In Oxygen, a crew of four American astronauts overcome peril and hardship to become the first to walk on Mars. In John Olson and Randall Ingermanson's sequel, The Fifth Man, the crew faces the complexities of life on Mars, made more difficult by sickness, one crew member's madness, and another inexplicable presence.
As they did in Oxygen, Olson and Ingermanson craft a scientifically and logistically plausible sci-fi novel, with more drama and romance than you'll find in most sci-fi stories. Take that as I stated it: it can be good or bad, depending on your taste. In my opinion, they overdo the melodrama and romance. The characters come off as emotionally immature; I wondered what they heck they were doing on a Mars mission. On the other hand, I've never met an astronaut; perhaps Olson and Ingermanson's characterizations were spot on. Astronauts are, after all, mere mortals, just like me. They can be just as subject to romantic feelings, paranoid delusions, and fits of rage or panic as anyone else.
More than the melodrama, I enjoyed the portrayal of the mission. Olson and Ingermanson do not downplay or overlook the perils of working on Mars. They write in such a way that I could be convinced that if a Mars mission left today, it might look like their Aries mission. I'm sure they take liberties--it's fiction, after all--but for a non-professional like me, The Fifth Man is an effective portrayal of what the first Mars mission might look like. As to the fifth man himself, well, not to give anything away, but they do find life on Mars. However, it's nothing like a fifth man. While the mystery of the fifth man is a part of the story, I didn't really picture it as the central part.
The Fifth Man is an enjoyable sci-fi novel, published by a Christian publisher. Other than a few explorations of faith by the characters and a possible implied theme, there's not much here to call it Christian. I don't mean that as a criticism at all; it's refreshing to read characters who actually have faith, and who, when in trouble don't use God's name in vain but actually pray for God's help! I just mention this for Christian readers as well as unbelieving readers: this is not a stereotypical "Billy Graham film" type of novel with a big conversion scene at the end. It's a legitimate, entertaining sci-fi novel in which some of the characters are Christians.
As a sequel to Oxygen, The Fifth Man could stand alone, but is better read after reading Oxygen. Both are fast-paced, fun to read, and leave me wondering, Why didn't they make this a trilogy? Surely there are more stories to tell from this crew.