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Literature / Marsbound

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The Marsbound series is yet another realistic science fiction novel by American writer Joe Haldeman. Like his previous — and more famous — novel The Forever War, Marsbound effectively de-glamorizes space travel as it appears in softer works. Unlike The Forever War, Marsbound is written from the Point of View of an eighteen year old civilian girl, so the Everything Trying to Kill You elements that made The Forever War so tense and perilous are not as prolific. That is not to say that Marsbound is all sunshine and rainbows; there are plenty of things in the inner solar system that are trying to kill her.

Warning! Spoilers follow from this point onwards.

As You Know: The story follows the life and adventures of Carmen Dula; who begins the story as an eighteen year old girl going on a friendly family road trip to mars (thus the name Marsbound). As such a trip might imply, you can't simply hop into the car and drive there, and space travel is still relatively new! Cue Time Skips, a Road Trip Romance, and the inevitable Space Ship Boredom.

Things don't get any better when they arrive on the Red Planet, either. The first thing that happens to the new arrivals when they get off the spaceplane is they're shuffled into a colony of 100 people that isn't much bigger than the spaceship they just got off of, assigned chores to do during their stay, and told to get used to it, bitch. A combination of menial labor, an Alpha Bitch (who happens to be the administrator in charge of the whole shebang), and the still inevitable Mars Colony Boredom drives the younger members of the colony to do something — eh, slightly inappropriate in the colony's brand new water supply.


Of course you Can't Get Away with Nuthin', and when the misguided youths are called out on their shenanigans. Actually, Carmen storms off into the martian landscape alone, and in the middle of the night, falls into a pit, and is left on the verge of death. The End. Don't look at me in that tone of voice! The Hero Dies, and this is the most anticlimactic novel of all time.

No, wait. Come Back!

When all hope looks lost, Carmen gets rescued... By a Martian! This sets forth a chain of events which have dire consequences for the rest of the human race, and calls into question the nature of humanity's place in the solar system.

The novel spawned two sequels: Starbound, and (the presently unwritten) Earthbound (which is, in no way whatsoever, related to EarthBound); the tropes of which are all included below:


This novel provides examples of:

