Book review: How to Mars by David Ebenbach

(cover image courtesy Tachyon Publications)

Humanity has evinced a sustained proclivity for being, well, human, no matter what momentous technological change throws at us.

It doesn’t matter whether we are travelling on Sopwith Camels or jetting from one side of the planet to the other, listening to music on a gramophone or streaming via Spotify, or feeding our cart-drawing horse with hay or charging our Tesla at the powerpoint, people, in all their maddening complexity keep being people.

That can be both a good and a bad thing and it’s captured in its hilarious and sobering complexity by David Ebenbach in his new novel How to Mars, which takes a good, hard and often whimsical look at what might happen if the first six people on the red planet, scientists all, were sent there for years on end with no one else joining them on what is essentially a one-way trip.

Would paradise on not-Earth emerge like fresh plant growth after rain? Or would people, gods help us all, keep on being people, cutting edge advancement be damned, and the whole thing go messily end up? Or, and this is where Ebenbach is wonderfully insightful and wholly understanding of the human condition, would we land, as we are wont to do, something ingloriously in the middle?

The messy middle is pretty much where Josh, Jenny, Stefan, Roger, Trixie and Nicole all land after two years on Mars, where the lure of doing scientific research in an exciting new place suddenly seems very humdrum.

“Very abruptly I reach over and hug her, which also is not like regular hugging, and we sort of clonk our sunglass-faces against one another, but we’re still able to gold on, and it’s worth it.

I hold onto Jenny, who even without the paralanguage I can tell is also crying a little. I think about the fact that what she just said about the universe is obviously true.” (P. 15)

No one has made any great strides, there appears to be next to no life to find – think again people; what if it’s just not the life you’re looking for? – and while everyone is still gathering for meals in the breaktime and sleeping in the same pod, there’s not much new to say or to do, for that matter.

There is, therefore, no new civilisation being founded, as the eccentric billionaire who blasted them off to Mars, and who wrote the most idiosyncratic manual anyone has likely ever been given, had hoped which is a little disappointing but then on the other hand, no one has gone all Lord of the Flies in the vacuum (metaphorical in this case, not literal), well not long-term anyway, and so, in all its innovative banality, life on Mars continues surprisingly uneventfully..

That is until Something Happens which Wasn’t Supposed to Happen, and everyone has to adjust to the fact that the edicts set down in the manual, edicts that supposed people would behave themselves and act in accordance with all the rules – when, in reality, has that ever really happened? – have not been followed as intended.

What are these six people, who feel like should do something societally out of the box but haven’t quite managed it yet, going to do when all the aspirant hopes and dreams of people back on Earth, who are watching via a circuit of cameras that have turned the Martian habitat into Big Brother far away, are resting on them and they’re not sure they can be bothered doing much more than putting one foot in front of the other?

David Ebenbach (image courtesy official David Ebenbach Twitter account)

The gleeful fun of How to Mars, which title included is an exuberantly daffy delight at times, very much, as the back cover blurb exclaims, in the spirit of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is that in amidst all the delightful subversion of space colonisation story tropes, it has some pretty profound things to say.

Things such as do people stop being people just because you place them somewhere utterly extraordinary and new? Well, no, at it turns out but that doesn’t mean that the idealism underpinning an undertaking such as this is wholly in vain.

In fact, you could argue, that unexpected ennui aside, that the idealism is a good thing; not so much because it will be enacted in all its hopeful glory but because it propels Josh, Jenny, Trixie, Nicole, Stefan and Roger to have a good hard think about what the hell it is they’re doing on Mars.

Are they simply there to science? Are they are there to redefine what society looks like or what it could be? Are they going to become a family? What, of all the multitudinous possibilities open to them them are they going to do?

How to Mars, with its compelling mix of humour and seriousness, which Ebenbach holds in thoroughly satisfying tension throughout, doesn’t necessarily go for the easy answers.

That’s not to say it’s some overly-dense treatise on the human condition; rather than it has a great deal of fun musing on what people might do in such a situation and pondering whether they would react as the eccentric billionaire, the support staff at Destination Mars! and everyone watching back on Earth thinks they will.

“And then … all the lights suddenly went out. The common room went pitch black.

After a long moment, Trixie’s voice came out of the dark. ‘Oh, scrotum,’ she said.

In this way, another T-shirt was born.” (P. 149)

In throwing all these “what ifs” into the melting pot, Ebenbach essentially and winningly subverts the very idea of what a space epic looks like.

In classic space stories of this ilk, people either found some sort of bucolic idyll, or meet aliens or fall apart in blisteringly acrimonious violence but in How to Mars, they are simply very normal people, capable of good and bad, of nurture and not, of friendship and familial condition and not, and it’s in this fertile middle ground of imperfect humanity that the book’s narrative really prospers.

It’s a narrative that, as noted, is both funny and quite serious, befitting an examination of what it means to be human, since we are prone to a bewildering mix of reactions to all kinds of situations, not all of them logical or well-reasoned, even when you’re a scientist.

It’s Ebenbach willingness to admit that people will likely keep on being people that informs How to Mars with such a grounded readability; you know something BIG is happening because we’re on Mars now goddammit, but that doesn’t means all bets are off and humanity is going to suddenly and magically reinvent itself.

That also doesn’t mean we won’t either but How to Mars has a tremendous appeal because it gives us our exciting space adventure but one firmly rooted in the messy middle ground of being human, where we are capable of wonder and family and new and thrilling things but we’re just as likely to muck it all magnificently too.

Watching where we land is much of the fun of How to Mars which wryly observes, soberingly muses and gleefully describes what it means to be human a long, LONG way away from where we all started our wilfully uncertain journey, sans cameras thank god, all those millions of years ago.

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