Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Welcome to Mars by James Blish
James Blish is a very important author in the development of the science fiction genre, so I was saddened that my only knowledge of his work was through the only two pieces one can find easily in print now, A Case of Conscience and “Surface Tension.” So when I received a copy of NESFA Press’ new collection of Blish’s work, I couldn’t wait to dive in. It contains three novels and four short stories. I’m treating it like an omnibus, giving the novels individual reviews, and adding reviews of the short stories to the book review as a whole.
Welcome to Mars is the first piece in this collection. As a foray into YA fiction uncommon with the author, as well as a piece of the foundation of Blish’s own future history, it is certainly an interesting piece for fans and those seeking curiosities, but I couldn’t help but wonder if it had perhaps been out of print for a long time for a reason. With that hesitation, yet my above excitement, I began the novel.
Dolph is hardly your normal 18-year-old. He doesn’t play outside as much as his stepfather would like, instead spending his time in the attic of his garage working on experiments. It is on one of those days that Dolph finds a means to nullify gravity, and begins his plans to travel to Mars. However, things certainly don’t go as planned, as Dolph manages to damage the one irreplaceable piece on his ship. His friend, Nanette, is on the way, and when she arrives, Dolph realizes that, far from solving his problems, they have just begun.
Welcome to Mars is, to put it simply, a very fun read. Like in Heinlein’s “juveniles,” and other YA gerne works from that period written by authors who primarily wrote for adults, Blish’s novel doesn’t suffer at all from the dumbing down of concepts. Blish tackles the science quite freely, but doing so in a way that flows perfectly into the story, interjecting the outlandish idea of a teenager discovering gravity-nullifying technology that allows him to build a backyard spaceship with hints of a realism that make things far more easy to swallow and credible.
At times, the novel shows its age a little. Blish, despite mourning the glacial pace of NASA and taking that into consideration in his extrapolations, still managed to give their pace too much credit (which says far more about NASA than Blish, which is an entirely different post). Also, some of the attitudes of the time can come across as quaint, for lack of a better word. I don’t think that, realistically, a man and a woman in their late teens, stranded on Mars with no way to contact Earth and no real chance to expect rescue or other surprise intervention, would ever utter the words “not what a proper lady is raised to talk about” (paraphrased) when discussing a life-threatening illness.
However, those little bits seem to do more to give the text color than to hurt the reading of it. The story moves along nicely, working hard to cover each bit with at least some scientific factualization. Both Dolph and Nanette manage to be fun characters who don’t do too poorly when in over their heads. All-in-all, this one is definitely a worthwhile read (more so than most YA science fiction out there today, I would wager), and a very nice start to the Blish collection.