How To Mars, by David Ebenbach (book review).

‘How To Mars’ is David Ebenbach’s first foray into Science Fiction. The basic premise is fun: six astronauts (‘Marsonauts’) are selected by popular vote for a one-way trip to Mars where they will perform ‘science’ in front of TV cameras for an audience of millions. ‘Destination Mars!’ is the ultimate reality show. But it turns out that Mars is pretty boring and the show is cancelled.

How to Mars by David Ebenbach (book review)

A year later, the most exciting thing happening on Mars is the on-going debate over whether the dust is red or orange until two colonists do the one thing they’ve been expressly forbidden to do. An entire chapter of the ‘Destination Mars!’ handbook has been dedicated to this one transgression with point after point outlining why it is such a bad idea.

The colonists are not allowed to have sex. Even though all six participants underwent surgery to prevent conception, sex is still discouraged. Most of the stated reasons have to do with the social dynamics surrounding the pairing off of colonists. How it might divide the group and the disruption caused when couples break up. Then there’s the fact that no method of contraception is 100% effective. Even surgery, as it turns out.

When one of the Marsonauts discovers she’s pregnant, the cameras are turned back on. ‘Destination Mars!’ is once again a hit TV show. But there are deeper questions: Will the mother and baby both survive the pregnancy? Will the group of colonists survive the change in social dynamics? The question of red vs. orange has already resulted in two broken fingers and Mars, the planet, has a secret, one not yet discovered by scientists bored with science.

The story of Jenny and Josh’s path to parenthood on the red (orange?) planet is interspersed with chapters from the absurd ‘Destination Mars!’ handbook, observational reports by ‘bored’ scientists, the mental breakdown of one of the colonists, exploitational T-shirts, too many towels, a distinct lack of cookie dough ice cream, flickering lights and fluctuating power in the Mars habitat dome and weird whispers from the planet.

I’m sure it all makes for great TV. It makes for a pretty odd novel. ‘How To Mars’ is entertaining, but it almost doesn’t read like a story. It’s more a collection of bits and pieces arranged into a narrative order that covers the events of a certain period of time.

I chuckled out loud on many occasions, but I found myself flipping through the handbook chapters after the first page or so. I cheered the team’s many successful ventures and hoped the power would stay on for all their sakes and that of the baby. But the character who fascinated me the most was Stefan, the 53 year-old engineer. A self-described misanthrope, he believes his escape to Mars will provide the distance he needs from the noise of Earth and all her inhabitants. Finding himself trapped in a habitat dome with a team of five other noisy, smelly people is ultimately worse.

Throughout the course of absurdity, Stefan learns the same lesson as every other member of their diminutive colony: whether they like it or not, at a six-month distance from the nearest other human beings, this planet, devoid of air and water, is home. The five other colonists are his family. The one he didn’t get to choose and one of them is about to have a baby.

I enjoyed the pulling together of these six disparate personalities and how each of them processed the meaning of who they were, as individuals and a group. Despite the underlying tension surrounding the small mechanical failures around the habitat, the story remains true to its light-hearted beginnings by providing a fun and happy ending. The second to last chapter is pretty touching, too.

The last chapter left me a little unsatisfied, though. It’s an epilogue of a sort, detailing what will happen to Mars over the next generation. All good information, but it didn’t feel necessary to me. I’d rather have been left to my own devices when it came to imagining what happened next or maybe to look forward to another book, the next chapter of the story as the ‘Destination Mars!’ family continues to grow.

Kelly Jensen

May 2021

(pub: Tachyon Publications LLC, 2021. 240 page paperback. Price: $16.95 (US), £12.02 (UK) ISBN: 978-1-61696-356-9. Ebook: $ 9.49 (US) £ 5.59 (UK) ASIN: B08HVNSSZR)

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Kelly Jensen

Writer of love stories. Bibliophile. Gamer. Cat herder.

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