Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Green Mars - Kim Stanley Robinson

Green Mars is the second book in Robinson's most well known work, the Mars trilogy. Although many critics consider the second and third volume not quite as good as Red Mars, Robinson won both the Locus and Hugo Awards with this novel in 1994. Green Mars must have been a lot more difficult to write than Red Mars. The planet is no longer empty, vast changes take place in the physical environment and ideologies buckle under the stress of practical application and opposition from Earth. Mars is a mess in this book and Robinson obviously struggled with that.

After the revolution of 2061, the few members of the first hundred that are still alive are forced into hiding. Taking refuge with Hiroko's group in a dome habitat under the south pole of Mars, they bide their time. A whole new generation of Martians grows up around them in the small world under they ice. The remaining First Hundred members know they cannot stay hidden forever. The Martian underground is too extensive to suppress and the Transnationals that currently run the planet, too preoccupied with their own struggles to take notice of the social tension that are rising on the planet. Another revolution seems inevitable. Only the question of how to make sure this one succeeds remains to be answered. As usual, the first hundred disagree and they are by no means the only players in this political game.

The novel is divided in ten parts, each told from the point of view of a single character. As if to underline the changes taking place on Mars, Robinson first introduces us to Nrigal, the son of Hiroko and stowaway Desmond, and Art Randolph, Praxis employee sent to Mars to make contact with the underground. Nirgal in particular, is an interesting character. He and and John Boone's granddaughter Jacky, represent the new Martian human, tall, healthy, expecting to live for centuries and supremely ignorant of the planet that was the cradle of their species. The other parts are filled in by characters we have already met. First Hundred members Ann, Sax, Maya and Nadia, each of them using their fame as the first settlers of Mars to pursue their own agendas.

The plot of Green Mars is messy from start to finish. Robinson tries to tie a lot of political, social and scientific developments into the novel and this makes the story a lot more complicated than Red Mars. I guess a confrontation between Sax and Ann shows this most clearly.
Most of the people there had seen de famous videotape of Ann and Sax's argument in Underhill, and certainly their story was well-known, one of the great myths of the First Hundred - a myth from a time when things had been simpler, and distinct personalities could stand for clear-cut issues. Now nothing was simple anymore, and as the old enemies faced off again in the middle of this hodge-podge group, there was an odd electricity in the air, a mix of nostalgia and tension and collective déjà vu, and a wish (perhaps just in herself, Nadia thought bitterly) that the two of them could somehow effect a reconciliation, for their own sakes and for all of them.

Nadia witnessing an argument between Ann and Sax - Part Seven - What Is To Be Done?
Ann and Sax, thesis and anti-thesis in the Hegelian sense (with the synthesis yet to come in Blue Mars) arguing over a point that is essentially moot by this time. Rehashing an old argument while waiting for the right moment to launch a bid for Mars' independence. In a sense a lot of this book is waiting for the 'trigger' ans Sax puts it later on in the novel. Personally I think Robinson draws this out a bit too long. He has a lot to say on various political positions, scientific developments and social experiments, most of it very interesting, but all together it is probably more than the plot can carry.

Much of the Martian problems in this novel stem from Robinson's vision of late 21st and early 22nd Earth. With the effect of gerontological treatment beginning to make an impact, the planet seems to be heading towards a Malthusian crisis of huge proportions. The treatment is still only available to a (substantial) minority of the people however. Although some states guarantee the procedure as a basic human right, in practice only the privileged receive it regularly. Nevertheless, the population is booming and the pressures on Earth's already overstretched ecosystem become enormous. Earth is desperate for a way to take some of the pressure off and the empty red planet looks tempting. Even if it is quite clear Mars will never be capable of supporting a population large enough to make an impact back on Earth.

Through newsflashes received by the Martians, Robinson effectively shows us an Earth on the edge of complete ecological breakdown, a process helped along by the power of the Transnats. These organizations are conglomerates of the Metanats of Red Mars. Their turnover dwarfs the budget of any government save the few largest economies on Earth and their power is ever increasing. Using their capital to gain more and more political influence, they have effectively reduced Mars to their private property. It is not a pretty picture of capitalism Robinson is painting in this book. At the very least it appears incapable of finding a market incentive to respect the ecological limits of the planet. Most of Robinson's work is political very left wing (particularly by American standards) so the failure of capitalism to deal with the crisis should come as no surprise. Still, if neo-liberal economics are your thing this book is going to be painful to read.

The novel contains several attempts to offer an alternative. On Earth, the Transnat Praxis is trying to implement more ecologically sustainable business practices. Founder of the company, William Fort, is aiming for a kind of eco-economics (looking at the etymology of economy and ecology it sounds a bit like a tautology is you ask me ). Back on Mars, the underground is running a kind of gift economy that is partly based on an energy source as currency and party on preventing the stockpiling of resources by allowing a portion of the earnings to dissipate into the environment as either heat of nitrogen (both of which aid the terraforming process and therefore the long term goal of making the surface habitable). It's a system that knows a lot of problems. Robinson mentions some in the book but the most obvious, what to do if the long term goal is not terraforming, in other words the Reds' political position, is not tackled here. It's a great source of tension in the Martian underground. Economics have never been my forte but it appears there are a great number of problems still to be worked out. I can't help but feel this part is much more speculative than the hard science fiction elements in the book.

Of these there are still plenty. One of the things Robinson describes is the building of a new space elevator. He also goes into detail on the changes in the Martian landscape. Where in Red Mars, we mostly saw the planet as it was then known from the photographs returned by various space probes, Robinson is now actively trying to describe the impact of higher temperatures and a thicker atmosphere. With such a huge vertical dimension to the planet, the highest point on the surface is some thirty kilometres above the lowest, erosion is taking on dangerous proportions. Like in Red Mars, there are plenty of descriptions of people travelling across the planet and seeing interesting geological formations and fascinating meteorological phenomena (Robinson pays attention to the colours of the sky in particular). Even more than in the previous book, Robinson impressed the acute danger the planet poses to its new inhabitants. The terraforming effort, which can be charitably described as somewhat disorganized, is wreaking havoc on a massive scale. I'm still in awe of Robinson's ability to make this landscape come to life in his books.

On the whole I think Green Mars is not quite as good and Red Mars. I feel that Robinson tried to put too much information and too much very rapid change in the already compressed time-scale of the series. That being said, the attractions of the first novel are still present in this book. Robinson's vision of the colonization of Mars in frighteningly plausible in some respects and very well thought through. Despite the huge challenges being faced by the characters, there is a sense of optimism about these novels that human ingenuity and common sense will be able to overcome them. Although the situation is bad at times, there are always people working on ways to improve it, usually with very innovative ideas. I'm not sure all of it is equally realistic but it certainly makes for fascinating reading. It'll have to wait for a bit, but I already look forward  to my reread of the novel that got me hooked on Robinson's work  in the first place, the final volume in this trilogy: Blue Mars.

Book Details
Title: Green Mars
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 781
Year: 1996
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-586-21390-2
First published: 1993


  1. I remember reading the first one years back..and enjoying it, but somehow I never got around to the other 2. I shall put a re-read of the first followed by 2 & 3 on my ever increasing want-to-read list :)

  2. A reread might be a good thing, it'd be dificult to dive right into the second book. Then again, I read the third one first, maybe it'll work ;)