“If it was 200 Kelvin outside why not say so, rather than talk about witches’ tits…” Saxifrage Russell, the literal-minded uber-physicist of Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
I spent the entire month of November in outer space, primarily Mars, which makes me feel like my reading wasn’t very productive, although I realize how ridiculous that sounds. But I managed to get through the behemoth that is The Mars Trilogy, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while now. Here are my mini-reviews:
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke (Hugo winner, 1974) In 2130, Commander Bill Norton and his crew are tasked to explore a cylindrical object, which they call Rama, on a heading toward our sun. The interior of Rama is an entire micro-world with cities, fields, water, and cyborg animals, but no intelligent life. It’s got some of that creepy, lurking, explorative vibe that we see in the works of Jules Verne, but with the cardboard characters to match. It’s interesting, but forgettable. Because of the lack of depth, Clarke never really achieves the level of suspense that I think he was aiming for. Oh, and Morgan Freeman wants to make this into a movie.
Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (Hugo nominee, 1993) In 2026, 100 neurotic scientists pile into a vast rotating spaceship to Mars. As they colonize the planet, they fight with each other, they fight with Earth, some of them start a religion, then revolution happens and one of the most catastrophic images that has ever been burned into my brain occurs. It’s a clunky read, and the characters are bizarre, but it’s also beautiful and enticingly visionary. His technology seems excessively impossible (homemade robot diggers the size of city blocks?), but then you realize that this book was written in the early nineties, before Curiosity took 8.5 months to travel to Mars and before we knew the chemical composition of the Martian polar ice caps. So maybe it’s not so impossible…
Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (Hugo winner, 1994) Green Mars picks up in 2081 and, thanks to longevity treatments, some of the lucky First Hundred are still kickin’ it… and having elderly sex. We get to meet some of their offspring, primarily decanted, while they live in a sort of cyber-hippie commune under an icecap. KSR continues his love affair with the Martian environment, but adds to the bulk by expounding on his theories on government and economics. An entire section is devoted to the almost day-to-day affairs of a months-long constitutional congress, but he also delves more into the personalities of his characters, and a few of them blossom. Nadia and Nirgal are two of my favorites in this book.
Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (Hugo winner, 1997) At 140-ish years of age, the characters finally come alive and we get to know the survivors of the First Hundred better, and suffer with them as they experience listlessness, doubt, memory loss, and grief. But they are all much more likeable than in the previous two books, and even Saxifrage Russell, the dry, uber-physicist from the first novel, gains a charisma that is both charming and insightful. We get a return visit to a cataclysm-stricken Earth, and a tour around the gas giants, which is really what KSR does best: tour guide writing for outer space. This installment is still filled with infodumps, and yet another political conference, which has “a certain documentary tediousness to it,” (referring to the videofeeds of the conference, but I could only roll my eyes and think, “Metaquote?”), but it’s worth it. It’s really, really worth it.
The Mars trilogy beats out Rendezvous with Rama, by far, but if you can only read one of these books, Blue Mars is the best of the bunch. I would recommend reading up on the summaries of the previous two books first, just because KSR is too busy exalting the terrain to catch up the readers.
I also read Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild,” which is an excellent short story about human/alien symbiosis that won the 1985 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. It’s immediately engaging and creepy, and you’ll read it in a half hour. It reminded me of that Torchwood: Children of the Earth series, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this story was its inspiration. I found it in a collection of her short stories called Bloodchild: And Other Stories and it was the perfect antidote to my previous three weeks of KSR brain stuffing.
Looking forward: December reads
Tired of outer space and masculine voices? Here’s what I’m reading in December:
Tea with the Black Dragon
by R. A. MacAvoy
Hugo winner, 1984
Computer programming; maybe a dragon
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang: A Novel
by Kate Wilhelm
Hugo winner, 1975
Environmental catastrophe & cloning
M.C. Escher cover- boring, no?