  • Alpha Bitch: Apparently Dargo Solingen's social skills never evolved much past sophomore year of High School. Her grudge against Carmen almost gets the entire human race killed.
  • And Now for Someone Completely Different: After the entire first novel takes place from the point of view of Carmen Dula, the very next novel opens with a chapter again from her perspective, allowing the reader to believe that it's going to be more of the same... And then the very next two chapters are given from the perspectives of a somewhat minor character from the first book, and another character who wasn't even in the first book. The novel continues this way, alternating between these three perspectives seemingly at random. This often ends up confusing the reader about whose point of view they're actually reading from when not a lot of character insight is given, or when not a lot of other characters are mentioned by name.
  • Another Dimension: Where do you think all that "free" energy comes from? By the end of Starbound? Earth
  • Apocalypse How:
    • With the awesome capabilities of the Others, it is probably as yet unknown just how apocalyptic they can be. It was speculated that they could initiate a class X-2 by blowing up the sun! Considering what they did to the moon, with seemingly no effort, that doesn't seem all that far-fetched.
    • If it wasn't thwarted at the last minute, the plot at the end of the first novel probably would have resulted in a class 3a or class 4 extinction. The explosion that would have resulted by turning 100% of the Martian leader, Red's mass into energy would have been big enough to boil the Earth's oceans and blow away most of the atmosphere on the side facing the space station... From geosynchronous orbit. Oh, and don't think that just because you were on the far side of the planet when this went down that you'd be safe. The sudden loss of air pressure would probably kill the rest of humanity outright, and if it didn't then fires all over the planet would soon blanket out the sky and disrupt all agriculture for a very, very long time. The survivors would literally starve to death (can you say "No Party Like a Donner Party"?).
      This would not have rendered Earth uninhabitable forever and the Others had intended for the Martians to inherit the Earth themselves if their plan had worked.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: See the entry for Another Dimension — Nobody knows how it works, it just does, okay!? Of course, this could just be a side-effect of the Sufficiently Advanced Alien trope (see below).
  • Artificial Gravity: Averted for the humans, who have to rely on rotating frames of reference and the equivalence principal to keep their feet on the floor. But played straight with the Others, who are Sufficiently Advanced Aliens.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Earthbound is a textbook example: Sure the series' heroine escapes the 19th century hell Earth has become and finally gets to return home, but not before having to watch her husband slowly die from gunshot wounds. Let's not forget that the rest of Earth is royally and truly fucked, as people fight each other for the most basic of resources until the world literally runs out of ammunition... And then what? Nobody knows if the Others' will ever restore Earth's electricity; they seemed to end their little "experiment" with the humans without any warning and just left...
  • Bizarre Alien Biology:
  • Bizarre Alien Sexes: The Martians don't appear to have fixed sexes. Their reproduction is described as a wrestling match with several participants—and the winner gets to be the mother.
  • Colony Drop: Lazlo Motkin's preferred method for dealing with the Others. Only the colony is a spaceship being piloted by the main characters.
  • Cool Starship:
    • The Ad Astra in the sequel.
    • the "starfish" spaceship used by Spy in the same novel: It has Artificial Gravity and can literally compress time!
  • Death of a Child: Not averted in any explicit way, but it is mentioned that children who were born on Mars without the help of a special incubation machine would catch the Martians' version of the Incurable Cough of Death, and the weak ones would not survive the treatment.
  • Everybody Has Lots of Sex: Especially on the Ad Astra! Carmen and pilot Paul barely know each other for three months before gettin' crazy with it.
  • Exotic Extended Marriage: A rare but not unusual feature of The Future in this series. In the second book, Starbound, the selected starship crewmembers from Earth are a married triple.
  • First Contact: The whole point of the series, really.
  • Free-Love Future: While the start of Marsbound has a more traditional take on monogamous relationships, by the time of Starbound (and to a lesser degree, the third act of Marsbound), monogamous relationships have started to become viewed as antiquated; a holdover from the old days when women were viewed as property. While there is still the resultant jealousy in the future, for the most part men and women are allowed to sleep around as they wish. There are even "Triunes"—three way marriages.
  • An Immigrant's Tale: It starts out this way, with Carmen struggling to fit in with the people of Mars, but takes an abrupt left turn soon enough.
  • In Your Nature to Destroy Yourselves: This is one of the principal reasons why the Martians are so hesitant to make First Contact with humanity. They knew eventually their hand would be forced and they'd have to act, but they wanted to prolong the inevitable for as long as they could given the fear that it was also in their nature to destroy others as well.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Subverted in that it's not so incurable, but only if the Martians are around to ply their medicine.
  • Intimate Psychotherapy: Elza tries this at least once with Moonboy on the Ad Astra. He ends up breaking her nose. She does it again later, in the infirmary (while her husband watched electronically from outside) to prove that his "reflexes" are still functioning. Suuuure, doc.
  • Jailbait Taboo: While Carmen is not, strictly speaking, jail bait at the beginning of Marsbound, Paul does get in a lot of trouble when they finally do cross home plate. Partly because he is the pilot of the Earth-to-Mars ship, and she was one of his passengers, but mostly because of their twelve year age difference. He didn't actually go to jail, though.
  • Lets Wait Awhile: Paul invokes this after his fling with Carmen on the Earth-to-Mars shuttle.
  • Mars Needs Women: Perhaps... But it's the human men who need 'em.
  • Matzo Fever: Namir must have brought it aboard the Ad Astra, because by the time the trip is over, he bedded every woman aboard except for Carmen and she was strongly considering it.
  • Meaningful Name: Ad Astra, which is a latin phrase meaning "to the stars." It's appropriate considering the name of the novel it's in is called ''Starbound''.
  • Moon Shattering Kaboom: More like disintegrating.
  • Nature Abhors a Virgin: Invoked by Carmen at the beginning of the series. It doesn't last long.
