The Martian Race, by Gregory Benford
Benford is a director of The Mars Society, an organisation set up by Robert Zubrin in 1998, just a year before this book was published and two years after Zubrin published "The Case for Mars". In that non-fiction work (which I recommend) Zubrin, an aerospace engineer, sets out why he thinks government-backed space agencies will never make any more meaningful moves for manned flight beyond low Earth orbit, why manned flight to Mars and beyond is essential, and then shows how it can be done using existing technology for not much money. When I read Zubrin's book, I was enthralled and was immediately convinced by his arguments. Benford obviously was too, because as well as serving on the board of the Mars Society, he uses Zubrin's "Mars Direct" mission design in this near-future fiction.
What Benford wrote as fiction is becoming fact: the X-Prize, for the first private organisation to demonstrate a reusable manned sub-orbital spacecraft was won in 2004; we are on the cusp of private manned orbital space flight (SpaceX's Dragon capsule passed all the necessary tests less than a month before I read The Martian Race); and there is even a proposal for a manned Mars mission funded by, believe it or not, advertising and "reality" TV. The Martian Race's mission really is funded by investors hoping to recoup their capital investment by winning a prize, and making a profit and meeting operating costs through advertising and TV rights.
So on the large scale, Benford's "fictional" world isn't just believable, it's true. On the smaller scale he also does well. It's full of the little details that make a world not just believable but real, as if you can touch it: little things like the danger of frostbite in your toes when standing on the Martian surface.
Most of the book is a strait-forward story of the putting together of the mission, and the months spent exploring the new frontier. It really is a race betwen two teams to get there and back and do certain experiments on the surface. There's a second race too, the natives, who at first seem like primitive microbes but turn out to be a lot more - whether they're actually intelligent isn't clear, and I think it's right that it isn't clear. Intelligence is hard to define, and it's not obvious that we would even recognise it when we see it. The end of the story is perhaps the weakest part, with the competing crews suffering disasters and the survivors having to pull together or all perish, no matter what their commercial masters back on Earth say. In the last few pages we get a tantalising glimpse of a potential third Martian race, as (and I predicted this very early on, as would anyone who has read Zubrin) not everyone can go home - two remain as the first homesteaders on Mars.
I recommend this book, especially as a follow-on to reading The Case For Mars, but deduct one star for the somewhat unsatisfying ending.