t’s unfair to contrast Jack Williamson’s Beachhead against the phenomenal The Martian. Yes, they both involve the abandonment of one or more people against a two-year mission window, a desperate effort of survival. And Mark Watney is more of a likable wisecracker than the driven Texan billionaires’ son, Sam Houston Kellingan (who spends much of the book feeling bad about not getting one of the women sharing his mission, abandoning another woman in Texas (with child, it would seem) and ignoring another mission chum, a sweet puppydog. And then there are father issues, mother issues, brother issues. No wonder he went to Mars).
I even have to wonder if Andy Weir got his inspiration for his book from this old master – they even use the same ship, the Ares. But still, I have to admit, Beachhead grew on me.
So, a team of eight people (four men and four women, from four regions of earth) are sent. The get to Mars, they nearly face catastrophe when one of their landers crashes, and then one couple mutinies and flies back for Earth (a long shot, as the planets shift through their orbits), ejecting needed supplies. Those that are left are doomed, including our hero. And on Earth, Sam’s nasty brother is scamming for stock, incorporating the mission, selling shares to Mars, and generally faking the data that the colonists are happy and complacent (rather than desperately starving). Yeah, so it’s grim all around.
You gotta remember that this was written in the early nineties. It’s amazing at what the vision of computers would be (i.e. the lack of them). When the orbiting ship is looking for the downed lander’s beacon, there is no digital recording being made. Everyone writes things down. A computer program to randomly pick a test subject is seen as a major effort of coding (too confusing to check for cheating). The Earth seems blind, unable to signal the ship, relying on their moon base for all communications (why, is it closer?). It felt, I don’t know, stone age. But those were the times – nobody predicted what the digital age would herald. They still can’t.
So I pressed past the plot dating, looked the other way from some of the straw villains, ignored the logic holes. As things got more desperate, and colonists started to die, I grew more attentive. By the end, I wasn’t sure where this was going. I even considered that there might be a Beachhead 2 out there, and that I’d never know how it ended. But it crackled back around and wrapped up neatly. I was fine with the ending. It worked.
So, yes, times change, tastes changes, and the concept of a hero changes. But still, the stories stay constant. This one is pretty good. If you see it in a used book store (I got this one out of one of my book boxes), pick it up. It’s worth a rainy afternoon.