Lots of SF novels remind us that space exploration is dangerous. The potential for explosions, solar radiation, asphyxiation, and even osteoporosis are just a few hazards that plague SF astronauts. In Red Mars, however, Kim Stanley Robinson teaches us that the most dangerous part of the journey and colonization of Mars may very well be the people who are crazy enough to attempt such an undertaking.
100 American and Russian astronauts are selected and trained to colonize Mars in the near future 21st century. After extensive preparation in the Antarctic, they cram themselves into a massive rocket and ship themselves to the red planet. The nine-month voyage forges alliances and heightens rivalries to the point that, upon arrival, each of the 100 colonists represent 100 distinct visions for the future of their new home. Those visions shape and hinder the development of Mars as the colonists react to one another in forms of diplomacy and rebellion. And the citizens of Earth watch this drama play out on reality television.
It’s a realistic perspective on the drama of space exploration. The colonists chosen for this mission are genius experts who are passionate about their fields and eager to abandon home for a desert world. These aren’t healthy people. These are highly focused, single-minded, anti-social people, who are pressed to be the future of humanity. It’s very possible at least one of those 100 colonists might be a sociopathic lunatic, and we learn that is the case in the first 50 pages. (I would argue there are more than a few sociopaths in this group.)
But that’s the entire story stretched over 600 pages of text. And even though those pages offer the reader a steady, if meager, flow of plot progression and character development, there is something much bigger going on here…
THEY ARE COLONIZING MOTHERFUCKING MARS.
So, even though the story shifts between characters and their dramas, the main character is Mars. And Kim Stanley Robinson won’t let you forget it.
For readers who are new to Kim Stanley Robinson: KSR knows everything. He knows chemistry and biology. He knows economics and psychology. He knows physics and engineering. He knows geology and climatology. It doesn’t come off as pretentious, it’s just the product of solid research and intellect. But in Red Mars, this sort of info-dump does come off as heavy, and even a bit clunky. Reading Red Mars is a bit like reading a textbook that was made by dropping various textbooks into a blender and spooning the product into the folds of a post-modern novella. The characters are bizarre and dramatic, but KSR would rather spend a page telling you about ice subliming off of a glacier, and the economic impact of the carbon cycle.
Aside from being an everything-buff, his writing is beautiful. He regularly sums up the human condition with evocative statements like, “Biology was fate,” and “Relationships… took place between two subconscious minds.” And only a talent like his can illustrate the gorgeous Martian landscapes with Petra-like cliff dwellings, ice asteroids, and whirling dervishes dancing in a purple sunset.
Still, Red Mars was a chore to read and, considering the segmented format and character changes, perhaps it should be approached as a collection of novelettes instead. The colonists are well-developed, but not enough happens between them forge an interest in anyone’s well-being. I was also disappointed by the large developmental holes regarding the corporate “bad guys” who behaved like two-dimensional thugs. KSR’s writing is beautiful and his world is well-researched, but I’m not sure it’s worth the plodding pace of the novel.
Green Mars is the next installment in the Mars trilogy and, so far, the story is much more engaging. I love stories with long, slow set-ups that result in fabulous payoffs, so perhaps my commitment to Red Mars will pay off with this book.
Update: Here’s my review of Green Mars!