Saturday, June 23, 2012

Blue Mars - Kim Stanley Robinson

In my attempt to read and review all of Kim Stanley Robinson's novels I  have progressed to the third book in his Mars trilogy. Blue Mars (1996) was nominated for a whole bunch of awards won Robinson a Hugo and the Locus Award in 1997. It is  special to me, partly because it is the first novel by Robinson I've read. The book captivated me so much that I didn't even realize it was  the third book until I was halfway through. I bought it in the late 1990s  when I was studying environmental science in Etten-Leur. The town had one bookstore worthy of the name with only a very small English language section. Nevertheless, it fed my emerging speculative fiction addiction  admirably. Robinson's book just looked at me right across the store. The novel hits on so many aspects of what I was trying to learn at that  time that it is no real surprise I liked it so much. Soon after, I  picked up the other two novels and I have been reading anything by  Robinson I can get my hands on since. This is the fourth time (I think) that I have read Blue Mars and the novel still impresses me. As the  final part in the Mars trilogy it probably won't be considered his  greatest work but it was certainly convincing enough to hook me. I am  already looking forward to reading his latest novel 2321, which was released in May and is said  to have certain thematic links with the Mars trilogy.

The  revolution has succeeded, Mars is now de facto independent of Earth. That certainly doesn't mean their troubles are over. Earth vastness,  resources and enormous population loom over the fragile environment of  the red planet. Internally Martian society faces challenges as well. The  population is fractured into a large number for radically different  groups, all with their own values, philosophies and goals, some of which  clash violently. A new way to govern such a diverse group of people will  have to be devised. The great social and scientific experiment that the  colonization of Mars has become continues and the First Hundred, now  diminished to a much smaller number, are at the centre of these  development. In a solar system here longevity and population growth  threaten to overtake technological development and the carrying capacity  of Earth, Mars aims to be an example of what humanity can do to overcome  these challenges.

I guess Blue Mars is not as spectacular as the early exploration of the planet in Red Mars (1992) or the revolution and  war that take place in Green Mars (1993). The novel opens with the last  skirmishes of the revolution but soon we are drawn into the process of  developing a political structure that can handle both the unique physical environment as well as the varied values and philosophies of the population. Not all readers will appreciate this section but for me it showcases Robinson's view very well. There is a sense of optimism in these negotiations, a frantic energy and a will to succeed, that defies the huge problems humanity is faced with. Climate change, overpopulation and generations of people who live well into their third century all contribute to a picture that could easily overwhelm even the most optimistic individual. As the Martians coble together a new constitution out of radical but tried Earth methods and new Martian ideas. One that is designed to leave people as much freedom as possibly while at the same time strictly regulating societies environmental impact and guarding against economic oppression. No easy task and the result is obviously not flawless, as we'll find out later in the book. Still, Robinson beliefs it can be done and in this sections, his optimism, mostly relayed by Art, just leaps off the pages. Although Nadia would no doubt tell us it is a tyranny of a different sort.

Although the Red-Green debate seems to have come out in favour of the Green side, the planet is being irrevocably changed especially at the lower altitudes, the tension between these two visions is still present. Both Ann and Sax get a point of view section and I remember Ann's in particular hitting me hard the first time I read it. One of the downsides of studying environmental science is that you start seeing signs of humanity's influence of the landscape everywhere. In the Netherlands there is no escape from this anywhere. Even landscapes that are protected for their ecological diversity or rare environmental conditions are usually brought about some kind of carefully managed use of the land. The ideal that environmental policy strives for around here is to return to the state of the land in the 1850s, when ecological diversity was at a peak. It was also a time when just about every scrap of land, no matter how marginal, was being used for something. In other words, there is no natural landscape left around here. Humanity's influence is inescapable. Which is something like how Ann experiences Mars. Change and human influence can be found everywhere on the planet if one knows what to look for. Ann's cause is hopeless but it still hit a chord with me.

It seems Sax is beginning to see this as well. While he is still in favour of terraforming, and sees the beauty of this emerging, liveable environment everywhere, he feels the need for a synthesis of these two views as well as a reconciliation between these two iconic characters personally. There is an awful lot going on in these novels, but when you get right down to it, the Green-Red debate forms the backbone of the story. Not everybody is going to agree with this vision and the utopian society that emerges in Robinson's book. In fact, the novels prompted Brian W. Aldiss in collaboration with physicist Sir Roger Penrose to write White Mars (1999), a novel that takes quite a different approach (and appears to be very much out of print). Robinson's future is believably messy but the compressed time line and extended lives of the main characters take away something of the realism I guess. By the end of this novel the First Hundred are well into their third century.

