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Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Monday, November 23, 2009

Robert Zubrin: versatile, passionate, and fascinating writer on Mars and other compelling subjects (book reviews)

Update: check out the Great Space Debate - Moon, Mars or Beyond for a wide-ranging look at the challenges confronting space exploration now, by several top people in the field including Robert Zubrin. Took place March 15 2010.


I'll admit it - I'm a fan of Robert Zubrin. Founder of the Mars Society, passionate advocate for science and space exploration, he doesn't just do science and engineering, and he's not just a visionary when it comes to the future of the human race, he's also a gifted satirist, historian, and social critic - all this, and a novelist and playwright. And did I mention humor and wit? Oh, and he almost singlehandedly saved the Hubble Telescope from being scuttled, during W's tenure as usurper-in-chief. As Carl Sagan once said of Zubrin and his Mars advocacy, "Bob Zubrin really, nearly alone, changed our thinking on this issue." Enough gushing - can't help it! - so here are several of his titles, all fabulous:

Mars on Earth: The Adventures of Space Pioneers in the High Arctic by Robert Zubrin... this is my personal favorite Zubrin title. Nonfiction, true, incredible story! The suspense and excitement of fiction, the fascination of amazing true events. Here's my review from SLJ: - and the experiments still go on! Want to be a Mars explorer? You can do it now. Go to the Mars Society website and sign up. http://www.marssociety.org/portal Or just follow the blogs posted there by the people doing the work! It's amazing how easy it is to get caught up in a sense of exploration, reading the scientists' blogs. (Note: I did give a copy of this book to a friend who can't understand the value of the space program, no matter how many good reasons she hears, and she wasn't swayed by this book either - but I should think it would get the point across to most people who are smart enough to read it and process the information with an open mind, and who are susceptible, as most people are, to the allure of an inspiring story of people getting together to beat the odds.) But back to the book review...

Adult/High School-If the space program had not been aborted after the Moon landings, we could have gone to Mars as early as 1981. In this inspiring account of human ingenuity and determination, "children and grandchildren of Apollo" set out to put humans back on the path to space-not through political action, but by "[launching] a science project."

Zubrin shares the inside story of the formation of the Mars Society and the pursuit of its ambitious goal. His passion for the project creates a sense of immediacy and draws readers in as he relates how the group chose Earth locations to serve as Mars analogs, built habitats there, and carried out experiments that tested the performance of equipment and people in Mars-like conditions. These "sims" yielded many unexpected and often fascinating insights into mission technologies, exploration tactics, and "human-factors design," preparing the way for actual missions.

Zubrin explains the science and describes the people with humor and enthusiasm, revealing warts, setbacks, and successes. Diagrams and excellent color photographs help readers to visualize key individuals, equipment, and events. After the Arctic station was established, two more independently funded Mars analog stations were created, in the Utah desert and in Iceland, where volunteers continue to explore "Mars on Earth"; students can follow their adventures on the Web. Those still asking, "Isn't a Mars expedition too expensive/dangerous/irrelevant?" or "Why do we need to look for life/do this when we have problems at home/send people when we can send robots instead?" will find stimulating and compelling answers here.

More recently:
How to Live on Mars: A Trusty Gu idebook to Surviving and Thriving on the Red Planet This one is more fun than a ride down Mt. Olympus on a sand toboggan:

Adult/High School—This guidebook for would-be Mars settlers is equal parts "Mars-humor" and science fiction (the narrator was born on Mars in 2071); a satire highly critical of NASA; and a Loompanics-flavored manifesto of rugged individualism. Fans of vintage Robert A. Heinlein, particularly The Rolling Stones (Del Rey, 1977), will feel right at home here as they enjoy descriptions of practical situations that might actually be encountered: air circulation technologies; choice of "habs"; pitfalls and scams that greenhorns should avoid.

Enlivened by witty illustrations, the prose is both humorous and fact filled, with more technical and scientific information set aside in sections marked "Warning: High Science Content." Zubrin's presentation is clear and interesting but some might object that he puts no curbs on content like chemical recipes for explosives, and his Mars-based narrator's views are simplistic on complex Earth-based issues like global warming, bioengineering, and the value of government as a social contract. These topics could spark interesting classroom discussions. Valuable for teachers, this book is enjoyable and attractive for teens and will fascinate, provoke, and delight anyone interested in Mars and space settlement.

His first novel, this one belongs with some of the best Mars science fiction (I'll have to do a separate post on that subject)...

