The characters of The Mars series are much like Martian volcanoes: flat and shallow at first glance, with little expectation beyond the short horizon. But the horizon deceives, and that gradual slope in development results in a surge that extends miles into the atmosphere. That surge occurs in this third installment, Blue Mars, and leaves the reader gaping into the enormous depths of jagged human emotions.
(Click to read the review of the preceding novels, Red Mars and Green Mars.)
It’s not that KSR intended for his characters to appear two-dimensional in the first installment of this series; it’s just that the character treatment in Red Mars was nowhere near the depth and breadth of his treatment of the Martian environment and technology. But that flaw is rectified in Green Mars, and in Blue Mars the characters are what eventually save this series from becoming a Carl Sagan-esque textbook mash-up of really cool speculations about Mars. (Which has its own merits, but c’mon, this is a novel!)
Click to read my reviews of the previous installments of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy series: Red Mars (#1) and Green Mars (#2)
The First Hundred have become The Final Twenty-Something as the early colonists of Mars have suffered through accidents, murder, isolation, intrigue, and two major political revolts. Now, as the Martian terrain becomes hospitable and the population swells due to Terran immigration and native reproduction, the elderly survivors of The First Hundred try to settle into normal lives, while also steering the infant government in official and unofficial political appointments. In addition, they battle the unforeseen complications of being the first generation to benefit from the longevity treatments that have allowed them survive for over two centuries.
Blue Mars gives the reader a chance to see the survivors of The First Hundred (and some of their offspring) living normal lives (or trying to, at least). They are no longer the eggheaded outcasts of Red Mars, or the world-building dieties of Green Mars. Now, they are elderly celebrities with memory problems, who are sometimes derided or forgotten as the younger generations vie for political power. These people, who once traded Terran society for a grim, isolated life on an inhospitable planet, must now participate in a vibrant, breathable world among millions of other humans. In the process of their adaptation, KSR explores complex human experiences associated with intimacy, rivalry, mental health, and emotional growth. And how many mid-life crises can you have before your 200th birthday?
It’s difficult to characterize a series as expansive as The Mars Trilogy, but it’s a bit like driving around with beloved Grandpa in a classic, yet clunky, old sports car. Each novel begins slowly, puttering along while KSR shows off the scenery– and he won’t move on until he is certain that the reader knows every detail– the color of every leaf , the feel of Martian grav on the joints, the behavior of the ocean waves, (as well as the biological, chemical, metereological, and physical reasons for each of these observations). Green Mars and Blue Mars contribute to the bulk by further exploring his theories on government and economics. But this old car doesn’t idle well, and sometimes the plot stalls on these detours. But– BUT– keep turning that engine, because once it gets going again, it’s an exciting ride– until Grandpa wants to stop and look at the flowers again. Yes, the flowers are pretty, Gramps, but what about the story?
But by the end of the ride, all that frustrating stopping and starting is worth it, and all those observations coalesce into a pulsating, lush world.
This is high-definition reading. I hope your head is HD ready.
Confession: Everything KSR writes is beautiful, and I have the Twitter feed to prove it, but I’ll admit that each book in this series started as a struggle to read. My experience of the whole series is a contradiction: each book felt dull, yet fascinating. I dreaded each session of reading during the first half of each book, and yet I couldn’t put down the last two novels for the final 40% of the story. (Many of my favorite novels share this attribute.)
It’s really a case of sensory overload, and I often blanked out during the massive chunks of tedious detail. My advice is to blow through the political tedium (there are A LOT of political conferences, the worst sections for massive infodumps), and if you blank-out on the scenery, don’t bother re-reading. It’s nice for flavor, but missing some pieces won’t detract from ultimate understanding or enjoyment. Trust me, I lost a lot of hours due to re-reading (and re-blanking).
But I get overwhelmed in department stores, so maybe I’m just sensitive to sensory overload.
Blue Mars is the true gem of this series, and Green Mars is worth a look, too. The Hugo voters of the 1990’s got it right when they left Red Mars on the shortlist and gave the best novel award to the final two installments. Setting and science are necessary for good SF, but strong character development makes excellent SF. Blue Mars gets everything right with a fully realized world, scientifically-backed (yet dubiously expensive) technology, and a lifetime of two centuries with endearingly flawed characters.
And, if The Mars trilogy sounds like too much hassle, try KSR’s 2312, which shares a similar universe and ideas, but with a simpler, mystery-style story, and smaller infodumps.
Tidbits to share:
- The trip to Uranus is extraneous, yet awesome.
- The vivid descriptions of memory loss and Alzheimer’s-like symptoms are heart-breakingly realistic.
- Birdsuits… floating towns… cat genes on human vocal chords… yeah, this book has everything.