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About the Author
Gregory Benford is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. A Woodrow Wilson Fellow and a member of Phi Beta Kappa, he received the Lord Prize for contributions to science in 1995 and the Asimov Memorial Award for popularizing science in 2007. He has written numerous works of science fiction, receiving a Nebula Award and a John W. Campbell Memorial Award for his novel Timescape.
Read an Excerpt
By Gregory Benford
Warner AspectCopyright © 2005 Abbenford Associates
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFIRM, FRIENDLY, POSITIVE
JULIA TURNED HER BEST SIDE toward the camera, a three-quarters shot, and spread her arms. Okay, maybe a bit theatrical, but she had the backdrop for it.
"Welcome to Earth on Mars!" She always opened firm, friendly, positive. She swept an arm around, taking in the stubby trees with their odd purple-green leaves, the raked mounds barely sprouting brownish green patches, and above it all, the shiny curve of the dome, a hundred meters high. Beyond the dome's ultraviolet screening hung the dark bowl of space. The somber cap was always there, reminding them of how little atmosphere shielded them.
"We showed you the inflation of the big dome a month ago, the planting of trees right after-now we have grass."
Not any breed of grass you've ever seen before, though; it's a genetically modified plant more like a dwarf bamboo, and technically bamboo is a grass, just a really stiff one, so ...
"It'll be a while before we can play football on it, true. We're pretty sure nothing like grass ever grew on the surface of ancient Mars, even back in the warm and wet period. So this prickly little fuzz"-she stooped to stroke it-"is a first. It'll help along the big job that the microbes are doing down in the ground already-breaking up the regolith, making it into real soil."
Was she sounding strained already? It was getting harder to strike the right level of enthusiasm in her weekly broadcast to Earthside. She could barely remember the days, decades before, when she had broadcast several times a day, sometimes from this same spot. But then, they had been breaking new ground nearly every day. And betting pools on Earth gave new odds every time they went out in the rover, for whether they'd come back alive. Usually about fifty-fifty. The good ol' days.
She smiled, strolling to her right as Viktor panned the camera. She had to remember her marks and turns, and to keep out of camera view the crowd of camp staff watching nearby.
Viktor called, "Cut, got sun reflecting in the lens."
"Whew! Good. Let me memorize a few lines ..."
She was glad for the break. It was getting harder to sound perky. The Consortium people had been grousing about that lately. But then, they had done so periodically, over the two decades she and Viktor had been doing their little shows. Media mavens had some respect for The Mars Couple (the title of the Broadway musical about them), but the long shadow of the Consortium, which had backed the 2018 First Landing (the movie title), wanted to keep them on the air for the worldwide subscriber base-and always pumping the numbers higher, of course. Axelrod, still the head of the Consortium, The Man Who Sold Mars (the miniseries title), and now probably the wealthiest man in the solar system, played diplomat between them and the execs Earthside. Exploration? Discovery? Yes, they still got to do some. But a safari that turned up nothing new-like the Olympus Mons fiasco (Climb the Solar System's Highest Mountain!)-could drive down Consortium shares, send heads rolling at high corporate levels, and make headlines. So she and Viktor tried not to think too much about the eternal media issues. It never really helped.
Viktor was fiddling, changing camera angle, and here came Andy Lang, trotting over with his studied grin. "Julia, got an idea for a last shot."
"What is it?" She looked beyond him and saw the two arm wings Andy had brought from Earth the year before, bright blue monolayer on a carbon strut. "Oh-well, look, we've done your flying stunt three times already."
"I'm thinking just a closing shot." He gestured up to the top of the dome, over a hundred meters above. "I come off the top platform, swing around the eucalyptus clump, into Viktor's field of view-after you do your last line."
"Ummm." She had to admit they had no good finishing image, and Earthside was always carping about that. "You can do it?"
"Been practicing. I've got the timing down." He was a big, muscular guy, an engineering wizard who had improved their geothermal system enormously. And a looker. Axelrod made sure to send them lookers. After all, thousands volunteered to work here every year. Why take the ugly ones when the worldwide audience liked eye candy?
Julia looked up at the ledge platform near the dome peak. Andy's earlier flights had gone around the dome's outer curve, pleasantly graceful. The eucalyptus stand at the dome's center was her pet project. She insisted on some blue gum trees from her Australian home, the forests north of Adelaide. Earthside dutifully responded with a funded contest among plant biologists to find a eucalyptus that could withstand the sleeting ultraviolet here. Of course, the dome helped a lot; chemists had developed a miracle polymer that could billow into a broad dome, holding in nearly a full Earth atmosphere, and yet also subtract a lot of the UV from sunlight-all without editing away the middle spectrum needed for plant growth.
