Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Red Mars - Kim Stanley Robinson

The very first book by Kim Stanley Robinson I read, and the one that got me hooked on this author, was Blue Mars. I probably read it for the first time in 1998. That's right, the first time I read the trilogy, was out of order. The Mars trilogy spans some two centuries and by the time Blue Mars starts, the story has been under way for quite some time. Despite not getting many of the references to events in Red Mars and Green Mars, the novel made a deep impression on me. I was well on my way to getting a degree in environmental sciences at the time and sheer amount of geology, meteorology, biology, genetics as well as political and social science inserted in that novel was right up my ally. When I finally got my hands on the other two parts of the series it impressed me even more.

In 2020 American astronaut John Boone becomes the first man to set foot on Martian soil. From that moment on, a project to colonize the planet seems possible. The USA and Russia combine forces to select a first group of colonists. A hundred men and women, possessing a wide range of skills and scientific knowledge, are sent on their way in the year 2026 to set up a first permanent basis. Each of the First Hundred have sacrificed years of their lives to attaining the goal of reaching Mars. Their motives and idea differ greatly and this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to realize them. No wonder that before they've even arrived on Mars, the first cracks in their unity begin to appear.

One of the much heard criticisms of this book is that it is light in terms of character development. Despite the large cast and frequent changes in point of view character, I don't quite agree with that assessment.Red Mars is a novel full of social, scientific and political conflict and Robinson uses some of the characters in the First Hundred as personifications of certain positions, which may make some of them seem more like a policy than a person. Robinson needs more than one book to flesh some of these characters out completely but in the in he'll get there. The most obvious conflicts the First Hundred get in, and one that provides an overarching story for all three novels, is the conflicts between Reds and Greens. The Reds, their position advocated by geologist Ann Clayborne, think that Mars should be thoroughly studied in its pristine condition before even contemplating changing the planet. They feel the planet, even though it is lifeless, has an intrinsic value that ought to be weighed in any decision making. It is a position that has a certain appeal to it, but given the dire need on Earth for new resources and room to expand, driven by the relentless pressure of overpopulation and ecosystem collapse, it is not one that is politically defensible.

The Greens are in favour of terraforming. The most outspoken advocate of this position is physicist Saxifrage Russel (their names are a nice touch, Saxifrage is a type of plant that grows in the cracks in rocks, sometimes able to split them completely), Sax for short. Sax feels that Mars ought to be terraformed and made inhabitable for as many people as possible, in as short a time as possible, using any means science can provide to hurry the process along. This of course is more likely to win support at home and the terraforming process gets under way quickly. Throughout the novel the position of Ann is underlined by characters witnessing often dramatic changes to the landscape. Robinson carefully mixes a sense of achievement with the enormous risks being taken and the eventual loss of original landscape features. In the economical and political conflicts than play out in the novel it is quite clear what Robinson would prefer. I'm not sure Robinson has made his mind up about the Red-Green conflict.

The descriptions Martian landscape features on the planet are another thing I loved about this novel but will no doubt put some readers off. The landscape on Mars is spectacular, the planet has much more of a vertical dimension to it. It has volcanoes that rise 27 kilometres, a canyon system that dwarfs the Grand Canyon, spectacular cliffs and plenty of other geological features that are many times larger than anything found on Earth. Robinson describes them in a way that makes you feel you're walking on the surface of the red planet. Red Mars was published in 1992, since that time, Mars have been much more thoroughly explored. The results of the research carried out by the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity alone, would probably have been enough to require extensive modifications to the detail Robinson added. That doesn't take anything way from the sheer power of Robinson's imagination and his talent for bringing such a spectacular landscape alive.

While a lot of the scientific debate takes place along the Red-Green spectrum, social and political currents in the novel are a lot more complicated. Some of the First Hundred feel that they are offered a unique opportunity to do away with all the failures of old earth politics and economic theory. One of the greatest backers of an independent Mars is engineer Arkady Bogdanov. His political ideas border on anarchistic and he expresses his ideas about a new Martian society in his architecture. Not everybody agrees with the revolutionary approach of Arkady. Japanese ecologist Hiroko Ai, believes that in order to be fully part of Mars, they have to let go of earth's society completely. She develops a philosophy of live on Mars that shows some distinct religious traits. At the first opportunity that presents itself she and a group of followers disappear into the vast empty spaces of the southern hemisphere to build an utopian society. Some of the ideas Robinson presents using these two characters are very radical. They break with the current political and economic conventions that rule earth completely. They are very interesting to read but some of it is dreadfully difficult to implement and at times the actions of these groups are downright selfish.

