Ever since I was a child, space has captivated my imagination. I love space. I love space science. I love science fiction. I have literally spent months of my life by this point, I would estimate, with the crews of the various starships Enterprise, Voyager, and the station Deep Space Nine. Yet never have I really had much desire to go to space. It seems like a cold, forbidding place, and the cost of getting there—monetarily, but also physically, is so much! Also, I’m a tall witch (192 cm), so they’d probably take one look at me, laugh as they visualized stuffing me into a launch capsule, and then pass.
Kate Greene, on the other hand, has at least entertained what it would be like to be an astronaut. While she never quite achieved that dream, she came close by participating in a HI-SEAS experiment to live in isolation with five other astronaut-like people. For four months, they ran experiments and simulated living in a habitat on Mars. Then she wrote about it, including for this book. I received an ARC from St. Martin’s Press in return for a review.
Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars starts strong. I really love Greene’s awareness of and appreciation for the history of spaceflight. She weaves this history, along with personal anecdotes, throughout the book. Greene gets it in a way that some people don’t; as I read, I felt like we were speaking the same language. She describes her excitement and fascination for not just space itself but learning all about the people and projects who go to space, and I can dig that.
Organizationally, however, this book leaves much to be desired. Each chapter includes tidbits of Greene’s time participating in HI-SEAS. Yet these seem merely to function as launch pads for ruminations on larger issues, like climate change, or to discuss other aspects of the history of spaceflight. Sometimes Greene discusses her personal life, from having a brother who lives with a significant disability to the breakdown of her marriage. I like personal stories as much as the next person, cool—but I went into this book thinking I would hear more about Greene’s experience living “on Mars,” and I feel like I barely heard about that. She never fails to return to the HI-SEAS mission at least once a chapter, but it never seems to be the focus of the writing. And I could accept that, could live with it being merely a framework on which to craft essays, if the essays themselves were organized. But too often, I didn’t feel like Greene was making much of a point—or when she was making a point, it didn’t feel like something new and interesting to me.
There is a related issue to this: Greene is constantly referring to books that are cooler than hers. At one point she’s diving deep into Scott Kelly’s book about spending a year in space. Another time she quotes extensively from Michael Collins’ book. Now look, I love intertextuality as much as the next English teacher. I love that she is referring to and building upon past discussions of spaceflight. Yet it happens in such a way that the thought honestly crossed my mind that I should just be reading those books, not this one. What, exactly, is Greene contributing to the conversation in these chapters? She was obviously very moved by her experience, and there are times she alludes quite directly to this idea. Still, for something so significant to her life, I was expecting … more.
Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars is a book that lacks confidence in itself. It never really settles down into a formula that is fruitful or reliable. Overall, I did enjoy it. When Greene’s writing veers towards the interesting, it is quite interesting. But I’m not sure it will leave much of an impression, especially not about what it might be like to one day live on Mars.