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|The Fifth Man
by John B. Olson and Randall Ingermanson
Published by Bethany House Publishers, 2002
recommended by: Greg Slade
This is the sequel to Olson and Ingermanson's Christy Award-winning first book together, Oxygen. It carries on the story after the crew of the first mission to Mars, who made it there literally on their last gasp, have been on Mars for several months. The stress of being isolated and yet in one another's pockets for so long has begun to take its toll, and the friction between the crew members is starting to mount. In fact, it seems like they're all cracking up and getting paranoid. Or is somebody really out to get them? (And how could there be somebody out to get them when they're the only people on the planet?)
This book is not quite as successful, at least for me, as the first one. Ingermanson mentioned in his online interview that he is more interested in thrillers than science fiction. That shows here. There is plenty of tension. In fact, Olson and Ingermanson keep piling it on long after you figure it's time for denouement. However, it feels like a bit of a cheat to me.
Some years ago, there was a B-grade movie called Murder In Space. When it was first broadcast on pay TV, they left off the ending, and had a contest to see who could guess "whodunit." But the solution to the mystery was so twisted and convoluted, with a different murderer for each victim (including one murderer who had already been killed by somebody else by the time their victim died), that it was impossible to take the story seriously. Basically, they made the plot so insanely complicated to make it impossible for anybody to guess the solution.
Olson and Ingermanson don't go quite that far, but they do make a bit free in making sure that just about every mishap which could possibly befall the crew does, in a relentless succession of hair's-breadth escapes which, to be honest, get to be a bit too much after a while. Even worse, at the end, there are still some fairly major plot strings left hanging. (Major enough, in fact, to cast doubt on the resolution of different subplots at the end of the book.) In addition, there were a couple of technological and character issues I didn't quite "buy."
In spite of those issues, I still enjoyed it. For one thing, it's well-written. In fact, it's yet another page-turner that kept me up way too late finishing it. For another thing, it's pretty straight hard science. There are no ray guns, matter transporters, mind-reading machines, or other pseudo-scientific trappings. Nor is there a bunch of heavy-handed preaching (or romance.) In short, it is quite different from the majority of inferior works you'd find on the science fiction shelves of a regular bookstore, and also from the heavy-handed works you would expect to find on the fiction shelves of a Christian bookstore. If I pick so many holes in it, it's because Olson and Ingermanson have raised my expectations. Guys: you've done well. Now do better still.
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