First Landing

Adult/High School-An entertaining, fast-moving, and thought-provoking tale of the first Earthlings on Mars. They don't have an easy time of it-but not because of flaws in the expedition plan itself. They are sabotaged by politics back home and even subverted, for a time, by their own lack of cohesiveness as a team.

Beginning with a spectacularly bumpy landing, the entire mission is plagued by a series of inexplicable mishaps and thrilling escapes. At first, pursuing a scientific mission, the astronauts make some significant geological and biological discoveries. But soon the extent of the sabotage becomes apparent and they must direct all their talents and energies toward survival, growing food and creating fuel from Martian resources.

To complicate matters, the two women and three m
 en are highly individualistic people whose personal, religious, and scientific values are in many ways incompatible-scientist and military commander, hillbilly and preppy, intellectual and religious fundamentalist. But despite (and eventually because of) their differences, they don't just survive but far exceed the original vision for the mission.

The author is known for his leadership in the cause of Mars exploration (his The Case for Mars [1996] detailed a realistic plan for an expedition in the near future-a blueprint actually adopted by NASA). Readers might expect "harder" SF than this from such a writer in his first fiction outing, but though its science is indeed interesting, First Landing is chiefly a story about people and their vision for the future, a utopian adventure that many teens should enjoy.

Other Mars titles not to be missed:
The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must : Zubrin lays out in detail exactly how it can be done with technology and resources we have now - and have had for years. Also:
Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization

and then there's On to Mars! (not just another book title, it's a rallying cry)

But wait - there's more. Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil (2009) This is one I haven't read yet, but don't you love the title? Well, duh! But I guess we needed someone to make it really clear, and if anybody can make the case, Dr. Zubrin can.

Now for something different yet -
The Holy Land
I really loved this one, a satire of the Israeli/Palestinian situation; here, it's all happening in Kennewick, Washington and it's science fiction. It was impossible to do justice to this book in my necessarily brief SLJ review because it's so layered, there are so many twists, and there's just so much going on, so just read the book; but maybe you can get some idea what it's like from my review - I hope so. Back to the review...

Adult/High School-A satiric tour de force. After the Minervan people are nearly wiped out in a distant war, the Western Galactic Empire generously grants them sanctuary in the Minervans' ancient homeland-Kennewick, WA. Unfortunately, the United States, a "Christian" theocracy, does not welcome the "pagans." Government authorities round up the former American inhabitants of Kennewick, isolate them in refugee camps, and teach their children to be martyrs in a propaganda war, assassinating Minervans and carrying the terror to distant planets.

The advanced galactic civilizations are not without faults of their own, including an inability to respect Earthlings as equals. When a Minervan captures an American soldier for scientific observation, she is surprised to discover promising "protohuman" traits, while he learns that the Minervans are not quite the monsters he had believed them to be. And this is just the beginning as Zubrin holds up a mirror to the perpetual Middle East crisis, the current "War on Terror," and many aspects of humanity and modern life.

In less-inspired hands, such an extended satiric treatment might pall, but the author fleshes out this novel of ideas with intriguing characters, delightful twists, skillful plotting, and, above all, humor-all kinds, and lots of it. The satire bites as satire should, but the story also satisfies. This is an engaging romantic fable of interspecies misunderstanding and discovery, and a grand adventure that takes readers all the way to the galaxy's highest court and back home again to a planet much in need of a fresh perspective.

Or would you believe... a play? I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one. It would be fun to see it performed, and what actors would do with it. I didn't get to review this, but here's Dori DeSpain's excellent review from SLJ:
Benedict Arnold: A Drama of the American Revolution in Five Acts Adult/High School–With this work, the versatile Zubrin changes his focus from the future to the past. By turns poetic and humorous, he traces Arnold's journey from Continental Army general and wounded war hero to conspirator and traitor. His Arnold is a man so embittered by the failure of his brother officers to recognize or reward his perceived talents that he comes to view betrayal as an acceptable recourse. He is assisted in this tortuous thinking and decision-making by a wife with expensive tastes and Loyalist sympathies and by the duplicitous John Andre, who plays on the egos of both Arnolds. The characters' speech ranges from formal to colloquial; some teens may find this jarring at first, but the technique does serve to reflect varied backgrounds and mind-sets–and, quite possibly–the speech patterns of the time. The content is admirably researched and easily followed, even if readers have little or no knowledge of the American Revolution or of this individual in particular. As an addition to an American history class and/or as reader's theater, this play would lead to a useful discussion of the ethical choices faced by those involved in revolutionary and/or political situations, whether historical or contemporary.–Dori DeSpain

I can't wait to see where Dr. Zubrin goes next.

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