14 July 2009
Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Red Mars” is, in the words of Arthur C. Clarke, “The best novel on the colonization of Mars that has ever been written… It should be required reading for the colonists of the next century.” I read it back in 2002 during the summer between high-school and college, and then promptly went back to the library to check out “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars”, the two other books in the trilogy. Red Mars was good enough that I recently bought it at a used book store, and I just finished a re-read. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to check it out. You can even download the full text here for free until August 19, 2009. I’ve tried to avoid major spoilers in this review, but there are some things that might be considered minor ones.
The novel begins with the First Hundred colonists traveling to an empty, barren and inhospitable Mars where they begin to carve out a permanent human niche. It follows them over several decades and through the influx of tens of thousands of new colonists and the political and social turmoil that follows as the situation on Earth and Mars becomes unstable.
The technical details of their colonization and terraforming efforts are amazingly well researched. Reading this book will give you a solid picture of our understanding of Mars at the time it was published (1993 – We’ve learned a lot about Mars since then, but you could do worse than to start with this book as a foundation).
But you won’t just learn about Mars. The geology, physics, genetic engineering, mechanical engineering, ecology, robotics, spaceflight, and much more in the novel are extremely well-thought-out. Much of it is beyond our current capabilities, but only just. Robinson does a great job of envisioning a near future where the advances that are liberally sprinkled through the book are completely plausible.
Even more impressive is that this level of detail is not confined to the “hard” sciences. The book fearlessly delves into the psychology of long-term spaceflight, the economics of martian colonization, the social inequalities that derive from advances in medical treatments, the politics of multinational corporations, and more. What I’m saying is that this book will make you think. It is an intellectual smorgasboard.
This is actually the basis of one criticism that I have seen leveled against Red Mars: it has too many intellectual asides and complicated terminology. I’ll admit, I skimmed through the pages devoted to various charts of personality types of First Hundred. It does get to be a bit much at times. But for the most part, I enjoyed the details, both when I read it the first time at the end of high school (and didn’t understand many of the details), and this time with the benefit of a background in physics and planetary science. I enjoy fiction where the author does not talk down to the reader, but rather treats the reader as if they are smart enough to rise to the author’s level of knowledge.
Despite all the fun brain-candy, the book is really about the characters and the society they are trying to build. I have spent time with some real-life Mars scientists, and I can say that Robinson’s description of their widely varying but consistently strong and driven personalities is very accurate. The early chapters of the book where he discusses the social dynamics of the First Hundred when they are being selected for the mission in particular made it clear that he understood what makes us Martians tick.
There are several point of view characters in the novel, and each brings a very distinct view to the story. This is important because the story and the ideas in it are big. Should Mars be terraformed so that it is more habitable, or left as-is so that it can be studied? Should the rules of Earth-bound politics apply to settlements on another planet? If you were given a blank slate, what sort of society would you construct? These are big questions, and the various and contrasting viewpoints are crucial for the story to explore them. Each individual character has their own personal struggles, but these all tie into the overarching story of the formation of a new martian society and the struggle for independence from a tumultuous, overpopulated Earth.
The characters do have some soap-opera moments. There is a love triangle. I dislike soap opera-esque stuff in general, but that’s not to say that it isn’t a realistic picture of what would happen. And even though I found myself exasperated at the ever-emotional Maya Toitovna, or annoyed by the hostile and scheming and romantically ignorant Frank Chalmers, the characters are well-drawn. They are consistent with who they are, even if they are the sort of person that I don’t like very much.
My main criticism of the novel is that it is just too long. It is a dense book, and a long read. The third quarter of the book could be shortened significantly without much harm. This section is spent setting up the climax, and so some of the events are very important, but they are too drawn-out and interspersed with Frank Chalmers (the POV character for this section) dealing with his love life and other emotional issues. I didn’t like Frank, and so it was hard to spend so much of the book seeing things through his eyes.
Finally, I have to say something about the descriptions. This book will make you believe that you have been to Mars and seen the sun setting on the polar dunes and looked down from the rim of Olympus Mons on the planet far below. You can practically hear it when a huge aquifer bursts and floods Valles Marineris with a roiling sea of ice and steaming water. And without giving too much away, let me just say that when the Martian revolution comes, the descriptions of some of the events that take place were so vivid and spectacular that I remembered them in surprising detail for seven years between readings.
Red Mars isn’t a perfect book, but there is so much in it that is great, it is certainly worth reading. Even though the word is overused these days, this book is undeniably epic. When you come to the final page and then think back over everything that occurred in the story, it’s almost impossible to believe that it all fit into one book. The science, although beyond our current grasp, is plausible for the relatively near future. The depiction of Mars is spot-on for what was known when the book was written, and much of it is still pretty good. The characters, though sometimes unlikeable, are very realistic. And the ideas that drive the story are huge, well thought-out, and beautifully intertwined.
Arthur C. Clarke was right: this book should be required reading for all future colonists, and for anyone with an interest in Mars and space exploration.