Life on Mars — so close, but so frightening

Three new science-fiction books explore life in the first outposts on Mars.
(NASA/JPL / AFP/Getty Images)

Ever since “The Martian” — both the book and the movie — readers have been clamoring for more novels set on the Red Planet. Near-future science fiction has become a subgenre unto itself, as recent books explore our first tentative steps on a planet that isn’t our own, returning to the Moon before heading out further into the solar system.

There’s often an emphasis on science and engineering, ensuring these new novels are rooted in what might be possible, rather than the breadth of what we can imagine. They dig into the technical details like Andy Weir did so well in “The Martian,” celebrating ingenuity and creativity in the face of overwhelming odds. The three new books on this list all present themselves as thrillers featuring our first outposts on the Red Planet.

“Before Mars: A Planetfall Novel” by Emma Newman (Ace, $16 paper)

"Before Mars: A Planetfall Novel" by Emma Newman.
(Ace )

Anna Kubrin left her husband and daughter behind for an opportunity she couldn’t refuse — to work at a Mars outpost as an artist and geologist. But as soon as she arrives, things aren’t what they seem. Just to start, Anna finds a note in her own handwriting — one she doesn’t remember writing — telling her not to trust the base psychiatrist. “Before Mars” is a psychological thriller wearing the cloak of a gripping sci-fi story, as Anna has no idea who she can trust, or even whether she can trust herself. As the novel races to its stunning conclusion, the unraveling mystery is satisfying but the ending feels a bit abrupt. Still, the story is about the journey rather than the destination, and it’s delivered in an excellently page-turning fashion. Anna is a well-rounded character; I appreciated her candid self-reflection about her failures in her marriage and conflicted feelings on motherhood as she struggles to piece together what is happening around her on Mars.

“One Way” by S.J. Morden (Orbit, $15.99 paper)

“One Way” by S.J. Morden
(Orbit )

What happens when a company is running behind on its NASA contracts to build a base on Mars? If it has the questionable ethics of Xenosystems Operations, then it recruits prisoners with life sentences to do the backbreaking, dangerous work. That’s the offer that Frank Kittridge gets — he’ll be able to live out the remainder of his life sentence on Mars in exchange for directing a crew of fellow prisoners on the Red Planet. It’s a provocative premise, with an interesting main character. Frank manages to break out of the murderer-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype. Yes, he has a good reason for what he did, but he doesn’t shirk responsibility for his actions. Once the setting shifts to Mars, the challenges the prisoners face will delight any fan of the engineering aspects of “The Martian,” but the atmosphere doesn’t quite live up to the tension that Frank feels in the story, and the rest of the prisoners never emerge as full characters. The last half of the novel picks up the pace, delivering a mostly satisfying thriller (with a somewhat predictable ending). The last scenes are a bit of a jumble, but Morden brings it together nicely in the last pages, setting up the premise for an exciting sequel.


“Obscura” by Joe Hart (Thomas & Mercer, $24.95)

"Obscura" by Joe Hart.
(Thomas & Mercer )

A new disease is sweeping the Earth, one that attacks the memory center of the brain and mimics the symptoms of dementia. Dr. Gillian Ryan lost her husband to it years ago and now her daughter is afflicted with the condition as well. As a medical researcher studying the disease, she’ll do anything to find a cure — even if it means leaving her daughter to travel into space to treat astronauts with a similar condition. But Dr. Ryan quickly realizes she’s been lied to: the outpost is on Mars and not a space station in orbit of Earth. She begins to question everything she’s been told — and wonder what she hasn’t. While Dr. Ryan can be frustrating at times, she still has our sympathies. Her struggle with addiction to opioids is thoughtfully portrayed, and it also serves to heighten the paranoid, claustrophobic feeling of the novel as she questions what is real. Hart has the thriller part of the book down; the pacing is excellent from beginning to end. Where it’s lacking is in the science and engineering. I was hoping for something richer, and found “Obscura” lacking on that front. There’s little explanation given to the wondrous tech in this novel, which is fine if you’re looking for a thriller.

Krishna writes for Engadget and Syfy Wire and is half of the podcast Desi Geek Girls.