Robinson’s sequel to his highly successful novel of Martian colonization is really more of the same. As far as recommendations go: don’t read this without reading Red Mars; if you liked Red Mars, you’ll probably like this; if you didn’t like Red Mars, you’ll probably hate this.
Robinson continues to explore the near future colonization and terraforming of our neighboring planet. The same debates continue: how thoroughly should Mars be terraformed? Does the pre-human, inorganic geology deserve preservation? Should Mars fight for its political independence for Earth? If so, what means should revolutionaries use? What kind of new society should Martians design alongside such a political independence? Robinson usually manages to present the nuances of various sides of these debates in the context of a convincing vision of Earth’s possible near-future history, and there are lots of scientific details/poetic descriptions of the Martian environment in the background.
Not that Robinson’s portrayal of the social situation is always 100% convincing. The consensus of the Martians on the issues of political independence and rejection of capitalism seem to come a bit too easily, for instance. You could argue that Robinson’s vision of capitalism as feudal and universally coercive is a straw man, and few historic revolutions have as broad a base of support as Robinson’s Martian Revolution. And, it takes hundreds of pages for Robinson to admit the obvious limitations of one of his favorite alternatives to capitalism on Mars – the gift economy (based on Native American economic practices). We also get a very convenient “good” corporation with an eccentric CEO called Praxis that doesn’t fit well in Robinson’s simplistic depiction of capitalism but becomes rather necessary to the plot. Still, Robinson’s knowledge of social theory surpasses all of the works I’ve read so far on this blog.
The real center of this novel, as in Red Mars, is the characters. In all three books, each chapter focuses on a single character’s point of view. Due to longevity treatments, many of the original colonists still survive, even though the climax of this novel takes place about a century after their initial landing. They’re still petty, argumentative, and, well, often annoying. Whether you see this as an honest portrayal of emotional complexity or obnoxious hyperbole will go a long way toward deciding whether you like these books or not. I tended to like the characters and see their vices as enriching details, but I can’t really begrudge critics who see things the other way. There are a couple of female characters in particular (especially a third generation Martian-born woman named Jackie) who are extremely unlikable and use sexuality as a weapon to manipulate and control men. At times, Robinson’s obsession with female sexuality gets tiresome, though I should note that we get many smart, talented, and powerful female characters in these books. At the least, Robinson does seem to have an unhealthy obsession with infidelity. Nonetheless, I have complained since the first review on this blog that character is often the element most ignored in sf – love them or hate them, I don’t think you can argue that Robinson doesn’t spend time trying to develop the central characters in this trilogy.
I wouldn’t say this is better than Red Mars, and it’s interesting that Nebula and Hugo flip-flopped on this one. Moving Mars is the next novel on the agenda (in one week), so we’ll see if the SFWA made the right choice…