Review of Red Mars by

Book cover for Red Mars

Time to dig into some solar-system colonial fiction with Red Mars, the first in Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy about settling and terraforming our nearest planetary neighbour. First published over twenty years ago, the book holds up well despite the scientific advances two decades’ worth of rovers and satellites have provided. Robinson combines his ecologically-aware vision of the Earth’s future difficulties with a semi-realistic vision for planetary colonization. Throw in an ensemble cast of believable characters, and you have yourself a good novel.

Red Mars begins with a crisis, then jumps back in time to the voyage and founding of the First Hundred’s scientific outpost/colony. Think Mars 100, only funded by governments and, you know, actually viable. Robinson posits the first human on Mars as 2020—which, to be honest, might still be possible, but probably won’t be economical—and the voyage of the Ares in the 2040s. (Let me put it this way: I am not optimistic we’ll see settlers on Mars in my lifetime. I’m willing to believe we’ll visit, maybe.) We get to know the main players as the Ares makes its way to Mars. Then, after touchdown, Robinson jumps around, following each of them for a length of time, as the colony grows and new waves of emigrants arrive. This allows us to see how life on Mars changes the First Hundred; they become more entrenched in various positions, mostly around the subject of terraforming.

The names of the novels in the trilogy are also the various camps in the terraforming debate. Robinson questions whether terraforming is a legitimate activity: can we just do whatever we want with the solar system? What if there is life on Mars we haven’t found yet? Terraforming will destroy that. Yet the terraforming goes ahead, mostly because of pressures back on Earth.

This is the second part of the conflict in the novel. Robinson channels all the mistakes from the colonial era as various nations ship people off to Mars to relieve some of the population pressure. He’s not optimistic about humanity’s ability to pull together to do something like colonize Mars; he seems convinced that the various governments—or the transnational corporations that arise to usurp their prominence—will repeat history. And I’m not sure he’s wrong.

Robinson’s vision of where we might be headed has obviously changed since he wrote this. The more recent 2312 demonstrates this. It is set two and a half centuries after the time of Red Mars, of course, but many of the same themes come up. Earth once again teeters on the edge of ecological collapse, with riots and open war the rule rather than the exception.

Robinson correctly anticipates the rising influence of corporations on politics. The governments depicted in Red Mars are struggling to remain relevant when companies are more agile in moving money around. Nevertheless, he didn’t quite foresee the way governments are, even now, stepping back and allowing the private sector to take a more active role in spaceflight. I mentioned Mars 100 earlier—I think it’s interesting that the idea of sending a hundred people to colonize Mars is still around, but the groups interested in doing it have changed in their origins and intentions.

The question of who owns Mars, or at least who has the right to make decisions about how to use the resources there, is also central to the novel. Robinson’s characters are largely critical of the Outer Space Treaty. He demonstrates that once people are there, and in a position to exploit those resources, then they will do so, treaty be damned. Again, he’s probably right. That treaty exists, and survives, mostly because no one has bothered to try to mine Mars or the moon or asteroids yet—there are various proposals and schemes, but they are all still just a little too expensive.

The recurring message throughout Red Mars is simply: shit happens. Robinson intricately lays out how the first mission has been planned and executed … and then he shows it all go to hell in a handbasket. His point is simply that, so far away from Earth, there is no way to control what’s going on. Even the people with power, like Frank and John and Maya, have little ability to exert that power in vast, planet-wide ways. They spend most of the book running around trying to put out fires that others have started, usually starting fires of their own in the process. I appreciate how Robinson depicts each of these characters as people, with flaws and opinions that don’t always mesh. In fact, it’s safe to say I didn’t really like any of them (with maybe the exception of Nadia). But I liked the book.

I’m forced to repeat many of my reservations about 2312 though. This is a long book, very slow-paced. That’s probably for the best: Robinson needs this time to build the colony and set up for the chaos in Act Three. But it doesn’t help that the book is almost exclusively description and narration. The scenes of dialogue are infrequent and encircled by introspection. I remember this from 2312. This is entirely personal preference on my part—and it is certainly possible to go to other extremes, like John Scalzi does—but it only emphasizes the slow burn that is Red Mars.

Robinson has convinced me he’s a good science-fiction author. I don’t think he’s a writer I’ll ever number among my favourites. I’ll probably read the other books in this trilogy, but it’s not a high priority.

Engagement

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