In the tree of science fiction there are branches, and sub-branches, and sub-sub-branches, all leading off in many different directions. One of the main branches is hard sf, and from this springs several others that are quite visible, one of which being the ‘whodunnit in a futuristic scientific scenario’. In the tradition of Larry Niven, Geoffrey Landis’ 1997 novella Ecopoiesis is a Martian murder mystery of such special circumstances. Whether those circumstances are enjoyable is up to the expectations readers bring to the table.
Leah Hamakawa and David Tinkerman, along with a soldier named Tally, have been sent to Mars to investigate a pair of deaths at the outset of Ecopoiesis. The upper crust of Mars years before punctured to allow magma to warm the planet’s atmosphere and bacteria deposited to sow the first seeds of life, nothing came of the project as its founder was extradited to Earth for violation of solar system environmental policy. Research nevertheless occurring in the aftermath, the remains of two scientists have been found, and the culprits need to be found. Hamakawa, Tinkerman, and Tally using their wits but keeping one eye over their shoulder as they may be next to die, the investigation moves cautiously through the exploded research and living (“hab-and-lab”) capsule, a crime scene hampered all the more by the state of Mars’ evolution.
Ecopoiesis is unequivocally hard sf. The narrative seemingly one ongoing info dump, Landis fills both exposition and dialogue with the chemical, meteorological, and physical details of the necessary conditions for bacterial life on Mars. So skewed in this direction, in fact, the murder mystery takes a backseat throughout, scientific speculation the novella’s driver. Of a single mind, if you are not interested in the scientific theories behind the artificial creation of a sustainable ecosystem on a lifeless planet, the story will certainly bounce.
Not doing himself any favors to offset the heavy ideological exposition of Ecopoiesis, Landis handles the characters and info dumps—I mean, prose—with immaturity. The following example speaks volumes regarding the two aspects:
“She was wearing a makeshift sun-bonnet constructed from piloting charts; even with her face hidden by a rebreather and caked with burn ointment, she was stunningly beautiful. I wondered what it would be like to peel off her winter garments, to make love to her right there by the stream
"By any practical definition, it is a river of beer. Yeast is an anaerobic microorganism-- the stuff that the ecopoiesis team seeded this planet with will ferment just about everything...” she said.
Relationships and sex dealt with in such a manner as this quote, what little sub-plot there is beyond info dumps ends up awkwardly implausible—on top of the questionable presentation of female autonomy. Given this story, Landis skills as a scientist shine far brighter than as a writer.
In the end, the Ecopoiesis is a boatload of hard science hypothesizing on Martian terrafor—sorry, ecopoiesis—loosely cobbled onto a murder investigation. An empty read beyond, it is best approached as a thought experiment if it is to be appreciated at all. Filled with info dump after info dump, it hearkens back to the stories of Larry Niven and Hal Clement—writers who came up with a scientific conundrum and then thought of a way to wad a story onto it. It goes without saying, perhaps, the story will appeal more to those who follow in the footsteps of Asimov rather than Bradbury.