The novel “The Martian Race” by Gregory Benford was published for the first time in 1999.
The rocket that’s supposed to carry the first astronauts to Mars explodes at launch and the immediate consequence is the decision by the USA President to give up such attempts to focus on missions in the vicinity of the Earth. However, the goal of sending humans to Mars is kept alive by the announcement of a $30 billion prize for whoever can accomplish that feat and bring astronauts back to Earth.
Billionaire John Axelrod intends to win the prize and earn more money thanks to the Mars mission and its results. The Consortium he put together to finance the feat is the first to send four people to the red planet, but to win the prize they must be the first to return. Another team sent by a European-Asian collaboration follows them and all the humans arrived on Mars encounter various problems they need to solve in order to return to Earth.
Gregory Benford is a writer who has worked for decades in theoretical and experimental physics research. This means that he’s a true scientist who in his stories always tries to describe plausible scientific and technological developments and generally tries to add ideas that make sense from a scientific point of view. In the case of “The Martian Race”, this means that in 1999 he tried to imagine a possible race to Mars carried out by private companies and to tell about the red planet based on real knowledge. The history of Mars derives from the studies that had already been carried out at the time and the hypotheses on possible Martian life forms derive from those proposed by various scientists.
The novel follows two parallel timelines: one that from 2015 tells the development of John Axelrod’s plans to send a team to Mars and another that in 2018 tells what happens to this team on the red planet. Now those years have passed so we must consider the novel as a sort of alternative history but it’s interesting to see how and why the history of space exploration was developed in a certain way with differences and similarities to our history.
The technical-scientific element is crucial in “The Martian Race” and you could expect nothing else from a novel by Gregory Benford. Sometimes the plot seems like an excuse to have dialogues between characters regarding the engineering part of a mission phase, the scientific research to be conducted on Mars, in particular the search for past or present life forms, and more. However, the author also imagines a growth of private space missions with important commercial implications. John Axelrod always makes his precise calculations because the economic factor is crucial. In these calculations, communications on mass media are also taken into consideration because publicity has economic consequences as well.
The characters have a fari but not particularly deep development. Often the impression is that they act to make the plot proceed in a certain way. In the end, they also seem a little sacrificed in favor of the technical-scientific element.
Reading “The Martian Race” twenty years after its publication is in some ways curious, in the sense that it’s inevitable to think of the difference with today’s actual situation. Manned missions to Mars are still in their planning stage and the hypotheses regarding possible Martian life forms are still to be verified. The emergence of private aerospace companies with launches that become media events is the part of the novel that comes closest to today’s reality.
Overall, “The Martian Race” is a novel that in my opinion today should still be read as an idea for a manned mission on the red planet. For this reason, I found it interesting from an intellectual point of view but not very exciting because I found the characters not very interesting. The consequence is that I believe that readers who are interested in stories in which the technical-scientific element is predominant might like it. Gregory Benford wrote a sequel but “The Martian Race” can be read as an independent novel.