Thursday, October 25, 2012

Review of "Red Mars" by Kim Stanley Robinson

Mars has been a subject of science fiction since before the genre became a fixture:  Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Philip K. Dick’s The Martian Time-slip, Edgar Rice Burrough’s The Princess of Mars series, Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars, C.S. Lewis’s Space trilogy, Ben Bova's Mars, and many others have in one way or another imagined what life might be like on our neighboring globe.  Representing more than a decade of research and reading on the subject, Kim Stanley Robinson's 1994 Red Mars is an elaborate work that just may set the bar Mars colonization novels.

As is to be expected, Red Mars begins with the planet as a wasteland and moves toward colonization—a very human version, at that.  The main characters are introduced on the nine-month space flight from Earth, inter-group tensions set, and then turned loose on the cold, arid desert. The book divided into eight sections, a main character is the focus of each, making the novel a surprisingly character-centered work despite the large amount of technical and scientific information included and developed.  John Boone is an experienced astronaut—the first to land on Mars, in fact—and is the expedition’s leader.  Frank Howard is the second in command and secretly harbors feelings of jealousy regarding not only John’s position of power, but also his charisma and people skills.  Nadia is a tough female engineer, doing her best with the tools at her disposal to build the infrastructure and facilities they need to live.  Hiroko is an intelligent but unique-minded biologist with ideas of her own (to say the least) regarding how society should function socially.  Not the only rebel, Arkady is an architect and planner with ideas even more radical regarding the structure and interaction of people, science, and government on the planet.  Through these and a handful of other main characters Robinson weaves his highly scientific yet intriguingly human tale.

But where Robinson really earns his pay in Red Mars is with the wealth of information stuffed between the covers.  A blurred combination, many of the ideas in the novel come from empirical science, e.g. the astrophysics, geography, climactic aspects of Mars, while others are more futuristic science (i.e. pseudo science) in nature, e.g. advances in micro-biology, gerontology, terraforming, telecommunications, physiognomy, and others.  There are a few which really stretch the limits of scientific plausibility (e.g. the robotics, material engineering, etc.), but on the whole the story is firmly grounded in hard science.  Readers will undoubtedly walk away from the book with a better visualization and understanding of the realities of the red planet—Robinson’s intent seemingly to educate as much as entertain.

Problems, there are a few.  Perhaps falling victim to an editor’s desire to make the story more “interesting”, Red Mars opens with a brief but exciting scene cut from the heart of the story.  Obviously intended to be a hook, what follows this opening scene is the beginning of the story from a time perspective: the group leaving Earth.  One of the major characters killed in this opening scene, knowing what happens to them later, and more importantly, knowing what state of development Mars comes to when this person is killed, smothers the suspense of discovering whether the 100 colonists will make Mars livable.  By introducing Mars as an inhabited planet with detailed infrastructure, then reverting the scene to the wasteland of their arrival eliminates the surprise of knowing what shape the group's efforts will come to.  In short there is nothing to keep the reader guessing what their version of civilization becomes.  

Another problem, albeit smaller, is story orientation.  Several of the sections are well-developed, particularly Nadia, Michel, and Ann’s.  John and Frank’s, however, are either melodramatic or wander off the plot’s target.  John spends his time driving numerous places, doing little to solve the mystery he’s been assigned.  Frank likewise moves numerous places to no avail, the plot progressing for reasons other than his peripatetic maneuvers.  Had Robinson involved these characters with goals more closely linked to the larger objective, their actions would have felt more natural, rather than the figureheads they appear, moving from place to place just to introduce readers to some new aspect of the planet.  That being said, the author does align his pieces properly and events climax in grand fashion, suiting the story he built.  Of the three Mars books, Red Mars is the most "action-packed".

In the end, Red Mars is a hard science fiction look at colonization on Mars salted with mainstream plot devices to liven the story.  Readers looking for fast paced action would do best to avoid it, while those who are interested in matters geological, biological, and ecological and speculation on planet-scale terraforming and colonization should run to buy this character-driven story.  The structure of the novel may have some faults and the prose be nothing spectacular, but the research and immensity of the scope of ideas Robinson has embedded into the story make reading the book worthwhile.  Fans of the hard science guys like Arthur C. Clarke and Ben Bova, soft sci-fi like Ursula Le Guin or Robert Silverberg, as well as Robinson’s other work will enjoy the novel.  Though their settings and time frames are different, Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia features elements strongly in common, particularly regarding the evolution of man as a group.  While Aldiss approaches humanity from a more seminal point of view, fans of the author may still be interested.

(For those curious about the Mars series as a whole, one thing is for sure: it develops consistently.  From Red Mars, to Green Mars to Blue Mars, Robinson's years of research into the potential for colonizing and terraforming the red planet is reflected on every page.  The majority of dialogue and commentary is shunted toward scientific and socio-political matters, while natural points of tension amongst the viewpoints arise to buoy the story.  Red Mars is the most "action oriented", while Green and Blue dig progressively deeper into Robinson's agenda.  A grand thought experiment stretched across nearly 2,000 pages, the books are worthwhile for anyone who thinks on a grand scale and is curious to see a relatively realistic portrayal of what human colonization of the red planet might be like.)


  1. The Mars trilogy is probably what got me hooked on science fiction. I guess I read it at exactly the right time in my life.

    Interesting that you mention Aldiss by the way. He had a thing or two to say about the inevitability of creating a Green Mars. Even wrote a (pretty unreadable) book about it.

  2. I'm at a small debate with myself whether to jump into the remaining two books in the Mars trilogy, or read them as desire dictates. What do you think? Is there value in jumping right into the remaining books?