The Far Call
Gordon R. Dickson
Dell, 1977 
Synopsis: A six-nation joint project to put a team of men on Mars is about to come to fruition. Jens Wylie, Undersecretary for the Development of Space, tries to warn the powers that be that the astronauts are overscheduled and is ignored. A low level engineer tries to warn of a worrying increase in problems in the twin space- craft’s laser communication systems and is ignored on the grounds that while problems increased, they are well within spec. Gervais, an Air Force Intel type is keeping an eye on Jens, among other people, and is increasingly unhappy with a colleague’s inability to do his job.
To begin with, the astronauts are merely overworked. They try to buy extra time by faking an injury and the American astronaut Tad Hansard, skips his exercise to the time working. Eventually, however, the fatigue undermines Tad’s judgement, the laser communications gear fails during a solar storm time and Tad goes EVA to fix it. Unfortunately, he manages to get a lethal radiation dose due to a post-storm solar outburst which the Earth could have warmed the expedition about if only the commo gear had been working. As well, fatigue meant he failed to do some of the earlier maintenance work correctly and both space craft have been heavily damaged by the solar storm. Because of all the extra experiments scheduled by the various governments competing for prestige on the Mars mission, repair equipment which was originally on board has been removed to add scientific apparatus. The damage which would have been repairable with the original equipment is not any longer.
Eventually, the decision is made to abort the mission. Due to equipment problems, only one spacecraft can return safely although it can carry at least five of the six astronauts. Someone will have to stay in the other craft and that someone will be at much greater risk. Tad volunteers, calculating that he is dying anyway. The Russian astronaut over-rules him: Tad is not healthy enough to run the other ship single handed. Tad returns to Earth with the other astronauts. The Russian, Fedya, not only does not make the return, he opts to continue the mission to Mars single-handedly even though he knows he will die there. His goal is to ensure further missions to Mars and Fedya believes that while a completely failed mission would not be repeated soon, one where someone went to and died on Mars might be.
Back on Earth, various people immediately begin CYA procedures. The laser com company, for example, blames NASA equipment. Various political types confer, and it is agreed that blame should be put on the astronauts. Jens disagrees and holds an impromptu and illegal press conference to place blame where it belongs. This violates the terms of his employment with the USG, so he arrested and committed to a prison, criminal rehab being a medical affair these days. Eventually he is released and told, since politics have gone his way, he may well be pardoned.
Gervais murders one of the spies in town to get a dead body to frame an underling of his colleague. This rids him of both the colleague and the underling, who was a mentally damaged thug.
Fedya makes it to Mars.
There’s a lot material left out in the above.
This is one of those books I read and reread in the 1970s. I think it may be Dickson’s best, actually. It is not without flaws, especially the two-dimensional characters [women in particular] and it often smells of the bestseller plot model. There are subplots I don’t think really go anywhere. Dickson is not a brilliant stylist and I found the first quarter of the book to be very hard to read.
Parts of the book are well done, despite the above. There is a trivial plot about the ill-health of a Russian’s beloved dog, left behind in Russia in the care of an evil wife which worked embarrassingly well, given that it was a Bambi’s Mother subplot whose conclusion was obvious from the set up. The scene where Gervais kills a man for no other reason than to get a useful dead body is very well done. Gervais is an extremely creepy, albeit highly competent, person. The infighting was logical, although the actual politics simplistic, even for SF [Why doesn’t poor Jens seem to have underlings?]. The overworking of the astronauts was, I suspect, drawn from Skylab and the decision to blame the astronauts probably drawn from real life as well, although not necessarily the space program: pilots who die in plane crashes are likely to be found at fault, much more so than pilots who survive. Perhaps Tad would have been the ideal man to pick if he died in space.
Some of the details in the book rang oddly true: cars are not hovercraft, but he got the unemployment rate in the US right and the late ’90s boom. He also has something called ‘Shared Management’ which relies on something very like an internet. Even if that came with the 1977 portion of the book, not bad. Our ‘net hasn’t quadrupled the US GNP but still an interesting detail.
We of course haven’t had a six nation Mars program [I hope we never do] and Dickson’s people have a much more active space program in general: they make things in LEO, I think, although this doesn’t seem to have much impact on the Mars mission. As usual, the Soviets have survived and instead of the EU we have Pan-Europe [A united Europe has been in the cards for a long time]. We don’t have medical rehab for prisoners: this isn’t an entirely bad thing, given some of the hints about it in The Far Call .
A bit dry in places but worth the reread, I think. Certainly, a much more likable lot of astronauts than some more recent books about going to Mars have had. A fairly upbeat future as well, an oddity for a 1970s SF novel set around 2000.