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LATEST TRIP TO MARS IS A MYSTERY TOUR

By J. Stephen Bolhafner
Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Sunday, September 27, 1992 Page 5C


THIS IS THE YEAR of the Mars novel. In the wake of the ''Case for Mars'' conferences in Colorado in the '80s, several science-fiction writers have been setting books on the Red Planet, with more to come in the next few months.

Allen Steele's "Labyrinth of Night"' (340 pages, Ace, $4.99 paperback) takes place several years after the initial exploration of Mars, with permanent bases already in place. It centers on mysterious formations photographed by NASA Viking orbiters in 1976 that some say are evidence of alien intelligence. In the pictures, one can see what looks like a face, and nearby it several pyramids.

While most scientists dismiss them as natural rock formations, Steele uses the possibility that they were produced by intelligent aliens as the jumping-off place for his novel. At the beginning of the story, one of the pyramids has been opened and discovered to be a maze of death traps. The maze seems to be an intelligence test of sorts, each room a puzzle with fatal consequences for failure to find a solution.

Steele, a St. Louisan, writes traditional ''hard-core'' science fiction, in the sense that he extrapolates from very real scientific premises to build his future world and the marvels it contains. There are no impossible gadgets here, though there are some wondrous ones. This novel is his fourth in a series set in a shared future, but is not a ''series'' novel in the sense that one needs to read the other novels to enjoy it.


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