Marsbound is not one of Haldeman’s better books. Instead it reads like a misplaced juvenile accidentally marketed to adults. The first tell is the size. Marsbound is lightweight and easy to read through in a single sitting. That’s not only because of its size, but because of its content which jogs through a simple and basic story about a teenage girl arriving on Mars and making first contact with aliens. The second tell is the surly teenage narrator who discusses space travel almost entirely in terms of her own bodily functions, moods and relationships. If it wasn’t for the unnecessary graphic sex scenes and the book’s cover, readers would be forgiven for thinking that Haldeman had decided to copy Heinlein’s juveniles too.
And that’s the problem. Had no one else written books about teenagers in space, Marsbound wouldn’t be so unforgivable. But compare Marsbound to Heinlein’s own Pokadyne of Mars or John Barnes’ Orbital Resonance. And when it comes to writing Heinlein juveniles, David Gerrold has done a spectacular job with Jumping Off the Planet, a book that Haldeman clearly should have read before tackling this. Or John Varley’s Red Thunder, which was flawed, but still easily outclasses Marsbound. Gerrold and Varley have their own legacy of writing imitation Heinlein, but they’ve also bettered him time and time again. Haldeman’s Marsbound however is embarrassingly worse.
Take the plot which is one third cut rate travelogue conducted by Carmen in a generally uncomplicated plot, beyond a romance with the pilot that even Carmen seems to think is a little creepy. One third of her whining about how unfair life on Mars is. And one third of her encountering aliens who seem to be straight out of the books of Fred Pohl. Haldeman has at least one good idea embedded in Marsbound, that of slow living higher races using artificially created alien races to communicate with us at our speed, but he buries it in so much drivel that’s it not even worth fishing out.
Marsbound lacks characters, and is instead stocked with one dimensional parent figures who interact with Carmen in a one sided way. That includes even the aliens themselves, who spend more time taking care of her than doing anything else. It lacks much of a plot, and leaps uncomfortably from Carmen complaining about being on a space elevator to Carmen complaining about being on a spaceship, to Carmen complaining about being on Mars, to Carmen complaining about being on another space station. In between we learn too much about Carmen’s bodily functions and nothing at all about why Haldeman and Penguin chose not to market this as a juvenile.