This book has such an interesting premise but I suspect it will be endlessly compared to The Martian by Andy Weir and it doesn’t quite stack up.
Franklin Kittridge is serving a life sentence in prison for killing his addict son’s drug dealer. His wife divorced him soon after he was jailed and he hasn’t seen his son since. Franklin is sure he did the right thing, the only thing he could, but jail is alternatively boring and violent. So when he is offered the opportunity to leave, he takes it.
The private company that runs the prison has won a government contract to build the first colony on Mars and rather than use astronauts, given all the dangers and unknowns, they’re going to send expendable prisoners with the requisite skills. Frank was in construction, Alice was a doctor, Marcy was a truck driver, Zero grew weed (which gave him the skills to be in charge of the hydroponics set-up), Zeus was a plumber and so on. After six months of training on Earth, eight people are sent – seven cons and the man in charge, Brack.
From the moment Frank is woken from eight months in suspended animation, it’s clear that every second, every minute, every hour, every day on Mars is going to be a challenge. The modules containing their supplies are spread across eighty miles of the planet’s surface and the fuel cells of the buggies won’t let them travel that far. Some modules crash-landed, destroying the contents, and some modules are just missing entirely.
But they can’t give up. Their lives depend on making the best of what they’ve got. So they work hard. They build the buggies. They construct the habitats. They set up arrays of solar panels, a plant to generate breathable air and a greenhouse to grow food. Eventually, the real astronauts will arrive to conduct exploration and experiments and the cons take a certain amount of pride in what they’re achieving.
But one by one, deaths start occurring. And Frank isn’t the only murderer among the bunch. Is it the planet killing them… or is there a psycho on the loose?
I found the first third of this book a bit difficult to get into but once I pushed through, the last two-thirds were a breezy read. It’s probably no coincidence that the first third is the offer in the prison setting and the training on Earth and the last two-thirds takes place on Mars. The science and the practicalities of life on Mars seem realistic enough to me (someone without a scientific background), realistic enough to make me never want to live anywhere but Earth.
Even though there are just a few handfuls of characters in this book, the author made it a little confusing by naming two of the convicts Zero and Zeus and another two Declan and Demetrius (and then shortening one of them to Dee every now and then). Even after turning the last page, I’m still not sure which was which.
Frank is really the only character we get to know well since most of the book is from his perspective and the other characters go to significant lengths to conceal their backgrounds. They all know they’re criminals but none of them seem to revel in it, which probably means they’re the kinds of criminals you want to be around if you absolutely have to be around criminals. But it also means we barely even scratch the surface of their motivations. So it’s hard to care a lot when they start dying. And the character of Brack is a one-dimensional, boorish, lazy hard-ass. You’ll be cheering for his death long before the prospect of it ever arises.
In the end, the villain isn’t that much of a surprise and it’s actually multiple villains with that most boring of all villainous goals: money. So it’s lacking in poetry.
And the result is yet another book in a long line of books – millions of them, in fact – that aren’t terrible, aren’t great but fall somewhere in the middle, a diverting read for as long as you’re reading it but quickly forgotten afterwards.
*First published on Goodreads 14 January 2020