Aurora (2015) by Kim Stanley Robinson

aurora1It was as if she were the steward on the boat crossing the Lethe. It was as if they were dying. It was as if they were killing themselves. (loc. 4226)

How to share the essence of a breathtaking space drama without spoiling the most enjoyable discoveries? How to present the humor, the tragedy, the joy, the humanity, the realism without revealing the important parts? How to convey Aurora’s “as-ifness” without overblowing it with hype?

Narratives, Robinson’s narrator tells us, “are futile and stupid” (loc. 1643).

Continue reading

The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) by Kim Stanley Robinson

TheYearsofRiceandSaltHappy and angry. Happily angry. Everything, all at once. That’s life, boy. You just keep getting fuller, until you burst and Allah takes you and casts your soul into another life later on. And so everything just keeps getting fuller. [290]

Two souls, Happy and Angry. The Monkey and the Lion. Their fates intertwined, they reincarnate to new lands, always to rediscover one another, always to redefine their relationship, and, most importantly, to drive history forward. Continue reading

Blue Mars (Mars trilogy #3) (1996) by Kim Stanley Robinson

bluemars3

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 Synopsis
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?

The Series
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 2312which 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.

Green Mars (Mars trilogy #2) (1994) by Kim Stanley Robinson

Image

(Click here to see my review of the first installment of this series, Red Mars, Mars trilogy #1.)

The nice thing about giving your characters longevity treatments is that you can keep the same bunch  of characters throughout your epic series, no matter how long the time span. It’s like having a bunch of Gandalfs running around.

And in Green Mars, this really is the case. Out of the first one hundred Terran scientists to colonize Mars, a small fraction has survived the previous century of hardship, revolution, and each other (no small feat, because they are all crazy!). But that small fraction is aged, wizened, passionate, and surprisingly active. Many of them still trek around Mars like they are on a Tolkien-like quest; alternately terraforming and ecotaging their beloved home, while essentially booby-trapping the planet against potential conquest.

Also, like Gandalf, their reputations over the past one hundred years have evolved into legend and, in some cases, messiah-dom. It isn’t the longevity treatments that cause this level of fame—everyone on Mars, now populated in the millions, receives longevity treatments—it’s their celebrity combined with their historical impact. Besides being the first ever colonial mission to Mars, the trip to Mars began as a reality show for the people on Earth. Video feeds of the astronauts’ interactions were sent back home for entertainment. Consider the extent of worship some of our reality show celebrities experience today. Now consider if those people lived over one hundred years…

Oh, no. Oh god no.

So these quirky, eggheaded scientists are living, breathing (through a filter, of course) mythological giants. Deities, if you will.  And why not? After all, they meet the qualifications of any other god: build planets, create and sustain life, shape political and economic events. This is the ultimate story of intelligent design.

But now, in Green Mars, the first colonists have experienced a failed insurrection and are writing the rule-book on how to overthrow an imperial planet. In that case, these people are more like renowned revolutionaries: Tom Payne, Jean Paul Marat, Che Guevara, but with the fabled celebrity of Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed. In many ways, the individuals themselves have embraced the personas bestowed by their followers, while other characters struggle against them, desperate for exoneration from their past sins. But public memory is steadfast, and every mythical epic needs antagonists.

This second installment of the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson rectifies the weaknesses of the first novel, Red Mars. Characters are stronger and their interactions are more interesting. Mars remains the focal point, and the descriptions of engineering and scientific feats are just as heavy-handed as before, but that’s not a bad thing. KSR writes science like a poet. Sometimes it slows down the prose, but it’s not as clunky as its predecessor. Green Mars is longer than Red Mars, but I read it in less time and in fewer sittings.

Do you need to read Red Mars in order to understand Green Mars? No, but as much as it drags, the literal world-building in Red Mars, and its introduction to the characters is a valuable supplement to the Green Mars portion of the story. I would recommend the completionist approach to this series. We will see if I feel that way after the next installment, Blue Mars.

Update: Here’s my review of Blue Mars!

Red Mars (Mars trilogy #1) (1993) by Kim Stanley Robinson

redmarsLots 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!

