Many fans and critics hailed Kim Stanley Robinson’s Martian trilogy as a modern sf masterpiece in the 1990s. You don’t hear as much about the books these days, it seems, but this novel, at least, does an excellent job at straddling the worlds of hard science and humanities, as I think the best science fiction always should. It was beat in the Hugos by two very good novels - I think 1993 might have been the strongest class of Hugo nominees ever – but it certainly left a mark on the sf of the era.
The novel follows a joint US-Russian effort to colonize Mars in the year 2026. Two decades later, this looks like a bad bit of futurism from the get-go: we probably won’t be getting to Mars in fifteen years, let alone colonizing it, and the Russians would be a lot less likely to be equal participants with the US than, say, the Chinese or the EU. It is important to remember that Robinson was writing in the wake of the Cold War. Beyond those issues, the novel is extremely well-researched and thought out. One of the novel’s greatest strengths is in Robinson’s mastery of details, as he concocts systems and scenarios for crew selection, psychological evaluation, the journey itself, early settlement-building, and terraforming. Robinson has a solid grasp on several fields of science and on human history, and he uses them all to create a convincing world here.
It is this thorough knowledge of history’s workings that has always most impressed me about Robinson. He’s able to weave in interesting multicultural details (we get some brilliant scenarios like whirling dervishes caravanning through Martian deserts), while also depicting the broader sweep of history. Robinson convincingly portrays Mars as a frontier with demonstrable economic and psychological consequences in the context of a Malthusian Earth.
In this volume, Robinson presents the original group of colonists, one-hundred in total, with special focus on a select few – American hero John Boone, and the less-heroic American leader Frank Chalmers; the emotional Russian leader Maya Toitovna, and her more-stable counterpart Nadia Chernyshevski; the mysterious biologist Hiroki Ai; and much of the novel’s politics center around the pro-terraforming “green” Sax Russell, and the “red” Ann Clayborne who wants to preserve the pre-human Martian environment. Through them, Robinson presents a very fascinating question in a balanced and challenging way. I’m still not sure what side I fall on. Robinson also gets to question contemporary politics and economics through the radical Arkady Bogdanov, who pushes for the Martian colonists to found a new type of society, outside the limitations of the capitalist/communist spectrum.
Thousands of immigrants, representing a broad array of Earth cultures, follow the First Hundred. Political tensions and radical ideas lead to a rather spectacular revolution that turns the work into a more sophisticated version of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
Much of the drama comes from the characters’ debates about Mars’ destiny, but also from their petty personal clashes, especially a rivalry between Boone and Chalmers that recalls the central love triangle/political debate in Pacific Edge. As in that novel, I can understand how these characters might annoy some readers, but it also feels very real to me, especially among the competitive egos of academia (where I have spent some time). Yes, really smart people are often socially awkward and competitive to the point of pettiness. The violent clashes that eventually result from these rivalries may push the drama too far, but, again, they are certainly not beyond the realm of plausibility.
Robinson does much to recognize science fiction history as well, naming cities and installations after Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, Charles Sheffield, and Arthur C. Clarke, among others. If politics and literary allusion bore you, there’s a lot of cutting edge science concerning space travel and colonization, Martian geology, biology, and terraforming. There are Martian blimps and space elevators.
The writing is first rate as well – Robinson is one of those rare authors who can totally engross a reader (or, at least, this reader) with his depictions of landscapes, characters and technologies. I think Robinson is very much the heir to Clarke, though he tends to focus more on character development. That said, Robinson writes a lot of poetry and (sometimes awkwardly) inserts it into his novels - It’s not his strongest suit. He avoids doing this explicitly here, though there are some lyrical prose passages that don’t entirely work, especially in the italicized chapter introductions.
Red Mars is one of the best science fiction novels I’ve read – it’s an epic work that delivers everything I’m looking for in a piece of sf. I read this novel in college, but I never actually got around to reading the two sequels, and I’m anxious to see if they follow the usual trend of diminishing returns in sf series.