This was a book that I read both because of its author and its premise. With dozens of alternate history novels, novellas, and short stories to his credit, Harry Turtledove is the acknowledged master of the genre, and I have enjoyed many of his works. The description of the story also had much to offer, moving away from the standard Civil War/World War II setting of far too many alternate histories to pose a much more refreshing one – what if the fourth planet from our sun was capable of sustaining life?
Much of what Turtledove does with this is imaginative. No longer the “red planet” we know, he bestows upon it a different name – “Minerva” rather than Mars. To make it habitable, then planet is larger, though its distance from the sun means that it is still a cold place. He also devises an ecology based around entirely different premises, imagining evolution producing radial rather than symmetrical species with their own cycles and habits. After this life is discovered by an American probe in 1976, the two superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union race to send manned missions to Minerva to explore it for themselves, with the story itself being a tale of the two missions’ simultaneous arrival on the planet.
Yet as I read this book, I was struck by how conventional it was. Once the premise is outlined, the plot quickly develops along the lines of the American-versus-Soviet space contests typical of many sci-fi novels produced during the Cold War. Propping up the story with an alternate-history setting allows Turtledove to get away with this, but it gives the entire book a prematurely dated feel. Moreover, too many of the characters are underdeveloped, sometimes leaving them indistinguishable from one another. The “Minervans” suffer from similar flaws, with only a few of them clearly defined in any way and none of them ever coming across as truly alien.
As a result, the book might disappoint readers familiar with Turtledove's later work. While not a bad novel, it lacks the distinctive characters and immersion into detailed alternate Earths that are hallmarks of many of the author's subsequent writings. Fans of Turtledove's other novels will find the absence of such elements leaving them wanting more, as it fails to provide what they have come to expect from this notable author.