Mars, the Red Planet, is hot. Not just thermally, but also culturally. Current news of the Perseverance Rover titillates us. “The Martian,” a surprise bestselling novel by Andy Weir became a hit movie starring Matt Damon.
Author David Ebenbach enters this space with the cheekily titled “How to Mars.” As the title implies the novel reads like a “Mars for Dummies” entry co-authored by Ray Bradbury and Larry David. Ebenbach’s imaginative, witty tale was launched from his reading about the Mars One project, a private company’s attempt to send civilian colonists on a one way journey to the Red Planet. Mars One flamed out being declared bankrupt and dissolving in 2019.
The author engages in a fanciful “what if?” scenario and follows the exploits of six volunteers who survive the rigorous vetting and training process conducted by Destination Mars!, a private entity owned by an unnamed eccentric billionaire. The six space travelers, three men and three women, bring with them varied disciplines; astrophysicist, psychologist, botanist, geologist, engineer and medical doctor. They also bring varied, sometimes dark, reasons for having made the decision to leave Earth permanently and live out their lives on Mars.
While the tale is told from multiple points of view with each citizen/astronaut providing details, it is Josh, the psychologist, who is the primary narrator. In the very first sentence Josh reveals that Jenny, the astrophysicist, is “pregnant on Mars.” He also knows two more things; he has to be the father and the pregnancy goes against the stern warnings in the unofficial “Destination Mars!” handbook.
Ah, the unofficial “Destination Mars!” handbook! Written by the founder of the Destination Mars! corporation this document is hilariously splattered throughout “How to Mars.” Its droll observations, quirky comments plus multiple charts and diagrams fill a substantial portion of this 236-page novel.
Two examples from Section 9 of the unofficial “Destination Mars!” handbook titled, “What You Can’t Bring With You” :
• You cannot bring your favorite chair, with the body dents already in place.
• No full length curtain that your mother crocheted.
While Ebenbach’s bent is toward wit, there are serious undertones in “How to Mars.” We learn of Jenny’s bipolar sister who committed suicide and Josh’s fiancee who perished in a car accident. Each character has a backstory which led them to depart planet Earth.
Then there are The Patterns. Ebenbach skillfully, hauntingly addresses the issue of life on Mars by creating the amorphous, everywhere and nowhere, presence he calls The Patterns. Are they real or imagined? Evil or compassionate? What has the human invasion done to them and their planet?
The publication of “How to Mars” comes as the trio of “Citizen Space Cadets:” Branson, Bezos and Musk race to be the first private citizens to circle in space above the Earth in their search for an undefinable higher status.
In his Afterwords Ebenbach concludes, “… this novel was (and is) supposed to be about all of us ... trying to figure out what to do with the lives that have been handed to us. Thus ‘How to Mars’ is also supposed to be about how to Earth. How to human. How to be.”