I found myself sympathising with deeply as I sat in a jet and crossed threeish continents.) Plotwise there's a lot going on, enough to offset the fact that it's not science-based SF. It's the variety of the plot that stopped me throwing the Kobo aside in frustration. Well, that and the fact that most of the ARCs I actually wanted to read were PDFs and those don't Kobo well.

If you've gotten this far through the review, you'll have gathered that I didn't enjoy Mars, Inc. Because of the problems with it, I feel I can only recommend it to readers interested in a how-to guide for getting to Mars in the near future. Although I've said it's low on science, what science there is is accurately described. I don't think I'll be picking up any more Ben Bova books, and certainly not in the near future.

3 / 5 stars

First published: December 2013, Baen
Series: Not as far as I'm aware
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley


  1. Hmm won't add it to the list

    1. Yeah, not worth it on several levels. The best thing about it was the cover art ;-)