This advanced age is the topic of one of Sax' most fascinating sections though. Robinson goes back to an idea he used in his 1984 novel Icehenge and explores memory problems in the extremely long lived. Sax of course takes the scientific approach to combating the increasing problem of whole trains of thought just blanking out completely. Robinson goes into quite a bit of detail on the structure and workings of the brain, which in the 23rd century is still a bit of a mystery. These books are saturated with Robinson's love for the scientific process but no section shows it better than Sax researching his memory problems. The fact that he keeps loosing useful thoughts and he can't seem to record them as he goes add a bit of urgency and frustration to his efforts and made me wonder how much of a verbal process thinking really is.

I guess you could say this book is a bit more introvert than the previous novels. There is homesick Michel finally returning the Provence after a century on Mars, Ann dealing with the loss of the pure Martian landscape, Maya slowly loosing her grip on her mental problems, Sax deeply withdrawn in his science and Nirgal trying to figure out what a revolutionary is supposed to do after a successful revolution. They all show us facets of the newly developing Martian culture but each somehow feels like a bit of an outsider. Not a problem Zoya Boone, John's great-granddaughter has to deal with. She is the fresh new face of a part of Martian society and the Accelerando, a time of great expansion and scientific progress, as a whole. Nihilistic and hedonistic are terms often used to describe her. In a way she is naive as well. Though her eyes we explore what goes on elsewhere in the solar system in a kind of tour reminiscent of the one portrayed in The Memory of Whiteness (1985). The Mercurial rolling city named Terminator appears in both books and I understand it shows up in 2312 as well. Blue Mars my well turn out to be the lynch pin of Robinson's output. There are plenty of links between his books despite the fact that they don't fit into one larger universe or time line.

As a novel, I don't think Blue Mars works particularly well. Where Red Mars and Green Mars each had more of an overarching story to keep all the different points of view together. For most of the book, which covers almost a century, Blue Mars does not have this kind of tension. The threat of Earth, while always present, appears to be distant to most Martians, many of whom are much more concerned with their own planet. We get to see bits and pieces of the time line and various other places in the solar system but there doesn't seem to be a unifying factor that welds all this separate stories together. When the eventual showdown with Earth finally comes, it almost feels as an afterthought. The novel is carried by the strength of Robinson's ideas, the breath of the topics discussed and the fascinating descriptions of increasingly green Martian environments. For the reader who expects a bit more plot and action this novel may be a bit of a let down.

For me personally it is a fascinating book though. I loved just about every aspect of it when I first read it and my rereads have not diminished this love. No matter how many more books I'll read on the subject, the Mars trilogy will probably remain the definitive work on the colonization of Mars for me. The scale of the story, the diversity of Robinson's scientific, political and social influences and his fascinating characters make these novels some of the most captivating science fiction I've ever read. Sure, there are plenty of elements to criticize in these novels, and in my reviews I've named a few of those. That doesn't take away anything from the fact that these books are a monumental achievement in science fiction. A superb attempt to combine hard science fiction with social and religious elements, insert some optimism into the genre and expand the ecological themes which, up to this point, had been pretty rare in science fiction. Blue Mars is a fitting end to the project that will no doubt turn out to be the one Robinson will be most remembered for. I can't think of a book that impacted me as deeply as this novel has. In other words, you should read it.

Book Details
Title: Blue Mars
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 787
Year: 1996
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-586-21391-0
First published: 1996


  1. I really, really need to get to this series..

    1. It can be pretty heavy reading but highly recommended ;)

  2. I have yet to read Blue Mars, but I've loved the first two. Robinson writes such thorough, complex novels, and I really love his style! I couldn't resist buying a hard-cover copy of his latest novel, but I probably won't read that one before finishing off the Mars Trilogy. Hearing how much you liked "Blue Mars" is making me look forward to it even more :).

  3. I'm very curious about 2312 but it looks like it will be a while before I get around to reading it myself. Haven't even bought a copy yet.

    As for Blue Mars, nobody can make Utopia as interesting as Robinson ;)