I’ve been a fan of stories about Mars ever since childhood. Whether it’s the “scientific” fiction of Schiaparelli’s canals, or the Edgar Rice Burroughs version of Barsoom and John Carter (which looking back a century later is, ah, definitely a product of its time along with the rest of his novels), Mars has held a fascination for me as it has so many others. Oh, and I thoroughly enjoyed Andy Weir’s The Martian (book AND movie, because the movie was actually pretty good, too).
In my usual perusal for audiobooks for my drive, I pulled down Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, the first of his 1990’s trilogy about the colonization and terraforming of the red planet. I’d really enjoyed his New York: 2142 novel and wanted to explore this earlier and well-regarded work. And I definitely came away with opinions of the trilogy.
The story through the three novels – Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars – is told primarily through the perspective of the first 100, the group who set up the first colony on Mars in the early half of the 21st century. While other perspectives come into play in the second and third books, it’s the view of things on the ground from John Boon, Sax Russell, Nadia Cherneshevsk, Ann Clayborne, Maya Katarina Toitovna, and a few of the other first 100 that dominates the narrative.
But overshadowing each of these figures is the character of Mars itself. Sometimes played off as stories about Big Man, or the little red people, but more often than not simply the day to day (sometimes hour to hour) changes that occur as humans make inevitable and irreversible decisions that impact the climate of the world. Indeed, at times I felt like the people were secondary to the plot and the goal was to highlight all the things that were happening to the planet and let it speak for itself. The first novel in particular went through long, long stretches of “someone traveling from this place to that place,” documenting in page after page after page all of the various ways the world was becoming different, as observed by the characters. There were times it went on in almost excruciating detail and I wondered if we’d ever get back to the main threads of the story instead of continuing on our walk about the red planet. Some important plot threads came, and then. . . never really went anywhere, like the death of one of the more important characters in the story. It was as though the humans were just a bump that had to be rolled over to get to the interesting bits.
Here’s the really intriguing thing, though. Even those long slogs through the history of Mars terraforming were interesting to me. I’m a science geek at heart, and it was fascinating to take a trip over Mars every few chapters and see the world through new eyes, see how humans were adapting it to their needs, and how it was forcing them to adapt. The science part of the fiction was deep and strong and made up for much of the lacks I felt in character development and plot threading.
Science is the strength here, for certain. What Robinson does with science absolutely floors me. Whether it’s genetic engineering, or sociology, or the dynamics of atmospheric conditions, or how to build a space elevator, his breadth of knowledge is deep, wide, and impressive. And it’s what kept me coming back time and again. I was fascinated by one person’s vision of what might happen if we go to Mars with the intent of staying there, and the various technology and social changes that would bring to the world.
It was the last book that I felt we really went back to the characters and their arcs took off (those that hadn’t already been truncated due to violence or the sheer difficulty of living on a planet with an unbreathable atmosphere). Watching two of the characters who had been at odds for so long in the books change and grow and meet somewhere in the middle and reforge an old relationship was beautiful and well written, poignant even, and it was the only book of the three where the changes to Mars felt like a backdrop to the changes in people. The changes in humanity.
On my Reynolds wrap scale from 1 to 10, I’m giving this 8 silver foils. Amazing breadth of science knowledge on display and a really spectacular thought experiment about how humanity might change and grow, but suffers slightly from taking away the focus from the characters and pouring it all into the planet that has become their home. And yet still succeeds despite that.