The blue gums were a darker hue, but they grew rapidly in the Martian regolith. Of course she had to prepare the soil, in joyful days spent spading in the humus they had processed from their own wastes. The French called it eau de fumier, spirit of manure, and chronicled every centimeter of blue gum growth. She'd sprouted the seeds and nurtured the tiny seedlings fiercely. Once planted, their white flanks had grown astonishingly fast. Their leaves hung down, minimizing their exposure to the residual hard ultraviolet that got through the dome's filtering skin. But their trunks were spindly, with odd limbs sticking out like awkward elbows-yet more evidence that bringing life to Mars was not going to be easy.
She considered. Andy was a media hit with the ladies Earthside, if perhaps a bit of a camera hog. She had been giving him all the airtime he wanted lately, glad to off-load the work. "Okay, get on up there."
She checked the timing with Viktor while Andy shimmied up the climbing rope to the peak of the dome and its platform, the big arm wings strapped to his back making him look like a gigantic moth. They moved location so that Andy would be shielded from Viktor's view until he came around the clump of whitebark eucalyptus trunks as Viktor panned upward from her concluding shot.
In a few minutes more they were ready to go. Julia wondered if she could ease out of this job altogether, letting Andy the Hunk take most of it. She made a mental note to tactfully broach the subject with Axelrod.
"Positions!" Viktor called. Andy nodded from the platform, wings in place. "On," Viktor said.
Without thinking about it Julia hit the same marker where she had left off. "You can't imagine how thrilling it is to walk on Martian grass, without a space suit, breathing air that smells ... well, I won't lie, still pretty dusty. But better, yes. To think that we used to test the rocks here for signs of water deposition! Once the raw frontier, now a park. Progress."
Of course, the hard part was turning regolith rocks and sand into topsoil, but that's booooring, yes. Earthside had developed some fierce strains of bacteria that could break down all comers-old running shoes, hardbound books, insulation, packing buffers-into rich black loam almost as you watched.
She ducked as a white shape hurtled by, narrowly missing her head. "Chicken alert!" she said lightly, gesturing toward it with her head. It squawked and flapped, turning like a feathered blimp with wings. "Who would have thought chickens could have so much fun up here, in the low gravity? They find it far easier to fly here than on Earth. Of course, we brought them here so we could have fresh eggs, and they do lay, so we predicted that part correctly. But we don't always know everything that's going to happen in a biological experiment. This is the Mars version of the chicken and egg problem."
Viktor smiled dutifully; they'd shared this little joke before. The Earthside producer would more probably wince. Okay, back to the script.
She waved a hand to her right, and Viktor followed the gesture with the camera, bringing in the view of the slopes and hills in the distance, beyond the green lances of the eucalyptus limbs. The slopes were still rusty red in the afternoon light, far beyond the dome that sloped down to its curved tie-down wall eighty meters away. They stood out nicely with the green eucalyptus foreground. The other trees-ranging from drought- and cold-resistant shrubs from Tasmania to hardy high-altitude species-almost made a convincing forest. The "grass" was really a mixture of mosses, lichens, and small tundra species, too. A big favorite of the staff was "vegetable sheep," soft, pale clumps from New Zealand's high country. Convincing to the visual audience-a golf course on Mars!-but also able to survive a cold Martian night and even a sudden pressure drop. The toughest stuff from Earth, made still more rugged with bioengineering.
Axelrod had insisted on the visuals. Make it look Earthy, yes. She had worked for years to make the inflated domes support life, and there was still plenty to do. Making the raw regolith swarm with microbes to build soil, coaxing lichens onto the boulders used to help anchor the dome floors in place, being sure the roots of the first shrubs could survive the cold and prickly alkaline dirt ... Years, yes, grubbing and figuring and trying everything she could muster. For a beginning.
Pay attention! You're on-camera, and Viktor hates to reshoot.
"Ah, one of my faves ..." She altered course to pass by a baobab-a tall, fat, tubular tree from Western Australia, with only a few thin, spidery limbs sprouting from its top, like a nearly bald man. Early settlers had used them for food storage, take shelter, even jail cells. On Mars they grew spectacularly fast, like eucalyptus, and nobody knew why. Aussie plants generally did better here, from the early greenhouse days of the first landing onward. Maybe, the biologist in her said, this came from the low-energy biology of Australia. The continent had skated across the Pacific, its mountains getting worn down, minerals depleted, rainfall lessening, and life had been forced to adapt. A hundred million years of life getting by with less and less ... much like Mars.
"For those of you who've loyally stuck with us through these-wow!-twenty-two years, I say thanks. Sometimes I think that this is all a dream, and days like this prove it. Grass on Mars! Or-" She grinned, tilting her head up a bit to let the filtered sunlight play on her still-dark hair, using the only line she had prepared for this 'cast. "Another way to say it, I started out with nothing and still have most of it left. Out there-in wild Mars."
Not that this little patch is so domesticated. It's how we find out if raw regolith can become true soil, and what will grow well here.
