This starts out as a book which alternates mechanically from one chapter to the next; from the year of the launch of a mission to Mars, to the last days of the astronauts' time on Mars. I've come to hate this format to the core. Here, it just about stays interesting enough to keep me going (normally I can't stand the fact that, when things get interesting, you have to read through a whole chapter of other stuff before picking up again).
Not only that, but in the opening pages the book starts out quite shallow; it's a story about a private, low-budget trip to Mars, with the benefactor being a charismatic media tycoon (who else?) and competition coming from a European Airbus consortium and the Chinese.
However, as things start moving Benford becomes much more involved with emotions and the (very) technical difficulties of such a mission and starts to draw out lengthy descriptions of all these details, concentrating on rocket technology, psychology, and atmospheric chemistry. It does get very good!
An interesting aside: Gregory predicts (the book came out in 1999) bird flu! He talks about a parent of one of the astronauts picking up a virus in Asia which has jumped from animals to humans.
If this book had been written by a novelist rather than a scientist, it would have everything except action. As it is, it is a tad wooden. In the same way that NASA astronauts are trained to do everything with deliberation and without panache, so is this book.
What this author does bring is real plausibility, and in some detail. Set in the very near future, it is about two privately-funded shoestring expeditions to Mars. They are in competition for the prize of being first there and back. Once there, they find life in the form of a bacterial mat, sufficiently complex that it is able to act in self-defence, and kills two of the astronauts. As one of the return vehicles fails, the two teams end up having to work together.
Despite bing far-out, it is very believeably plausible, helped mosly by very fine descriptions of the alien life-form. It is science-fiction, but only just -- just the kind of book I like to read, but some real action would have been nice.
Only slight problem I have is with the timing: the book was written in 1999, and has the first Mars landing take place in 2014. It is surprising that today, as always in the past, science fiction writers are hopelessly optimistic.
Finally, there are many unexpecteed turns in the work, in all the right proportions! Pity it is bland and a tad boring.