These radical ideas are balanced by principles many readers will be more familiar with. There is the Machiavellian politician Frank Chalmers, who has worked for years to see Mars become his base of power and is terribly angry at the fact that he has had to share the place with his friend John Boone. A matter further complicated by the love triangle between Chalmers, Boone and Maya Toitovna, the severely bipolar head of the Russian contingent of the First Hundred. The economic equivalent of Frank's power politics can be found in the character of Phyllis Boyle. A woman who would sell Matian resources to the highest bidder and thinks mostly in terms of short term economic gain. Again most of the First Hundred are somewhere in between but events on earth eventually forces everyone to choose sides. Where Robinson shows all sides without taking one himself in the Red-Green debates, he doesn't manage to do in on the sociological and political front. His ideas are, by American standards, very left wing and if there is any flaw to be found in this book, it is making the capitalists and power politicians a bit too unsympathetic. I very much appreciate the dynamic between Frank and John but Phyllis is a bit too much the personification of religious right wing and economic neo-liberal thinking.

As I mentioned before, the entire trilogy, or perhaps one should think of it as one long novel, spans some two centuries. Robinson could have made it a generational tale. In some way it is, we'll see John Boone's offspring in the sequels for instance. But that would have been a waste of some terrific character as well as loose some of the magic of having the First Hundred around. The people who have witnessed it all, been though all the changes. It lends them a certain status of which they are very much aware. One of them, Vlad Taneev, a biologist and bioengineer, finds a way to repair damage to DNA associated with the ageing process. Using this treatment human lifespans are increased tremendously, triggering a population crisis on the already overpopulated planet Earth. It is one of the driving forces for much of Earth's policies towards Mars. Another of these driving forces is the continuing globalization and formation of a number of huge industrial conglomerates known as Transnats. They have a turnover that is larger than many a national economy can boast and the economic power to go with it. Mars is increasingly ruled by these companies and, not surprisingly, they are not particularly interested in running Mars democratically or even adhering to existing treaties that get in the way of making profits. It's a sad scenario. Many of Robinson's works have a very positive tone to it, but this one can be depressing at times.

The science in the novel, especially when it comes to Mars is getting a bit dated but there are a few other signs that shows this novel was written in the early nineties. One of the most striking examples is the way Robinson describes the Arab immigrants on Mars. Events on September 11th 2001 and the subsequent reaction by the US government have changed western public opinions dramatically. The passage where Frank questions the Arabs' treatment of their women will raise a few eyebrows these days. Then again, a reminder that Muslims are human would not go amiss at the moment either. Another aspect of the novel that will probably not stand the test of time is Russia's role in world politics. Although the balance of power shifts away from the two super-powers of the 20th century in the novel, it appears to be happening faster than Robinson envisioned. Which is one of the few things that is happening ahead of Robinson's time line. Given NASA's current budget crisis, a manned mission to Mars in 2020 seems out of the question. A shame, I rather liked the idea having this world's John Boone walking among us already.

Red Mars is simply one to the best science fiction novels I've read. The scope, attention for detail and variety of scientific knowledge and theories Robinson put into this work are just phenomenal. To me it reads like the hard science fiction written by Arthur C. Clarke (who has an asteroid named after him in the book) and the social science fiction written by Ursula K. Le Guin. It has just about everything I like in a science fiction novel it it. I love the emphasis on environmental sciences obviously, but also Robinson's descriptions of what a new Martian society could be like. What would be possible if we left some of Earth's bad habits behind. It's a stunning vision on the colonization of the red planet. I've read several other books set on Mars, including Robinson's own Icehenge, but the Mars trilogy will probably remain the definitive Mars novel for me.

Book Details
Title: Red Mars
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Pages: 572
Year: 1993
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-553-56073-5
First published: 1992


  1. Teehee. The first KSR book I read was Green Mars, so yeah, I started the trilogy out of order too. Don't remember much of it, but I do remember the vivid Martian landscapes. Never got around to reading the other 2 volumes though.

    I do think the way KSR achieves character continuity here is outdone by his process in The Years of Rice and Salt, in which he describes 1000 years of alternate world history through the eyes of a few characters that keep reincarnating the Buddhist way.

  2. I promise you they make much more sense when read in the right order ;)

    I've read The Years of Rice and Salt a few years back. That's another one I need to reread one of these days. Perhaps when I am done with the Mars books.

  3. Great discussion of the series. I've been reading it struggling to determine where I fall on the Red-Green political spectrum, and I still cannot decide. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

    1. Tough one, isn't it? I guess terraforming makes sense if you want to settle the planet permanently but Robinson shows some nice examples of how it could be done without impacting the planet too much.