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Rescue Mode by Ben Bova and Les Johnson

Published by Baen Books on June 3, 2014

Rescue Mode is the latest installment in Ben Bova's ongoing obsession with Mars. One of the characters even argues that Mars is proof of God's existence. Seriously? In Bova's previous novel, Mars, Inc., a mission to Mars was privately financed. Rescue Mode has NASA spearheading the mission with assistance from other countries. Bova dresses up the novel with one or two ideas that are trendy in current science fiction (3D printers make an appearance) but at its heart, Rescue Mode, like Mars Inc., is another tired novel that could have been written in the 1950s.

Mars Inc. focused on the preparation for a flight to Mars while Rescue Mode focuses on the flight itself. In both novels, things go wrong and adversity must be overcome. Other themes from Mars Inc. are reprised here: virtual reality journalism; debates about the benefits of a crewed space missions; the advantages (and political difficulties) of nuclear propulsion; the role of politics in crew selection; the power of science to bond Americans and Russians (Bova doesn't seem to have noticed that commerce has been doing that since the end of the Cold War); and the argument that "rockets make our country strong."

Still, the co-written Rescue Mode is different from Mars, Inc., but not necessarily better. The need to overcome adversity in Rescue Mode takes on a larger role (you might have guessed that from the novel's title) than it did in Mars Inc. and it gives the novel some exciting moments. Not half as many or half as exciting as Andy Weir's The Martian, a similar "overcoming adversity during a mission to Mars" novel that avoids Rescue Mode's stale political debates about the costs and benefits of crewed spaceflight and whether NASA's budget should be cut (a theme more deserving of editorials than modern sf novels). In fact, while everyone in Weir's book was concerned about getting an imperiled astronaut home safely, a fair number of characters in Rescue Mode are more concerned about the space program, which Bova imagines as the critical issue that will drive a presidential campaign. The evil senator who wants to cut NASA's budget was a staple of sf 50 years ago, but Bova seems incapable of moving past those caricatures. The cartoonish ferocity with which the senator opposes crewed space flight (as if that will be the most important political issue in 2035) is laughable.

The central character in Mars, Inc. at least had a personality. No character in Rescue Mode is remotely interesting. A relationship blossoms between two astronauts but it is the kind of "I care about you too much to jump into bed with you" relationship that was common in 1950s sf. If I thought I were going to die in a hobbled spacecraft on the way to Mars, I'd be having all the sex I could get, but maybe that's just me. In any event, the attempts to inject romance into the story produce more schmaltz than honest emotion. Other attempts at characterization are geared toward creating sympathy (one astronaut is a recent widower, another has cancer) but those attempts fail to endow the characters with actual personalities. Dialog among the astronauts often sounds like the ship is crewed by octogenarians.

To give Rescue Mode whatever credit it is due, its predictable plot is stronger than the predictable plot in Mars, Inc. The story moves quickly and the methods the astronauts devise to get themselves out of various predicaments are clever (although some, including "lets grow potatoes," echo Weir's novel). The political machinations in the novel's last quarter, however, are not believable, and they betray a lack of understanding of the president's ability to spend the federal budget in ways that Congress has not expressly authorized. Rescue Mode is not an awful novel, and in the 1950s it would have been regarded as a good novel, but its dated feeling and dull characters weaken its appeal.


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