I said I'd take a break from non-fiction and read a fiction book next and so I did in the form of Return to Mars by Ben Bova. Return to Mars is the sequel to his book, Mars, and continues from where that one left off. Together they are a part of his Grand Tour series of novels, novels taking place throughout the Solar System.
This book is true science fiction. It keeps to plausible, and near future science. In fact some of the strategies used in getting to and surviving on Mars come from the Mars Direct plan of Robert Zubrin and David Baker and was detailed in Zubrin's book, The Case for Mars, which I'd also read a few years ago.
The strategies involve living off Mars to some extent, rather than bringing everything along from Earth. That includes producing the propellant for the return journey, water and oxygen. Basically living off the land as much as possible. It also includes sending a ship ahead of time to produce propellant for the return journey before the astronauts even depart from Earth, reducing the risk that they wouldn't be able to get back.
The characters in this novel also grow their own vegetables in a greenhouse. This greenhouse is initially a plastic dome but at one point it gets punctured. This prompts them to use Mars dirt to build a transparent brick shell around the greenhouse.
Stretching what is currently known a little, they find liquid water and more heat in the ground than is expected. In the first novel, Mars, the previous expedition had found lichen and in this novel they find rock eating bacteria. Also in the previous novel we were left hanging as the main character thought he saw the remains of artificial dwellings that could only have been made by an intelligence. Needless to say we discover a lot more about it here.
The story isn't action packed, but there is drama. Without giving too much away, some of it takes place in Olympus Mons, the volcano on Mars that is the largest in the Solar System. Some of it is caused by a dust storm on a trek to go find and retrieve Pathfinder which has been on Mars since July 4, 1997. There's also the possibility of a saboteur. Also, a few romances and even some romantic intrigue take place.
Another theme explored are the parallels drawn between the European invasion of North America, displacing the Native Americans and their culture and reshaping the landscape, and the possibility of the same thing happening on Mars. The expeditions need to be funded somehow and in these novels it's through private enterprise. The plans for bringing tourists to Mars create tensions between some of the characters. In fact, one of the main growths in character is a direct result of this threat.
On a personal note... Throughout the story a few of the characters mentioned how they were crazy to be so far from home and how they missed home. This kept irking me because back in my travelling days, wherever I was, was home. I even unknowingly referred to my hotel as home, mistakenly leading customers to think I was a local. But I think this irking was due more to a misunderstanding. Most of the characters treated their time on Mars as part of an expedition from which they would return. They weren't colonizers or pioneers. I noticed the main character never used the term, home. Though I don't think he realized it yet, he was home.
Anyway, I recommend this book to anyone who wants a relaxing read, or who dreams of going to Mars, or just has explorer blood running through their veins. I found it to be a good read.