Mars Underground is an entertaining debut novel from one of the foremost planetary scientists of our day, and his compelling writing helps to compensate for the fact that much of his story is a pretty conventional thriller. Set in the early 2030's, the story unfolds as Dr. Alwyn Stafford, famed for his theories of Mars's prehistoric microbial life, disappears without trace while on a legally dubious solo journey deep into the unexplored regions of the Martian desert.
Search teams shoot forth from Mars's modest research stations, led by Carter Jahns (cute, if heavy-handed, homage to Burroughs there), a young protegé of Stafford's who is perhaps the most bewildered of anyone regarding Stafford's motives. When Stafford's buggy turns up abandoned in a remote impact crater, obviously concealed by Stafford to confound search parties, mysteries pile upon mysteries. Why the stealth? What did the eminent man expect to find way out there where no one has ever been? Why did he never radio in, even when it was clear his eight days of air were going to run out imminently? It seems there is more to this disappearing act than meets the eye.
That is, in a nutshell, a wholly adequate plot synopsis. However, Hartmann does an excellent job of pacing his story smoothly and quickly, and his ace in the hole is his depiction of Mars itself, an amazing planet which in a very real sense becomes the main character of this novel. Under Hartmann's pen, the arid wastelands of the Martian deserts and polar ice cap become mesmerizingly real. The very real passion Hartmann has for Mars (he is a participating scientist on the Mars Global Surveyor Mission, a credential trumpted on the book's cover itself) carries over into his fiction and lends such a palpable authenticity to the story's setting, you really feel, as the cliché goes, like you are there. The story itself is somewhat old hat; it is obvious even from the novel's title that the plot will involve a monumental extraterrestrial discovery of some kind, and when the big reveal comes in the book's final third, it is fairly anticlimactic, a foregone conclusion. In addition, the characters are pretty stereotypical; you have the too-big-for-her-britches girl reporter, who will do anything at all to get her story; you have Carter, the Everyman idealist and his foil Phillippe, the philosophical and introspective artist; you have the quasi-military bureaucratic scumbags who seek to threaten this Eden-like new world with their outdated earthbound jingoism, who stand in our heroes' way at every turn. So on and so on.
Happily, Hartmann successfully overcomes his own stereotyping by making his characters real people in spite of it. Even the villians aren't really villians in the formula bestseller sense (except perhaps one); everyone is simply down there with a job to do, and each feels as if s/he is doing the right thing. Unlike much hard SF, Mars Underground allows you to feel like you know the people whom you are reading about, almost as if you are in the room interacting with them, sharing their excitements and turmoils right by their side. This, combined with Hartmann's confident and brisk prose, carries the novel up and over its overly familiar plot, and makes Mars Underground a rewarding and satisfying visit to our mystery-shrouded neighbor world.