2312 (2012) by Kim Stanley Robinson

2312Mystery, cyber crime drama, romance, humanist literature, space travel guide. 2312 has it all, plus the author is really freaking smart.

I learned a lot of things while reading 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, which I can’t say for most books I read. Usually, I can walk away from a novel feeling enriched by the characters, or impressed by the imaginative range of the author, but this book greatly improved my understanding in multiple real-world fields. It made me appreciate what a fiction novel can accomplish in its scale, and what information it can pass on to its readers. This story explores engineering, biology and biochemistry, economics, sociology, environmentalism, astronomy (of course), etc. I was so impressed with the scope of the novel, I had to look up Mr. Robinson’s educational background, and I realize that a Ph.D. in English is nothing to scoff at, but it hardly explains the magnitude of this writer’s knowledge. The man must swim in a pool filled with peer-reviewed, scholarly journals from every field.

Synopsis

Swan Er Hong, mercurial Mercury resident, is a landscape artist of galactic proportion (she designs exhibits on the unprotected surface of Mercury and spent her younger years designing the interiors of asteroidal terrariums). She meets frog-like Fitz Warham after the mysterious death of her grandmother and they puzzle together over the strange terrorist-like events that have been happening around the solar system.

What I liked:
1.  Obviously, the book covers a lot of ground. It paints a scientifically-based picture of human progress 300 years from now. Having never read a KSR book prior to this, I am new to his view of the future solar system, but I think I’ll pick up his Mars trilogy in the near future. (Update: I did, and you can read about it here.)
2. Despite the hard science setting of this novel, Mr. Robinson’s English degrees shine through in his prose and character building. He writes beautifully. There were often times when I wanted to read passages aloud to random people nearby– which I didn’t, because that would be weird. But it is beautifully written.
3. A lot of contemporary hard science fiction novels tend toward post-apocalyptic, post-modern, dystopian themes, which turn me off. (If I want to see and experience crappy things, I’ll watch the news, or participate in reality.) 2312 avoids this problem by utilizing the progressive future as a backdrop, and balances its successes, failures, and complications, while introducing flawed characters and allowing them to grow and bloom within that backdrop. Some may think the story’s happy ending feels “contrived,” but allowing one’s characters to fade into hopeless, meaningless, post-modern oblivion doesn’t make one’s story less contrived.
4. The author has a love affair with the idea of terrarium-converted asteroids that travel the solar system like cruise ships. Each travel segment offers a glimpse into a different style of terra-asteroid, and I want to try them all. Well, except for the black-liner (completely dark inside), or the sex-liner (self-explanatory).

What I didn’t like:
1. Swan is a bit of a weirdo. She’s one of those avant-garde, experimental, try-anything-and-don’t-ask-questions, self-prescribed moody kind of people. I was kind of hoping that there would be some weird twist at the end that revealed she was actually a quantum android sleeper agent, because, then I could be like, “Ah ha! That’s why I didn’t like her!” But I enjoyed her friend, the uptight, stable Warham.
2. I can’t quite grasp KSR’s economics. The main characters have communal jobs (artist, farmer, political dignitary), yet they jet all over the solar system. There is a passage toward the end that suggests that one particular league makes lots of money off of nitrogen exports, which suggests a capitalistic system, but I still can’t wrap my head around it. Just one descent on an opera-themed space elevator in Quito must cost… hundreds of thousands of dollars? And then, to just take a year’s sabbatical on Earth, to do humanitarian work and drop animals from the sky? An artist and an ambassador can afford that?

A Final Observation: It’s more of a demonstration of my limited scientific imagination, and not a dislike, but I question whether humans can accomplish so much in 300 years. Then, I remind myself that Star Trek portrays galactic travel within the same window of time (something not yet achieved in Robinson’s world), and I have willingly suspended disbelief for that show. Plus, by the end of the novel, I realize that much of the world that 2312 illustrates is an early work in progress, not to be finished for hundreds of years after the titular year.

I enjoyed the novel and I think it’s the top runner for the Hugo out of the three I’ve read so far. Next up, is Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance (The Vorkosigan Saga) by another Hugo veteran, Lois McMaster Bujold.