The Red Curtain Review - It's Climbing Jim, But Not As We Know It. Review

© Dave Barnes/Karmelo Ornate

It's Climbing Jim, But Not As We Know It.

I thought of several other cheesy titles for this climbing on Mars book review: 'One Small Slap For Man, One Giant Dead-point For Mankind', 'On Mars No One Can Hear You Scream,' 'Finger-locks, Don't Talk To Me About Finger-locks', or my personal favourite; 'Haston, we have a Problem' (Haston being everyone's favourite shredding and ranting grandpa, Stevie).

Climbing fiction has always had its ups and downs. Though it's not the place of this review to explore why most climbing novels are dull as dishwater. They just are. Nevertheless, there have been a few marked exceptions, such as Bowman's Rum Doodle, René Daumal's Mount Analogue (although Daumal died mid-novel) and Harrison's The Climbers … I must admit to not having read Chris Kalman's novels yet. That great climbing author Jeff Long put it well when he asked, "Where does fiction belong in a sport that defies fiction?"

Red Curtain Book Cover  © Dave Barnes
Red Curtain Book Cover
© Dave Barnes
But does that sport defy Science fiction? I am only aware of one climbing sci-fi novel and that was about climbing Olympus Mons, a giant pimple, the highest mountain in the solar system. The Green Planet is set in the distant future on a fully terraformed Mars with people living to three hundred years old, so really sci-fi.

The Red Curtain by contrast is set in a not-too-distant 2043 with all the technological advances recognisable and realistic within our lifetimes. This is the story of Mars Mission 5, so-called because there have been five human voyages to the planet only, so still very much a brave new world.

The Earth is slowly dying. Temperatures are rising, most of the world's glaciers have melted and the rising oceans mean mass human migrations, conflict, and war. The pacific islands and Bangladesh have already been claimed by rising water. Even the last stand of the giant sequoias has just succumbed to the latest wildfire. The world really is about to reach tipping point. It is interesting that 2043 is around the date various governments have in reality set for carbon neutrality on Earth.

In 2006, while exploring a rocky outcrop in Antarctica a team of geologists find a tiny fragment of a mineral that had fallen to Earth millions of years ago embedded in a meteor. This shard, made of a mineral, unseen by humankind, seems to have a perpetual power source. Scientists deduced that it has fallen from Mars, but it takes decades for NASA to locate a vein of the mineral ALH84001(b) from one of their Mars satellite orbiters. It is clear to all that this mineral could be the answer to solving the Earths energy crisis. It could save a dystopian planet from certain catastrophe.

There is only one problem, well there are lots of problems, but this is the most intractable. The band of the mineral ALH84001(b) is located two-thirds of the way up an immense cliff in the vicinity of Olympus Mons. Enter the climbers. A military Commander, Conrad, and Lieutenant Tyler are not only two of the best climbers in the world, but astronauts to boot, having been on the civilian moon base several times.

The climbers have a hell of a lot of work to do before launch date. They meet up with old friends, dirtbags Tilly and Brad who are experts at computer simulated climbs. Together they build the astro-climbers a simulation of the huge cliff on Mars which is the climbers' target. They train in Yosemite, Tuolumne, The Gunks and The Old Man of Hoy, which is now a true sea-stack rearing 450 feet out of the Irish Sea. They also train at Mount Arapiles, which is now surrounded by desert and the Ennedi Plateau in Chad, because they are the closest terrestrial match to the searing heat and intense radiation of Mars

A journalist named K.I. interviews Conrad and Tyler in a portaledge halfway up El Cap in a scene reminiscent of the interview that John Brach, the New York Times reporter, conducted with Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgesen on The Dawn Wall. Speaking of Tommy Caldwell, he is now Senator Caldwell and is a political mover and shaker.

Senator Caldwell - a future poltical mover and shaker  © Illustrations by Karmelo Ornate
Senator Caldwell - a future poltical mover and shaker
© Illustrations by Karmelo Ornate

It is fascinating to see how Barnes grounds any technological advances in science. 2043 is far enough in the future for the technologies to be recognisable but not way out there. Drones that can communicate with the climbers via a headset. Visors let the belayer see exactly what the leader sees. Photosynthesising machines produce oxygen on the Red Planet and GPS guided chutes for their BASE-jumping rigs.

As the male crew are temporarily sterilised s the day for the mission arrives. Flight commanders Harry and Hillary look down at a receding Earth from the portside window of the Royal Robbins. We are brought down to earth again when we learn that even space toilets need unblocking, the crew dances to the Violent Femmes in zero gravity, and the public are still bumping elbows in 2043.

Climbing on Mars is a bit like climbing on Earth but with less gravity, making it possible to do wilder moves. Having said that, the climbers are additionally hampered by having to wear oxygen tanks and masks, so the cumbersomeness of all their kit pretty much cancels out any gain. The pair also wear climate-controlled body-hugging space suits - the UV radiation is intense - with built-in special climbing gloves. They tackle poison ice runnels and blank sections, which C3PO - the drone - must fix (so Tyler and Conrad can clip their automatic ascenders onto the rope).

The climbers' drone: C3PO
© Illustrations by Karmelo Ornate

Barnes has researched the Martian atmosphere and done his math. Terminal velocity for a Martian BASE jumper is approximately 261m per second as opposed to 54m per second on Earth. Though gravity maybe only 38% of that on Earth, the atmosphere is about one-hundred times thinner – that means a body will fall five times faster.

The book has a very cinematic feel to it and would, I think, make a great Hollywood movie. I can imagine similar opening scenes to The Day After Tomorrow with a familiar Earth close to complete system collapse. With its supremely laid-back language, it is a fast-paced, compelling read that I can imagine some readers getting through in a couple of sittings. It is certainly a page turner.

It is a good choice to have Tyler as a strong and competent female character (she really takes the lead toward the end). And when Tyler says, in an interview with Expedition Science Journal, "I don't see myself as slower or weaker just because I am a woman. But sometimes it does feel like I have to work twice as hard for half the recognition," you realise the landscape has changed little in 2043 regarding equal opportunities for females.

The Red Curtain is cheesy, sure. It's also an intense and gripping read.  All the way to its nail-biting climax. You really are there with Lieutenant Tyler as she repeats the mantra "I am going to see this through."

Think Jules Verne meets John Krakauer, or more to the point Ben Bova (He wrote his science realism novel 'Mars' in 1992) meets Joe Simpson.

This book doesn't pretend to be serious literature or ground-breaking Sci-Fi, but as Senator Caldwell said, "This book is fun."

One more thing! The author never did let on just how do you do a poo in a portaledge, on Mars?

Paul Pritchard

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25 Aug, 2021

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy is serious sci fi and has some climbing in it.

25 Aug, 2021

Sounds like a bit of fun

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