  • Neglectful Precursors: Subverted by the Others. While they did leave the Martians with the technology to eventually intercept and listen to human radio broadcasts, literally the gift of speech (from birth, with one exception), the ability to generate free energy from nowhere (actually it's siphoned from a "donor" planet in Another Dimension; a planet which Earth eventually has the "honor" of becoming), and perform medical miracles on themselves and the humans, with whom they share nothing in common biologically... they left them with absolutely no knowledge of where it all came from, how it works, or even how to actually use it!
    Since the Martians' entire purpose in life was to observe the humans and determine whether or not they would ever actually become a threat to the Others, that the Others would probably cue them in on the whole thing. Or, you know, at least give them a little hint.
  • Next Thing They Knew: A rare literary version of this trope, exhibited by the fact that in the span of less than a page, Paul and Carmen went from talking, to talking about sex, to having it.
  • No Biochemical Barriers: Basically played straight, but it is at least acknowledged by all the scientists on Mars that this makes absolutely no sense, and the government devotes almost countless resources to building a space station where they can study that exact phenomenon.
    Upon making first contact with an injured Carmen Dula, the Martians apply their alien medicine and it works perfectly (despite the fact that they hadn't the slightest idea what they were actually doing). When she returns to the Colony, Carmen brings with her a strange type of "Martian Lung Crap" (it's exactly as pleasant as it sounds), that is apparently the Martian equivalent of the Measles, except that literally every Martian gets it upon transition to adolescence. For the humans, it's not so benign. But again, Martian medicine saves the day!
  • Oh, Crap!: Pretty much happens every time the Others do anything significant in the story. Like blow up the moon, blow up Neptune's moon, siphon all of Earth's energy into Another Dimension, almost blow up the Earth, and speak perfectly accented English (the Martians also get this one as well, though it's a lot less of an Oh, Crap! moment than when the Others finally speak for the first time).
  • Shout-Out: One must admit: The description of the Others as part synthetic, part organic, faceless, timeless beings who live far out of reach of any human influence; plan millenia in advance for the day when any intelligent species becomes technologically advanced enough to be considered a possible threat so that they can initiate a centuries-long preemptive campaign to exterminate them; whose motives are unknown and quite probably completely incomprehensible to our puny, short-lived minds; and seem to be able to assimilate the genetic material of other species into their own composition; and seem to act mostly through organic servants of their own design based on said genetic material sounds pretty familiar! Ah, yes. "Others".
  • Small Town Boredom: If mars colonies and space ships with less than 100 people on them count as "small towns."
  • Smash the Symbol: The space elevator, as well as the fifty-plus ship fleet that was legitimately intended to be purely self defensive - both of which represent humanity's rapid expansion into space, its commitment to stay there following First Contact with the Martians, as well as the desperate stand to defend themselves against any aggression by the Others — is wiped out in minutes when the Others blow up Earth's moon, turning every cubic centimeter of exoatmospheric space into a debris field of lethal dust that would easily shred any spacecraft that tries to take off into it.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Alien:
    • The Others, hands down. Not only can they literally pull energy out of an Another Dimension and use it to power essentially all their technology... They can apparently assign the planet this energy comes from at will!. They can apparently suspend the passage of time within any arbitrary volume of space. This ability comes in handy when traveling the massive distances between star systems. It could be that they are just taking advantage of time dilation, and traveling at the speed of light, but that theory has enough evidence to stand against it on its own: For one thing, that would require getting to the speed of light... But since they have a theoretically unlimited amount of energy, this may not be impossible (as it takes an infinite amount of energy to move anything with mass at the speed of light).
      However, This does not explain how the Ad Astra is able to do this with its currently existing engines after Spy comes to visit. Since the Ad Astra does theoretically use the same (or similar enough) propulsion technology as the Others, perhaps it was an easy modification to make. Then again, On the return leg of the journey from Wolf 25, the Earth's Space Force describes clearly seeing them decelerating for some time before they actually received a response. It is heavily suggested that time passes normally for anyone not inside the spaceship directly.
      Oh, and they can blow up the moon on a whim? All the applications of this trope to the Others could probably fill their own page!
    • The Martians to a lesser extent, although this may or may not be true since most (if not all) of their technology was given to them by the Others. Which is really just another example of how advanced they really are.
  • Time Abyss: the Others live for a very, very long time. In fact, there is a very strong chance that they are truly immortal. Compared to them, the span of a human's life is utterly insignificant, and perhaps even incomprehensible. Because of this, they are unable to communicate directly with humans, and so create organic "machines" (really lifeforms) like the Martians to do their talking for them. No wonder they have such a nonchalant attitude about wiping humanity off the face of the galaxy.
  • Time Dilation: There's the standard Mk 1 Mod 0 general relativity version, and then there's the freaky alien version which apparently involves actually shutting off the passage of time! (See Time Skip below)
  • Time Skip: A rare in-universe example invoked by the Others. Apparently causes acute depression in humans, and sometimes even comas!
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Lazlo Motkin — The well-to-do, god fearing, alien hating president of Earth — sends the Ad Astra a radio transmission requesting (to put it mildly) that they turn their home spaceship into a kamikaze bomber and pilot it straight into the Others' homeworld. This course of action obviously proves to be unpopular with the crew, and after all of one chapter's deliberation, they basically decide to tell him to fuck off. They radio Earth back asking if this guy was legitimate, and the entire arc was dropped immediately thereafter, with no further mentioning anywhere in the story.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: After the Martian Lung Crap incident, there was a general fear that other maladies might be transferred from Martians to Humans. The Earth effectively quarantined the entire planet of Mars; Martian colonists were allowed to enter Earth orbit, but were restricted to literally half of a space station (albeit a very large one). Eventually the quarantine is lifted, but it takes two entire novels, and there was always the very distinct possibility that it wouldn't be... ever.