“Rainbow Mars” by Larry Niven

Book Title: Rainbow Mars

Author: Larry Niven

Intertextuality is rife in the modern era; popular culture is self-referencing to a fault. Given this, it is not too surprising that “Rainbow Mars” contains a string of in-jokes that readers of Martian science fiction should find amusing to identify. At the end of the novel Niven identifies and attributes many of them. He misses a few, though, such as the point at the beginning of Chapter 21 when, having survived a perilous fall, the protagonist exclaims, “I still live!” – the catchcry of the hero of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Mars” books. Not only Martian-based science fiction is co-opted by the author, either – the fairytale of Jack and the Beanstalk, and the motive for the Conquistadors’ search for gold in South America, are reinvented by Niven.

This aside, “Rainbow Mars” is a rather unique blending of the science fiction sub-genres of time travel and Martian exploration. The background and main character of the novel are portrayed with the easy realism of familiarity; Niven has used the setting and protagonist of a series of his previous short stories – Hanville Svetz of the Institute of Temporal Research, erstwhile time-traveller, seen in Niven’s previous short stories “The Flight of the Horse”, “Leviathan!”, “There’s a Wolf in My Time Machine!”, and “Death in a Cage”. Svetz imagines he is travelling into the past, but from the strange creatures he encounters, we can tell he is moving in fantastical realms. Early in “Rainbow Mars”, we are shown the zoo of creatures he has collected – including, among others, a unicorn, a dragon, Moby Dick, and the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. These are taken to be merely a horse, a Gila monster, a whale, and a snake!

Svetz is embroiled in a scheme to go back to a time when Mars flourished with life. In doing so, Svetz and his companions discover the cause of Mars’ death…after bringing that cause to Earth…along with five different kinds of hostile, warring Martians…

As Svetz is wont to sarcastically exclaim, “If only we had a time machine!” But even with its aid, the successful climax of this exciting tale is far from a foregone conclusion.