David Ebenbach’s How To Mars is a fascinating bit of comedy built from a series of shorter pieces into a novel. A group of people are on an ill-considered mission to chastely colonize Mars. One of them has gotten pregnant. As a premise goes, this certainly lends itself to comedic potential.
There comes a point when the story seems as though it might be taking the more or less standard saboteur route some isolated colony stories choose to. It is very pleasing to see the ways that Ebenbach subverts expectation repeatedly in this vein. There is also at least one ongoing plot thread left somewhat unresolved, a number of segments from the point of view of what would otherwise appear to be voices in a man’s head. There are at least two major interpretations that could explain this phenomenon, and the way that plot point is tied up works with either but does not actually answer the question.
One of the lead characters is a psychologist. While it would make sense to have a psychologist on a trip like this, ultimately none of the observations he makes seem to match well enough to suggest he is doing his job. While this is in and out of itself briefly addressed, as it is mentioned all of them are drifting away from their professions in boredom, the many different problems which come to the fore completely elude him until crisis points are reached. The primary role he serves in the book is as one of the two people who created life, and it seems strange that even in a comedy no attention is given to the complete uselessness of his skills. Particularly with themes in the story involving misanthropy, isolation, as well as how one can misunderstand their own motivations, this seems a strange choice.
The style of humor ranges from understated to over-the-top, with quiet interpersonal disagreements and frothing injury ridden arguments about red vs. orange each having their place. The fact that this Mars colony is part of a reality television show is obvlously intended to reflect upon society, although how well it does is open for debate.
After the bulk of the text there comes a section filled with discussion questions. It is an interesting detail, although outside of classroom use or certain specific types of book clubs it is of questionable value.
The problem of judging a work that is similar to recent popular volumes is raised – at the very least this book might have been written while Andy Weir’s The Martian was popular. Aside from setting, the two volumes contain almost no similarity. Indeed, one could argue about how hard sci-fi this volume is, given that it is not afraid of relatively realistic technical jargon, and yet it also mostly smoothes over the kinds of details many demand of hard sci-fi.
Overall How to Mars is an amusing book that uses a great many familiar tools in telling its story. The cover and interior design work by Elizabeth Story are excellent choices, effectively mixing the absurd and the mundane.