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Sunday, January 13, 2013

John Vornholt's Mars Novel

I’ve always been curious about Mars, our closest planetary neighbor.  When I was growing up, I remember reading and watching lots of stories set there.  At the time, given NASA’s successful moon missions, Mars seemed the next target for exploration.  In my recent study of the Mercury missions, when America’s first seven astronauts were interviewed on the topic, they also espoused this belief.  Some of them even hoped to participate in such missions.  Sadly, humans have yet to travel there, but Science Fiction writers have never stopped writing about Mars.  Gregory Benford, Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Bear, Dan Simmons, Larry Niven, Philip K. Dick: the list could go on and on.  Let’s face it: until you’ve written a Mars novel, you’re not a real SF writer.

Okay, maybe that’s overstating matters, but Mars remains arguably the most popular setting for a SF novel not set on Earth.  I was certainly pleased when John Vornholt begins his novel Voices, the first tie-in to the popular 1990s TV series Babylon 5, on the red planet.  The two people we meet there are telepaths, members of Psi Corps.  Despite his imminent meeting with Mr. Bester, the top Psi Cop (and perhaps the most powerful person in Psi Corps), Harriman Gray’s thoughts keep returning to Earth's most important space station, Babylon 5.  On his recent visit there, he met Commander Susan Ivanova, who, due to events in her past, has a strong aversion to Psi Corps.  Yet she intrigues him, and Harriman can’t help wondering if, were he to return there, he might not find some way to change her mind about Psi Corps, and hence give him a chance.

Once Mr. Bester arrives, the two take a monorail to the Royal Tharsis Lodge, where an important conference for telepaths will shortly take place.  Life is difficult on Mars, and there are separatists who, like the early American colonists, argue that Earth wields too much control over their lives.  But their political views are not on Harriman’s mind as he gazes out the windows during their ride.  Instead, he muses: “The angry red planet didn’t look so angry when it was crisscrossed with monorail tubes, prefabricated dwellings, and shielded domes.  It looked like a giant gerbil habitat on a dusty parking lot.”  His thoughts return to the present when the monorail screeches to a halt, and with his telepathic abilities, he soon realizes that a bomb has just detonated in the Royal Tharsis Lodge, and over twenty people have died.  After Mr. Bester secures the monorail, the top Psi Cop turns to Harriman and remarks that perhaps Mars isn’t the best place to hold their conference anymore.  As Bester doesn’t want to hold it on Earth, another possible venue leaps readily to Harriman’s mind.  “How about Babylon 5?” he says.

Sadly, we never really get to know Harriman Gray better.  John Vornholt uses him to get the action going, before whisking readers off to Babylon 5.  Fans of the TV series, who know Susan Ivanova’s past, will recognize that Harriman’s hopes are overly optimistic, that she could never fully give herself to anyone from Psi Corps.  Or at least, she couldn’t after the events of Season Two have played out.  But this is a view formed through hindsight, as the novel was published in March 1995, during the second season of the show, and the action takes place between episodes #1 “Points of Departure” and #8 “A Race Through Dark Places.”  While I loved Babylon 5, it never occurred to me at the time to read the tie-in novels.  After all, the show was on every week, and series creator J. Michael Straczynski had planned out the entire five-year run.  (Amazingly, he ended up writing 92 out of the series’ 110 episodes, in addition to serving as its executive producer).  So I guess I figured that reading those novels was unnecessary back then.

Today, Babylon 5 seems largely forgotten, but back in the 1990s, the Science Fiction community held a real fervor for the show.  I was a part of it, just another viewer captivated by the series’ spell.  It’s been a long time since those heady days when I looked forward to a new Babylon 5 episode each week, when I eagerly anticipated the revelations and developments that each new show might bring.  Perhaps that explains why, like Harriman Gray in Voices, I find my thoughts returning to Babylon 5, not just anxious to relive the known stories, but also to experience some new adventures.

In any case, I’m grateful to John Vornholt for returning me to the milieu of Babylon 5 for a brand new adventure.  Even if his novel is twenty years old, it’s new to me.  Despite his having written over sixty-five novels, he’s also new to me.  I find this oversight on my part surprising, as it seems he’s also an author of note in the Science Fiction community.  After all, he wrote a novel about Mars, didn’t he?

Dragon Dave

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