Month in Review: November Reads and Recommendations

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“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.

Recommendation
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.

Short formBloodchild
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:

palimpsestPalimpsest
by Catherynne Valente
Hugo nominee, 2010
Urban Fantasy; Mythpunk

dragonquest(1sted)Dragonquest (Volume II of the The Dragonriders of Pern)
by Anne McCaffrey
Hugo nominee, 1972
Dragons & Questiness, obvs

TeaWithTheBlackDragon(1stEd)

Tea with the Black Dragon
by R. A. MacAvoy
Hugo winner, 1984
Computer programming; maybe a dragon

wherelatethesweetbirdssang

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang: A Novel
by Kate Wilhelm
Hugo winner, 1975
Environmental catastrophe & cloning
M.C. Escher cover- boring, no?

Happy reading!

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

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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.