The Last Dance


Michael L. Shoemaker


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

March 15, 2020

hat a marvelous novel this is! I loved it. It joins my list of other great novels set in the "near future" of Earth. Novels such as Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, The Martian by Andy Weir, Blindsight by Peter Watts, Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald, and 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Those are great books, and I am adding The Last Dance to that pantheon. (I am sure I am forgetting some other great novels, but I am deliberately not including Robinson's Red Mars / Green Mars / Blue Mars trilogy - those books failed to impress me despite their massive hype, I couldn't even finish Blue Mars, I got bogged down in the endless debates about government.

Before reading The Last Dance, I did not know what a Mars Cycler was. The introduction by Marianne Dyson, which explained how a Mars Cycler works, was perhaps the most fascinating introduction I have ever read. A Mars Cycler is a big cargo ship in a permanent orbit that carries it beyond Mars and then falling back in to circle around the Earth. The Cycler does not stop at either planet, it simply crosses the orbit of each planet once every 2.1 Earth years. Once the Cycler orbit is established, it needs no additional rocket propellant to burn, because it neither speeds up nor slows down as it passes by each planet (though the Cycler does use gravity assist to swing it about each planet). Fast shuttles carrying passengers and cargo dock with the Cycler as it flies past each planet. If two Cyclers are used in conjunction, then each leg of the journey to and from Mars can be completed in 5 months (though the crew of the Cycler remains on board throughout its entire eccentric orbit).

The Mars Cycler in this book is a giant ship called The Aldrin. Inspector General Park Yerim has hastily been added to the Aldrin's passenger list as it swung around the Earth and start out for another trip out to Mars. But Park isn't on the Aldrin as a tourist, Yerim is there to hold a trial regarding the court-martial of Captain Aames, who disobeyed direct orders from the Admiralty and is now to be charged with mutiny. The case appears straightforward, there is no doubt that Captain Aames did indeed ignore specific orders with regards to the Aldrin. Yet each member of the exceptional crew agrees that Aames' actions were justified and correct, and all charges must be dropped. Park senses that there is much more to the story that will explains Aames' disregard of orders, and so she begins to interview the crew members, and each one fills in some of the background of the amazing career of Captain Aames.

Martin Shoemaker is obviously a brilliant writer who is passionate about a mission to Mars. His novel is full of technical details and explanations that make the Mars-cycler enterprise seem like a logical and plausible scheme. As you read this book, you will think: "of course there will be two Mars cycler's shuttling back and forth between Earth and Mars, it makes so much sense that it would be a mistake to do otherwise!" The scientific material does not clog the story line, there are enough details to make the story sound authenticate, but real story focuses on the characters and the challenges they face. My favorite part, of course, is the description of the Mars expedition that goes awry. It's not a copy of The Martian, but it has the same theme - stranded on the surface of Mars, how would a team of smart, dedicated professionals increase their chances of survival? I wish that this section on the Mars expedition (even though it goes quite a while) had been expanded to an even larger section.

This is a big book, but I wish there had been more room available to provide details of how the Aldrin functions. I wonder about the food production, recycling, and the docking. The novel talks about adding two new rings to the Aldrin, the H and I rings, but I would have liked to know more. I was fascinated by the entire Mars cycler concept. I see that there is soon to be a second book in the Near-Earth Mysteries series, and I will eagerly read it. I hope this is a long series, with explorations of asteriods, Titan, Europa, etc. This novel is highly recommended!