Excerpt: HOW TO MARS by David Ebenbach (Tachyon)

EbenbachD-HowToMarsHopefully, you caught my interview with David Ebenbach yesterday. (If not, go check that out!) Today, Tachyon Publications has provided CR with an excerpt from David’s new novel, How to Mars. Due out later this month, here’s the synopsis:

What happens when your dream mission to Mars is a reality television nightmare? This debut science-fiction romp with heart follows the tradition of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, with a dash of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and a hint of The Real World.

For the six lucky scientists selected by the Destination Mars! corporation, a one-way ticket to Mars — in exchange for a lifetime of research — was an absolute no-brainer. The incredible opportunity was clearly worth even the most absurdly tedious screening process. Perhaps worth following the strange protocols in a nonsensical handbook written by an eccentric billionaire. Possibly even worth their constant surveillance, the video of which is carefully edited into a ratings-bonanza back on Earth.

But it turns out that after a while even scientists can get bored of science. Tempers begin to fray; unsanctioned affairs blossom. When perfectly good equipment begins to fail, the Marsonauts are faced with a possibility that their training just cannot explain.

Now, on with the Excerpt!


Excerpt from the Excerpt “(Section 27 of the unofficial Destination Mars! handbook, as written by the founder of Destination Mars!)”

You are not new to the unknown. Every day, whether you think about it or not, you wake up into mystery. You have plans, very likely, and maybe even a routine that you’re ready to settle into even as you rub the sleep out of your eyes, the slumber from your face — but that doesn’t mean you know what’s going to happen, because you very obviously cannot. You don’t even know what you’ll be thinking later, let alone what you’ll be doing or what will be happening to you.

And it’s bigger than that, bigger than the unpredictable future. You also confront the unknown on a daily basis in the sense that what you understand about the world around you is infinitesimal in comparison to what you don’t understand. What you really get is basically nothing. This is just as true when you’re looking at the world of the self.

Not one person has a decent grasp on the future, the past, or the present. Not the world, nor themselves.

That said, you are already accustomed to this much mystery, and it probably doesn’t even register anymore. It’s an everyday thing; you don’t think about it. It’s only when you’re facing something dramatically new — something vivid and unprecedented — that you are struck by the limits of your knowledge.

Going to Mars is likely to be one of those occasions.

With that in mind, we’ve written this chapter to support you as you confront these new realities, and, even more, as you sit in uncertain anticipation. As you, in other words, wake up once again to the profound inscrutability of everything that is. We of course don’t know exactly when those situations will come up, or what they’ll be about — that’s sort of our main point here — but some general thoughts may help.

  • First of all, the best approach varies by personality. For example:
    • There are people whose preference is for control, and who see knowledge as control. These are the people who will read up exhaustively on Mars before going. Of course, you will all have to absorb an enormous amount of information before getting on the rocket, but some people will go well beyond the requirements. Not content to study the behavior of dust storms on the planet’s surface, or even the chemical structure of Martian dust (this varies, but there will often be iron and magnesium involved), these folks will need to study the seventeenth century physicist Evangelista Torricelli’s groundbreaking theories about the origins of wind and dig up the etymology of the word dust (which, as we understand it, derives from the pre-Germanic word dunstaz, a word that meant the ultimate minute and scattered product of human decomposition). They will need to taste the dust (which we do not advise). For these people, a piece of knowledge is a fingerhold. Never mind that still their ignorance is to their understanding as the universe is to a grain of rice; the fingerhold is their salvation.
    • Then there are the head-down types. They set aside the unknown and get back to work, doing the things they already know how to do. These are not, admittedly, always the most exciting people in the world. But they do tend to show up on time and meet deadlines. No group of people is likely to survive without a few of this kind sprinkled among them.
    • People with a more philosophical bent, or people who are religious in a certain kind of way, often like to do something they call sitting with the unknown. They face it and take it in and continue to face it some more. Without moving. We find this attractive but itself fairly mysterious. There are times when we don’t believe this is even possible.
    • There are also individuals who, when faced with the unknown, want to destroy it. This is probably not a good tendency to indulge.
    • Artists and other creative types, meanwhile, generally dive — without even thinking about it — right into the center of whatever it is they don’t know, just to kind of poke around in there. Results vary.
  • Speaking of religion, different religions have different understandings of the nature of the unknown. In the Qur’an, for example, only Allah is described as knowing the unknown, seeing the unseen, which means that the rest of us have to do without. In the Bhagavad Gita, one reads, Knowledge is superior to mechanical practice. Meditation is superior to knowledge. But best of all is the surrender of attachment to results, because this leads immediately to peace. So you may be able to do something with that. And St. Ignatius has a great quote on the subject: Less knowledge, more virtue! he said. There’s even part of the Passover Seder where you break a piece of matzah in two, and you hide the bigger part, because what’s hidden is larger than what’s revealed—which is just what we were saying above—and then the kid who finds the hidden piece at the end of dinner gets a prize. Real life may or may not work in this way.
  • The point is that these traditions may have some answers for you, even if most of the answers are, in one way or another, Deal with it.
  • Relatedly, you will find that your tablets and computers are stocked with a healthy set of aphorisms on just about any topic you could imagine. A search for “anxiety” should bring up thousands of possibly helpful quotes.
  • In terms of these various styles and strategies, consider doing some mixing and matching. Like, maybe you can try to dive into some unknowns, and sit with other ones, and pursue virtue here and there, and learn your way into others, and do some surrendering, and ignore the rest of what you don’t know. You can’t deal with everything at once, is one thing we’ve observed.
  • We have included in your Communal Stockpile (see Section 11) some helpful psychopharmaceutical medications. We will be happy to replenish as necessary.
  • Side note. This is not the main point of this chapter, but here are a few very specific unknown things we would like you to look into on your new planet:
    • What are the effects of all the extra radiation on human physiology, health, and life span? Not that you are an experiment, the first humans ever to live on Mars, but you’re sort of an experiment.
    • What is a Martian sunset like? Emotionally?
    • Did the planet ever have a fertile Earth-like period? Was it once teeming with life?
    • Is Mars our future?
      • Like, is Earth going to end up the way Mars is now?
      • And also, is the future of the human species on Mars?
    • Is there life there now? Oh, please please please. And please let it not just be something like bacteria. It seems like bacteria’s the most likely thing, and it would be cool in a way if there were bacteria there, we guess. Biologists would be electrified. But here at Destination Mars! we have to admit we’re rooting for charismatic megafauna. Come on, charismatic megafauna!
    • (As long as it’s friendly.)


David Ebenbach’s How to Mars is due to be published by Tachyon Publications in North America and in the UK, on May 25th, 2021.

Also on CR: Interview with David Ebenbach (2021)

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

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