Are you guys ready for another Mars story? Of course you are! You're reading this blog, are you not?
It's hard not to compare Les Johnson and Ben Bova's latest, Rescue Mode, to Andy Weir's The Martian (which I reviewed back in May). They are both about missions to Mars that run into potentially fatal trouble. They are both what I would call "diamond-hard science fiction"; in other words, the authors of both pay fastidious attention to technological and scientific plausibility (which may put off the reader who's unaccustomed to the genre). But while The Martian focuses on one man's struggle to survive on the inhospitable surface of Mars, Rescue Mode backs up and takes in the broader view. Johnson and Bova, you see, are more concerned with the politics of manned missions to Mars -- and with demonstrating that they're actually possible and desirable.
The Martian, I think, is the superior work. The characterization in Rescue Mode isn't bad necessarily, but none of Johnson and Bova's protagonists are quite as interesting as Weir's Mark -- mainly because the authors fail to fire all the guns they place on the wall in the first act. In one scene, for example, the Japanese doctor on the Mars mission suddenly finds herself struggling with claustrophobia -- but this potential source of conflict is never used. Similarly, the rivalry between the American astronaut and the Canadian commander basically fizzles to nothing -- as does the rivalry between the Russian meteorologist and one of the mission geologists. Now, you can argue - validly - that said rivalries should become less important once their lives are in real danger, but I think more time could've been spent on how this happens and why.
I also think the first person narration in The Martian helps you to feel the suspense more keenly. To be sure, Johnson and Bova do throw some frightening roadblocks in their characters' path -- like the meteoroid that nearly destroys their ship and leaves them critically short on water. But because these events are told from a third-person distance, you can sort of fool yourself into thinking that everything will be all right -- something you can't do while reading about Mark's travails.
Still, if you're desperate for more realistic tales of manned missions to Mars, Rescue Mode is a decent - and certainly informative - find. Any space enthusiast should find it a worthwhile read.
Final Verdict: Recommended, But With Notes.