BOOKS: Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson

I’d been looking forward to reading this book for years — for decades. All I knew was that there were three books: Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, and that it was about the long term colonization and terraforming of the red planet.

It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but it did not disappoint.

red mars cover 1st edition
1st edition cover by Don Dixon

The first colony is composed of 100 scientists, who had undergone a gruelling, multi-year selection process in Antarctica (Antarctica, by the way, serves as Earth’s nearest political and environmental analogy to Mars. The author seems to be well-acquainted with the continent, and has even written a non-fiction book on the topic).

While the characters are developed to a reasonable degree, at no point did I find myself getting very attached to them, or even really liking them. We listen to their thoughts, and observe their interactions, and we witness the dynamics between the mess of characters on the planet, but at no point did I really care very much about any of them. In some ways, the humans in the book simply serve as another set of variables affecting the fate of Mars – likely an intentional choice by the author, as it allows the reader to evaluate a given character’s value to a specific cause in a more objective manner — the way Mars might see it.

Even upon the murder of a central character, the reader can’t help but be more interested in the ramifications of that character being taken out of circulation, as opposed to concerned, horrified, or offended at the loss. When we mourn this loss, it is almost more for the loss of the colonist’s contribution, than the loss of a beloved character. The drive of history and the wheels of fate are pressing forward, and the book doesn’t let you feel these things except in passing — which, I think, was a wonderful way to let you empathize with the victim’s friends and murderer. We don’t feel tragedy in the murder so much as the circumstances these people find themselves in. They are desperate to keep things from getting worse and make things better, but can’t see the whole of what’s going on. The reader is given an opportunity to observe the human condition more impersonally.

red mars cover_2

Over the course of the book, various philosophies, and social and economic systems are set up against each other, and they are championed by characters of different temperaments, morals, and methods. We get to see how the characteristics of those promoting an idea affect an idea’s success and proliferation. As John Boone, the first man on Mars and the first Martian Detective, maintained, “The only part of an argument that really matters is what we think of the people arguing.”(pg 77) The reader finds that there’s more to it than that, but we are certainly shown that the validity of an idea, and the strength of the arguments supporting it, have little to do with its success

We also get to see a lot of the physical sciences at work. The breadth of the biology, chemistry, physics and geology happening in this book are vast, and I like to think that Robinson really did all the math. I wasn’t really in a position to judge the realism of some of the portrayed phenomena, but of those which I could, I was quite satisfied.

As a result, we get a sense of wonder at the works of Man, and of the scale of the industry involved. We get to think about building and destroying space elevators, and moving asteroids, pulling moons out of orbit, and the new engineering constraints and opportunities under lower gravity — and we get to see the social and economic ramifications of all these works and events. At times, the book reads like a disaster movie, and the reader gets to witness physical events on a scale that are hard to imagine and fun to think about.

Cover art by Don Dixon

The book does not read quickly, nor is it gripping. There is no urgency to get to the next page, but it entices the reader. I wasn’t desperate for the next chapter, but I still wanted it. I was brought into the book enough that at times I would look up from the page and expect to be looking through the tinted visor from my space suit.

While the book is written in the third person, the narration of each chapter carries the outlook and temperament of a different focus character. This is quite effectively done, as the reader is given the opportunity to be immersed in the biases and ideals of a range of the colonists, which is especially interesting once we’ve seen how a given character is viewed by several others before ‘getting inside their head.’ And it was obvious that great care was taken in deciding which character would lead the reader through each stage of the story.

The only time the reader is given an objective, or unbiased, factual account of events, is in the italicized introductions to each chapter, which served to emphasize the lens through which we are reading most of the book, and gives the reader an idea of how many different viewpoints can be taken from such a complex set of circumstances.

One of the factions in the book were the ‘reds’ — those that wanted to leave mars alone, and study it in its pristine condition, before humans were allowed to disrupt it. Ann Clayborne was the most prominent of this minority. She was brilliant and stubborn, and did not understand how to deal with people. Her love of the planet and her scientific curiousity for Mars were pitted against the greed of those that wanted to profit from it and the self-interest of those that wanted alter it to their needs. She was not a particularly likeable character, but at one point I found myself in small awe of a literary parallel she formed with Heilen’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

Heinlen’s Martians, as I remember, were big red intellectual balls. They were concerned with acquiring the complete understanding of a thing — when dealing with planets, they would spend hundreds of years studying it, until they ‘grokked’ (‘drank’ or ‘understood’) the planet, and then destroyed it — which was their long-term plan for Earth.

It is so interesting that Robinson’s Ann Clayborne functions as the human counterpart of Heinlen’s Martians, as it is her wish to have the planet studied in its pristine state for hundreds of years, before it is destroyed (or terraformed — to Ann, to change Mars, was to destroy it).

red mars cover_4

Over the period of time that I read the book, I found that I often had a pit in my stomach, and I didn’t immediately realize why. The colonists depart for Mars in 2026 — startlingly close to today — and the technologies they have available at the time are not so very far from what we have now. One can expect that Robinson’s projection of technological progression — in computing, robotics, and biotechnology (if not so much geopolitically), will be very very near the mark. So not only do the events in the book feel very very close, but in bringing our baggage to Mars, our situation is laid very bare.

There is very little to stand in the way of the exploitation of the planet. We see how efficiently humans can strip everything of value from another’s home, and leave with the profit, and how willing we are to allow self-interest to govern every decision. And we can see people that can see through all these things try so desperately to fight the tides of greed and fear and power, and we know how hopeless it can feel.

He shows us all these things, but paints Mars so vividly that we forget the same thing is happening here. We almost forget, except for that pit in our stomach.

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