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Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson, Bantam Spectra, 1993, 572 pp.
When the first colonists arrive on Mars, they will be very startled at the first deviations from this book that they discover. "That's not like Kim Stanley Robinson predicted!"
Why is Red Mars such an addictive read? At first glance, the book seems filled with the kind of rapturous hard science fiction that has sometimes been called technoporn, which is not my favourite kind of book. However, Robinson is a clever writer, and other apparent flaws of the book, like soap opera characters, all resolve into something much different. My admiration for this book has only increased now that I have read it for the second time in light of the subsequent books in the series, Green Mars and Blue Mars. Not only does Robinson situate his story deftly on its own terms within this (rather long) book, but he creates an astonishing, intelligent epic across the whole trilogy. Even knowing what was going to happen, I found myself just as hooked on the experience of reading Red Mars the second time as when the future of the Mars colony was unknown to me. Despite his unassailable research, I don't think Robinson is trying to predict the future. Like many other utopian works in science fiction (although categorizing Red Mars and its sequels as such is indeed debatable), the book is more interested in writing, in the postmodern sense, a desirable version of the future. The book's overall success only makes Robinson's rendering of reality more likely.
Red Mars tells the story of the first hundred colonists on Mars and their perspective and the subsequent events. The book opens with a chapter, "Festival Night," taken from the middle of the book, chronologically speaking. Frank Chalmers incites some rioting and the assassination of John Boone. The rest of the narrative follows a strict chronological order, beginning with Ares leaving Earth orbit. John Boone was the first man on Mars, and decided to be a colonist as well, making Chalmers, the American leader, envious. Maya Toitovna leads the Russian contingent, which includes Nadia Cherneshevsky and Arkady Bogdanov. Survival takes up a good deal of the concern of the first half of the book, along with the John-Maya-Frank love triangle. Events get much more politicized after John's death, and with heavier influxes of colonist from all over Earth. This book ends with a revolution, and some spectacular scenes of disaster. The surviving characters undergo tremendous hardship and are bonded even more firmly to their home planet, leaving lots of conflict for the two subsequent books.
The characters are mostly interesting, and served well by Robinson's decision to write each of the eight Parts of the book from a different person's point-of-view, with two repetitions (Frank and Nadia). Conflicts become at once evitable and inherent in the characters -- we see so clearly the opposing perspectives and how firmly each person is entrenched in their own. Ann Clayborne is a diehard opponent to terraforming, and when we get to the final Part of the book and find that it is her part, it is fascinating to see how she thinks. Robinson has an uncanny ability to capture the justification that goes on inside the human head, and how facts are filtered through our personalities. And -- shock, gasp -- even in science. From one of my favourite characters: "Science was many things, Nadia thought, including a weapon with which to hit other scientists" (137). Sometimes Robinson uses a disturbing kind of shorthand for some of the smaller characters -- Phyllis is a fundamentalist Christian and later sells out Mars to the ravening transnational companies -- but on the whole, he uses conventional traits for his own subversive, fascinating purposes. See the relationship between Nadia and Arkady.
In terms of its ideas and science, Red Mars is big, ambitious, and keeps all of its promises. I'm not the kind of reader who checks the author's calculations, but I do need to be convinced, and Robinson went far beyond that. It's impossible to convey the scope and confidence of his writing in a review -- I can only say that I would surprised if someone told me about a scientific error anywhere in the book. On a facetious level, Red Mars could be described as an account of a game of SimMars. But because Robinson does not ignore the political/ethical implications of the events, he avoids the typical flaw of most engineering-textbook science fiction. Namely, the claim to amorality which is a profound statement of morality on its own. While I don't think the book is truly utopian, Robinson never closes his eyes to the greater significance of anything from terraforming to methods of resistance to longevity treatments. I admire his skill at tying scientific advancements to realistic consequences more so than any specific extrapolation -- Red Mars' extraordinary balancing of various elements makes every single part synergistically more interesting. My only quibble is that Robinson seems to ignore how insanely fast information technology would be developing, but this solitary flaw doesn't detract from his careful attention to every other aspect of the future.
I'm looking forward to re-reading Green Mars and Blue Mars, relieved of the false burden of expectations. I know that Robinson builds on the staggering achievement represented by this book, and that the potential of the series shown here is more than fulfilled. Red Mars is the beginning of a remarkable, heartening journey into the new, into the possibilities of tomorrow.
Last modified: May 18, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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