Mars Crossing by Geoffrey A. Landis
The first thing that struck me was that this is yet another book by an author who'd like to see a Mars expedition but has chosen to write about disastrous Mars missions. In this book, we are told about the third manned flight to Mars - both of the first two flights ended in the deaths of all crew members. Then this third flight faces serious failures as well. If I was a bean counter in Washington reading these novels of various failed or near-failed Mars trips (giving me examples of a huge list of things that could go wrong), I'd probably be reluctant to budget money to do it for real. Perhaps, Mars proponents need to write more stories of Mars expeditions that sound like it was worth all the money.
This is a human story - it's about the people. There are a lot of flashbacks to various past episodes in characters' lives. Most of them probably have some connection to the development of their personalities as youths or events that contributed to them entering the space program. There may also be some clues scattered among the details. On the whole, I'd say it's more a matter of writing about individuals than it's about giving necessary background information about crew members on Mars. Personally, I don't tend to read biographies even of real people whose achievements interest me. My interest in knowing the life stories of fictional characters that only make it halfway through a book is somewhat less. From my point of view, this is more like a novella about Mars, interrupted continually by vignettes about earlier years in individual lives. Of course, this level of human detail is just what some readers look for. To one degree or another, considering its emphasis on individuals, Mars ends up being only one character among a whole cast - and perhaps a secondary one, since it doesn't get all the flashbacks the other characters have. Even at the last word in the book, we don't have a final say about Mars, the future of Mars exploration or the fate of this Mars expedition, just a resolution for one character. And that, I guess, is what I'm trying to say.
Don't get me wrong, it's not that Mars doesn't play a role. There are elements that distinguish it from a story of a crisis-stricken expedition to the Gobi desert or Antarctica. I just crave more of those elements.
According to the story, it's 2028 and the space program is on the ropes. Or maybe not even doing that well. The US has basically given up on any major space projects. However, they have a leftover spacecraft that might have been used for a further Mars mission if the first one hadn't been a disaster. A privately run mission to Mars is able to use this leftover as part of its expedition.
The private mission works under the basic strategy the US program did, in the sense the astronauts land in a craft with no ability to take off again. Another craft, sent earlier, was designed to land on Mars and manufacture fuel using raw materials from Mars. By the time of the return trip to Earth, this second craft should be fueled up. The second craft the private mission is planning on using is one the US landed there seven years ago. When they arrive, they find that seven years of exposure to chemicals in the Martian environment has damaged the craft beyond their ability to repair it. Its fuel tanks have gone bad and the ship can't fly.
Earth isn't likely to send a fourth mission to rescue them. Even if Earth wanted to, it would be a long time before another ship could reach Mars.
They conclude their only hope is a very long journey from below the equator to the North Pole. There, they should find the ship from the failed Brazilian mission to Mars. The two Brazilian astronauts died of unknown causes, but there are no known technical problems with their ship. That spacecraft isn't big enough to take all the astronauts back to Earth, but at least part of the crew may be able to escape death on Mars.
It's a long, hard journey to the pole. Hard enough they're force to switch from Plan A to Plan B as to how they can get there without starving on the way. Along the way we do get to know Mars a bit. How much this makes the Mars part of the story worthwhile to you may depend on how much you already know about the terrain and environment of Mars. My knowledge of that is limited enough that I'm not sure exactly where the science fact ends and the author's imagination begins. As a result, for me the descriptions of Mars were reasonably new and worthwhile. Aside from some references to fossils of ancient Mars life (neither supported by nor inconsistent with known science) and references to evidence of ancient oceans (which I believe is now a matter of controversy in the sciences), the descriptions of Mars seemed plausible to me. So the Mars part of the story was satisfying. It's just that I would have preferred to have that part of the story play a larger role in the book.
We do get introduced to enormous canyon-like rifts in the Martian surface, areas filled with numerous buttes, dust storms - including those with electrical discharges / visual effects, the polar ice cap - including some interesting geyser effects, etc. It also includes special technology designed for Martian exploration.
The cast of human characters includes the leader of the mission (a white American man who grew up in the slums), their doctor (an African-American woman from an affluent family), a Canadian engineering wiz, a Brazilian woman who grew up living on the streets, and a rich American youth who won his place on the mission in a lottery.