Sequel to The Martian Race (1999), in which scientists Julia Barth and her Russian-accented husband, Viktor, pioneered Mars and discovered life, the vast, anaerobic, enigmatic Marsmat.
Twenty years later, Viktor’s accent has not improved, but with colonization in full swing, Julia and Viktor ponder the Marsmat’s odd properties. Somehow, its vast, subterranean, far-flung parts can juggle magnetic fields, maybe in an attempt to communicate; it might even be intelligent! Mission sponsor John Axelrod’s persistent efforts to exploit commercial opportunities, such as the Mars Effect, Julia and Viktor’s unexplained youthfulness, remain a minor annoyance. Meanwhile, an expedition to Pluto to investigate that planet’s inexplicable (and relative) warm-up (it’s still utterly frigid), captained by Shanna, Axelrod’s prickly, headstrong daughter, has discovered life. Subsisting on chemical and electromagnetic energies, the huge, blimplike, intelligent zand—with whom Shanna can communicate, thanks to the miraculous, near-intelligent, universal-translator software called Wiseguy—didn’t evolve on Pluto. Moreover, the zand fear attack from the mysterious and deadly Darksiders. Julia and Viktor, sent in a state-of-the-art fusion-powered spaceship to assist, plunge into the usual rivalries, jealousies, and clashes of ideas and approaches. They do discover that the Darksiders are machines that arrive on huge snowballs called “iceteroids,” steered in from the Oort cloud. They decide to take both theirs and Shanna’s ships out to investigate—and precipitate the first interplanetary war.
Benford—here, as always, at his best when portraying scientists discussing ideas and hammering out hypotheses—offers up some absorbing scientific speculations, but stretches them to utterly far-fetched extremes.