One of Marsbound's first images is its most striking: Carmen Dula and her family are moving to Mars, and in order to leave Earth, they have to travel in the Space Elevator, a metal cage that travels up 50,000 miles of cable through the atmosphere and into the void. Most of the passengers take the experience for granted; with the exercise room and the magazines behind every seat, it's a mixture of the mundane and the miraculous that would've made Stanley Kubrick proud. But the tenuous connection the elevator represents belies the illusion. As Carmen soon learns, the human race's expanding presence in the universe is stretched nearly as thin as that cable—and it may be just as easily severed.
Like Joe Haldeman's best-known book, The Forever War—a science-fiction take on soldiering in the age of faster-than-light travel—Marsbound also deals with the rigors of distance. The narrator, Carmen, is a young woman unnerved by the journey she's taking, but determined to get the most out of it. After a multi-stage trip made up of romance and tedium, Carmen arrives on the red planet already at odds with the colony's female head. She does her best to fit in, but after a misguided prank brings the hammer down, she makes an ill-advised trip to the planet's surface for some alone time. One misstep later, she's in serious danger, with no way to call home—but a strange figure comes to her rescue. Maybe humans aren't the only presence in the neighborhood.
Structurally, Marsbound is an odd duck; the first third follows Carmen's flight with surprising thoroughness, and the main plot doesn't even kick in until the halfway mark. The attention to detail grounds the story's more outlandish aspects, but also gives the book a lopsided feel, especially with the amount of plot crammed into the final section. Carmen is a generic but likeable heroine; her matter-of-fact relation of her adventures makes a nice contrast, although her interactions with the book's human villain are painfully clichéd. The strange pacing makes Marsbound more an expanded short story than a novel, but it gets a lot of mileage out of the emptiness that surrounds any exploration, and the unknown dangers between the stars.