Return to Mars finishes what Mars started–and I really feel like they might have been better as one book. There was such a huge tantalizing idea dangled in front of us in the first book–not only life on Mars, but intelligent life?–only for a rush to the ending so that we never got to actually get answers. At least we do actually get answers in Return to Mars, but in such a way that it really feels like half the same book.
Plotwise, Return to Mars does at least explore some interesting ideas in how Martian exploration may actually take shape in the future, with private backing and a profit motive, rather than as a purely government run, scientific endeavor. It’s an interesting contrast to Mars at least, even if it feels like they’ve taken a number of steps back from the first mission in effort to cut costs (one assumes).
It’s also interesting to see how many different threads you can fit into the story. While the main thread I was originally interested in was exploring the potential dwellings Jamie saw in the first book, but there are a number of other interesting threads, involving other aspects of life on Mars, going to visit the Pathfinder far across the surface of Mars, and a traitor in their midst trying to sabotage the mission.
Which–is really strange and intriguing. We have journal entries from the very beginning from the point of view of someone you know is going to snap and do terrible things at some point (and you’re not disappointed), but Bova does a good job of keeping it up in the air just who exactly is the ‘bad guy’ until the last moment. Fairly impressive that. And while I feel it’s not likely that we’d actually miss something like that in someone sent on a mission to Mars… it would certainly be just about this terrifying if we did.
Honestly, I think Mars and Return to Mars could have been stronger combined into a single book. Return to Mars seems to have a bit more momentum, but I felt the mission in Mars was more believable. As a pair… they’re still pretty well worth reading. Among the better of the Grand Tour books.