A FEW WEEKS AGO a front-page headline in The Wall Street Journal declared: "Once a Huge Fizzle, Men-to-Mars Idea Is Enjoying a Revival." The subhead added: "Some Back Race With Soviet, Some Prefer Cooperation; A Landing in Year 2024?"

For science fiction lovers, of course, the idea never fizzled in the first place. But chances are that neither sci-fi fans (whom I envision as mostly male) nor the Journal ever envisioned a feminist physicist astronaut like Amanda Jaworski, the heroine of Carol Hill's third novel, making the first attempt at Mars, in the company of a brainy chimp and with the help of a boy genius, a cat aptly named Schrodinger, a rather pallid but loyal lover plus several very strange robots.

Very tricky business, space travel. It is hard enough to grasp the concepts of light years, quarks and so on, much less make a tour de force out of them. Carol Hill makes a sensational attempt here, propelled by Amanda, who is sort of a cross between Sally Ride and Wonder Woman . . . on roller skates. I can't help thinking that this heroine's first name comes from the Katherine Hepburn character in Adam's Rib, her second from the Watergate judge Jaworski, but who knows? The point is that Dancer is not just a sci-fi novel, but one with political, humorous, and sociological messages.

Hill did not take the well-trod narrative path in her previous novels, Jeremiah 8:20 (a fat, shlumpy boarding-house resident of New York winds up in the most incredible adventures) and Let's Fall in Love (a sexy $10,000- a-shot hooker gets caught up in international intrigue), nor does she here. For what it's worth, the story of Dancer is about a planned NASA Mars flight that Amanda is set to pilot. Peculiar things start happening on earth, however, such as weird storms and astronaut psychosis. Right in Amanda's own house, a creature with the speech pattern of a 1930s Chicago hood but made of the Primal Ooze -- Oozie, to his friends -- rides in on a tricycle. Amanada gets a quark stuck in her eye. When she finally blasts off into the beyond, everyone thinks she's headed for Mars but she's really out to save her cat, captured by an evil Spielbergian Thing called Great Cosmic Brain -- GCB to his troops. The cat, you see, has a couple of molecules that allow him to draw pictures of Amanda's toes, when he's not in a coma . . . Oh, heck, you have to read the book for this to make any sense at all.

READ IT, by all means. Hill's accomplishment is to make subparticle physics, environmental policy and the ultimate acceptance of other universes fit together in a novel that's entertaining even when it is hard to follow.

The lady astronaut herself is a self-described "mass of boiling contradictions" who "accorded equal power to Frank Sinatra and Werner Heisenberg." She is both a brilliant scientist who, in her lover's eyes, "had been born in a river of electrons," and at the same time she is a "melter" in the arms of the right man.

The message? Amanda represents a truly "new woman," a woman who can handle the contradictions that modern physics has wrought without losing her passionate humanity. Thus, she becomes the one person who can save our planet from the outer space bad guys who have entered the minds of ordinary humans and turned them into nerds (actually NERPS -- see book for explanation), polluters, nuke-nuts and warmongering Russkies. Hill is nothing if not ambitious; The Million Mile High Dancer is very much about death, love and salvation.

Luckily, Hill spins all this out in readable, often wry fashion. "It was only one of the crazier aspects of history," she deadpans at one critical juncture, "that here were a woman and a chimp chasing to the moon after a cat, sponsored by the entire military establishment of the United States and utilizing all of technology, but protected finally by a young boy and a magic ring. Oh yes, and protected by the cat."

Ah, Schrodinger. Even if you don't like cats, you've gotta love this one, perhaps the best-realized animal in recent popular fiction since Sorrow, the flatulent dog in John Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire. As the author explains, the cat is named for the scientist who proved "that occasionally a thing can be and not be at precisely the same time," using a cat in his experiment. The cat is the key to this book, as well as to the author's intentions. Don't believe me? As Oozie might say, check it out, dollface, the cat is magic. Just don't get too "dangerously rational" and you'll have a good time with Amanda, Schro and the rest of Carol Hill's imaginative litter. is an author and editor living in New York City.