"Already, there are environmental groups trying to preserve original, ancient Mars from us invaders." She chuckled. "If Mars were just bare stone and dust, I'd laugh-I never did believe that rocks have rights. But since there's life here, they have a point."
This was just editorial patter, of course, while Viktor followed her on the walk toward the fountain. It tinkled and splashed in the foreground while she approached, Viktor shooting from behind her, so the camera looked through the trees, on through the clear dome walls to the dusty red landscape beyond. "I like to gaze out, so that I can imagine what Mars was like in its early days, a hospitable planet." She turned, spread her hands in self-mockery. "Okay, we now know from fossils that there were no really big trees-nothing larger than a bush, in fact. But I can dream ..."
She smiled and tried not to make it look calculated. After a quarter century of peering into camera snouts she had some media savvy. Still, she and Viktor thought in terms of, If we do this, people will like it. That had been a steadier guide through the decades than taking the advice about exploring Mars from the Earthside media execs of the Consortium, whose sole idea was, If we do this, we'll maximize our global audience share, get ideas for new product lines, and/or optimize near-term profitability.
She paused beside the splashing fountain. She plucked up a cup they had planted there, and drank from it. "On Earth you can drink all the water you want and leave the tap on between cupfuls. Here, nobody does." She smiled and walked on. "You've seen this before, but imagine if it were the only fountain you'd seen in a quarter century. That's why I come here to read, meditate, think. That-and our newest wonder ..."
Let them wait. She had learned that trick early on. Mars couldn't be chopped up into five-second "image bites" and leave any lasting impression. She circled around the constant-cam that fed a view to Earthside for the market that wanted to have the Martian day as a wall or window in their homes. She knew this view sold especially well in the cramped rooms of China and India. It was a solid but subtle advertisement.
Crowded? Here's a whole world, only a few dozen people on it-well, actually, about ten dozen-and it has the same land area as Earth. A different world entirely.
Things were different, all right. The dome was great, the biggest of several, a full 150 meters tall. It would have been far more useful in the first years, when they still lived in apartment-sized habs. Now her pressure suit was supple, moving fluidly over her body as she walked and stooped. The first expedition suits were the best of their era, but they still made you as flexible as a barely oiled Tin Man, as dextrous as a bear in mittens. The old helmets misted over unless you remembered to swab the inside with ordinary dish soap. And the catheters had always been irksome, especially for women; now they fit beautifully.
Outside, the wind whistled softly around the dome walls. Another reason she enjoyed the big dome-the sighing winds. Sounds didn't carry well in Mars' thin atmosphere, and the habs were so insulated they were cut off from any outdoor noise.
The grass ended, and she crunched over slightly processed regolith. Lichens could break the rock down, but they took time-lots of it. So they'd taken shortcuts to make an ersatz soil. They mixed Martian dust and small gravel-sized rock bits with a lot of their organic waste, spaded in over decades-everything from kitchen leftovers to slightly cleaned excrement. Add compost-starter bacteria, keep moist, and wait. And hope. Microbes liked free carbon, using it with water to frame elaborate molecules. She and Viktor had doled it out for years under the first, small dome before even trying to grow anything. The Book of Genesis got it all done in six days, but mere humans took longer.
She hit the marker they had laid out-a rock-and turned, pointing off-camera. "And now-ta-daah!-we have a surprise. The first Martian swimming pool."
Excerpted from The Sunborn by Gregory Benford Copyright © 2005 by Abbenford Associates. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Two decades have passed since married astronaut scientists Julia and Viktor landed on Mars and discovered we are not alone when they found the living huge Marsmat (see THE MARTIAN RACE). Over the subsequent years, they learned a lot about the strange, anaerobic natives to include their seemingly weird abilities involving magnetism...................... However, a new exploration opportunity has surfaced with a chance to go to Pluto, which has suddenly for no reason has begun heating up though still way below zero Fahrenheit and data shows the forming of an atmosphere. Julia and Viktor leap at the prospects to be part of the expedition exploring the coldest known planet in the solar system. Shockingly, a previous expedition led by Captain Shanna has found life, the humongous intelligent zand, on the frozen orb that can communicate with humans. The zand warn that the dangerous mechanical Darksiders are coming on 'iceteroids,' from the Oort cloud................................. This sequel contains a wonderful story line on the vast possibilities of alternate life forms in the solar system. However, the human members of the cast seem shallow. Julia and Viktor have not seemed to have aged in spite of the harshness of their work although twenty years have passed and can do no wrong. Shanna at times is a genius and at other moments a jealous chick lit bimbo instead of a courageous brilliant explorer (the next generation Julia). Other characters are one dimensional unless they happen to be a Marsmat, a zand, or the Darksiders. The scientific discussion that underlies the novel is superb and highlights Gregory Benford¿s ability to simplify without dumbing down extremely complex theories and do it inside a strong story line that overcomes the prime players..................... Harriet Klausner