Ben Bova's sky-blue eyes twinkle as he gazes out on the white sands and palm trees of Venetian Bay near his home in Naples, Florida. The snowbirds have all departed, soon to be replaced by mosquitoes. Tourist season is over, hurricane season is nigh, and he and Barbara, his wife and agent, have this sleepy small town on Florida's southwestern shore all to themselves once again.
His mind is far away: one hundred million kilometers, to be exact. Seven summers ago, readers took a sub-zero sojourn to Mars with the veteran science fiction author. This summer, the high adventure continues in Return to Mars.
"Mars is a very different world," Bova muses. "It's totally dry. There's no liquid water. You could be standing on the equator in the middle of summer and the ground temperature might get up to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but the temperature at your nose would be zero. The air just doesn't hold any heat at all."
Fortunately the three women and five men of Bova's second Mars mission team make up for the sub-Arctic chill with plenty of out-of-this-world romance. Jamie Waterman, Navajo geologist and hero of the first novel, returns as mission director. C. Dexter Trumball, the headstrong son of the mission's cold-hearted financier, soon challenges his authority. Jamie loves the red planet for its mysterious past; Dex wants to exploit it to win his father's approval. They become locked in a steamy love triangle with beautiful physician/psychiatrist Vijay Shektar before their boots even hit red dust. It's enough to burst your pressurized dome.
Bova chuckles at the suggestion that his Mars seems to be a very sexy planet indeed.
"It's human nature. You're a hundred million kilometers from home, some are men, some are women," he says. "My first published novel was written for teenagers, and there were rules laid down by the publisher: no sex, no smoking, no swearing. I blew up entire solar systems, I consigned billions of people to horrible death; they didn't seem to mind that at all. But no hanky-panky."
There is hanky-panky of a far more dangerous sort in Return to Mars, when the crewmembers suspect they have a saboteur among them.
Bova has spent four decades crafting more than 90 fiction and nonfiction works based closely on scientific findings. Still, the "hard-science" SF practitioner says it's the people, not the protons, that fire his imagination.
"After you spend a few years developing the novel, you do get a feeling of being there (on Mars)," he says. "I used to tell the grandchildren, 'Grandpa's got to go to Mars now.' Hard science fiction is one thing, but what I'm trying to write are novels about real people doing real things. It may be in places no one else has gone before, but they are human beings and these are novels about the interactions among them, just like any other kind of novel."
Bova chisels his characters from a variety of raw materials, including friends and acquaintances. But his decision to make Jamie Waterman a half-Navajo "red man on the red planet" arose in a roundabout way from the Martian landscape itself.
"It was really the geography, the land where the Navajo live, because I'd been going out to New Mexico and Arizona for 30 years, and time and again it looked so much like Mars. A very lush sort of a tropical Mars, but the landscape, the geography, is really much like the landscape you'll find on Mars, if you take away all the bushes. Actually, when I first started plotting out the original novel Mars, the central character was a white-bread American geologist, and it just didn't work out. So finally I came to a realization that this guy is part Navajo. So we went out to New Mexico for a month or so and absorbed the area and that's when I started writing the novel."
Jamie's grandfather Al, a Navajo shopkeeper, serves as an Obi-wan Kenobi-like mystical sage in the Mars series. "Jamie's grandfather is really a crucial character in this whole story because Al represented Jamie's Native American heritage," Bova says. "Although Jamie is very white and very Western, he still has that streak in him. Indeed, Mars and Earth, the two different planets, can be seen as symbols for the two parts of Jamie's soul. I think that in Return to Mars he has finally resolved those differences."
In most cases, characters live in Bova's mind for years before they actually appear on his computer screen. He says the process of writing the novel is one of discovering more about his creations through their struggles.
Knowing them as well as he does, do they ever surprise him?
"Constantly! More often, it's been someone who you would think of as a villain who turns out to be less than villainous; he's human and he's got his reasons for doing it, and can even do something decent on occasion."
Such as mission moneyman Darryl C. Trumball, perhaps?
"He's his own man, he's come up in the rough-and-tumble world of finance. What he's doing he doesn't see as malevolent at all. He sees the scientists as kind of crazy, kooky. Who wants to go to Mars? Because the only thing that makes sense to the senior Trumball is to make money. That's his criteria, the bottom line. He's not evil, but you probably wouldn't want to have dinner with him."
Having completed two books in both his Moonbase series (Moonrise and Moonwar) and his Mars adventure, how do the two spheres stack up, dramatically speaking? Bova sees them quite differently.
"I think it's perfectly OK to exploit the moon. Largely for two reasons: there's no life there, and it is close enough and rich enough in resources to be economically useful to Earth. In the final analysis, everything we do in space, if it does not help the people of Earth, all the people, it's not going to happen."
Our fascination with Mars is easily understood, he says. "It's the most Earth-like planet. It's the only planet whose surface we can see on Earth and it looks somewhat like Earth. There has always been this fascination: is there life there? Or has there been intelligent life there?"
In recent months, Bova has moved on to Venus, a neighbor closer than Mars, where an out-of-control hothouse effect has resulted in a surface temperature that would melt aluminum and a thick cloud cover that poisons the atmosphere with sulfuric acid. Not exactly a vacation destination, perhaps. Nevertheless, Bova expects to complete the novel for publication next year.
"What I'm doing, and I'm having a lot of fun doing it, is exploring the solar system. And always, as long as you're exploring it with people, the question of motivation comes up. Why would you want to go to Venus?"
If you are Ben Bova, the answer is obvious. He's not exactly waiting for a call from NASA offering him a senior discount on the next shuttle mission, but he is dead certain what his answer would be should it happen.
"I'll get in the car right now and drive to the cape."
Jay MacDonald is a writer in Naples, Florida.