It’s amazing how progress sneaks up on you. Not so long ago, stories about manned missions to Mars were purely speculative. Today, in the wake of Andy Weir’s The Martian and the ongoing work of SpaceX and other “space tourism” efforts, stories about people living on Mars seem much closer to reality.
Of course, The Martian was ultimately optimistic—an affirmation of the power of science and humanity, and about the potential that we will someday conquer Mars itself: a man is marooned on the red planet, and the entire world comes together, spending enormous amounts of money and intellectual capital to bring him home. Weir’s novel assumes a Mars mission would be publicly-funded and government run. In the new Mars novel One Way. S.J. Morden (a pen name for Philip K. Dick Award-winner Simon Morden, author of the acclaimed Samuil Petrovich trilogy) takes a more cynical approach. What would a Mars mission be like if run by a corporation, cognizant of the impact on the bottom line over everything else? This is a far darker, perhaps more true-to-life story of a manned mission to Mars, as brutal and elegant as its title implies.
Frank Kittridge, former architect and convicted murderer, has been offered a chance to get out of prison—or at least trade his earthbound prison for one much larger, and far deadlier. The company that runs the prison he’s in is owned in turn by a conglomerate called Xenosystems Operations, which has secured the contract to set up a permanent base on Mars. The plan is to send a crew of cheap prisoners there to set up the living quarters, get the power, food, air, and water systems on line, and then stay on as maintenance crew for the scientists who will follow. Frank jumps the chance to be one of them. He’ll still be a prisoner, serving out a life sentence for murdering the corrupt cop dealing drugs to his son, but he will be able to do so with a modicum of freedom—and experience the adventure of a lifetime.
Frank signs on, and immediately experiences the first of the company’s many betrayals. He’s transported to a base for a too-brief training period, and meets the Mars-bound team’s boss, Brack, a sadistic man who enjoys exercising power over others. Frank can’t exactly fight back—if he fails in his training, he’s promised a return trip to jail, and permanent solitary confinement.
Middle-aged and out of shape, Frank desperately throws himself into his training alongside seven other prisoners chosen for the mission: he will supervise building the habitat; there’s also a doctor, an electronics specialist, a botanist of sorts, a transportation expert, and a plumber—all the basic skills necessary to establish the colony, wielded by people who have done things terrible enough that traveling to a planetary prison is a step up.
Once the team arrives on Mars, Morden spins up a tense mystery plot that slowly reveals the depths of corporate malfeasance at work. The team wakes from suspended animation to find that they were sent planetside with too few supplies, and the canisters containing their materials—including the vehicles they’ll need to get started—mistakenly landed miles away. Although confused about the lack of resources, Frank has to assume supplemental shipments are incoming, and leads a desperate effort to gather what they can before they run out of what can be scavenged from the landing ship. Brack refuses to help, insisting he’s basically a prison guard, and the team’s efforts to bring themselves back from the brink of disaster lead to a slow pileup of bodies, whether through accident or suicide.
Or at least that’s the initial assumption. As more deaths follow, Frank begins to suspect there are larger forces than fate aligned against him. Brack grows more secretive and key resources go missing or were never there in the first place. Frank’s fight for survival turns out to be as much with the hostile planet as with the bean-counting, penny-pinching savagery of pure capitalism (a theme as of late—see David Pedreira’s recent lunar corporate mystery Gunpowder Moon). This is a space adventure that asks whether is it worth it to maintain a human being after they’ve served their purpose, and the answer makes for both thrilling sci-fi and not a little bit of soul-searching. One Way is the necessary, cynical antidote to all those stories of daring heroes who believe saving one life is saving the world entire. We don’t expect things will get much brighter in the sequel, No Way, due out in November.