RETURN TO MARS
Author Ben Bova talks to David Howe about the red planet.
Ben Bova has a refreshing enthusiasm for his subject when talking about his latest book. He has been exploring the planet Mars first in Mars (1992) and now in a sequel called Return to Mars.
‘I wanted to do a very realistic novel about the first human expedition to Mars,’ Bova explains. ‘And when I tried to start writing it, it didn’t work. I didn’t understand why until I hit upon the realisation that I had the wrong character as the protagonist. I had used an American geologist, but he was a white, pure European descended Anglo-Saxon. A very mainstream character and one who could not relate to the exploration of a different culture. Although I hadn’t realised it, the protagonist was another character in the book; a half-Navaho, whose father was a Navaho but whose mother was descended from the travellers on the Mayflower. That was the character who, once I realised his importance, made the novel work.
‘We had to get the human conflict in. A large part of Mars deals with the idea that the south-western desert of the USA is physically quite a bit like that on Mars, a lush tropical garden compared to the conditions on Mars, but the geographic landforms are very similar. But what I didn’t realise until this sudden understanding hit me, was that Mars and the Earth stand for two different parts in this character’s soul. That he’s been in conflict all his life between his Navaho heritage and his Anglo heritage. And you could use Mars and the Earth as similes for that conflict.
‘Once I had that, the novel took off and wrote itself. I’ve always said that when you get the characters right, they write the story for you.
‘Return to Mars is, not surprisingly, about a return expedition to Mars and continues the story of this character, Jamie Waterman. In the first novel he saw the hint that there might be a structure – a cliff dwelling – on Mars built by an intelligent being but everyone else thinks he’s crazy.
‘So they return to Mars to investigate, but there’s a big difference. This time the expedition is not funded by the government, but by private sources. This gets away from the political sources but it brings other problems. The people paying for the expedition expect to make a profit; they want something out of it. They want to set up things so that tourists can come to Mars. And Jamie, with his Navaho heritage sees this as the destruction of another culture. Even if that culture is a million years gone. So there’s an interesting conflict there.’
There is a very obvious question here. So I ask it: ‘Do you think there’s life on Mars?’
‘I think there might be, but it would be very simple life.’
Okay. I reword the question: Do you think there was life on Mars?’
‘Well, you’ll have to read the novel…
‘…And remember that what a novelist puts into a book is not necessarily his personal beliefs. However, as I say in the epilogue to the novel we won’t know the answers to these questions until we go to find out. We can send all the automated probes we want to but they only know how to answer questions that you know how to ask. Human beings can look for the unexpected and deal with it.’
David J Howe