Monday, April 4, 2011

1997 Hugo and Locus – BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson

Blue Mars wraps up Robinson’s monumental Mars trilogy, which tries to bring scientific and sociological realism to the colonization and terraforming of Mars. By this volume, we’ve entered the twenty-second century. Multiple revolutions have rocked Mars, and the surviving members of the original colonists, plus the succeeding generations of Martians, focus on forging new economic and political systems for the rapidly growing population and the changing climate of the red planet.

Again, Robinson spends a lot of time on these economic and political questions. Usually, he demonstrates an awareness of socio-economic complexities, but there are a few more straw man moments here and some rather embarrassing moments where characters inspire unanimous awe by espousing Robinson’s utopian views. Yes, his Martian society works a little too perfectly, and there are echoes of Pacific Edge throughout the trilogy. I do like that Robinson will go out on a limb with these issues though – constructing an entire Martian Constitution or imagining the future theoretical frameworks that guide various academic disciplines. For instance, he creates a whole new meta-theory of history here – it’s mostly just a modification of Marxist historiography, and it doesn’t really work for me, but I admire the guts and imagination it took for Robinson to posit it. He does the same thing with physics and neurology as well.

Alongside the academic theorizing, Robinson continues to offer detailed descriptions of Martian landscapes and a focus on character development, usually in tandem. The changes in Mars are dramatic and beautifully evoked by Robinson, as in wonderful passages where characters explore their memories while looking out on an icy Martian sea. I especially like the ways that Robinson draws on the work of Aldo Leopold to examine the aesthetics of “wild” nature and the human place therein.

And the characters have mellowed, a lot. Red Mars is probably a more dramatic and exciting entry in the series, but, boy, are the main characters horrible people. By the end of Blue Mars, I’d come to sympathize with all of the survivors, even the manipulative and melodramatic Maya. At the novel’s beginning, the “red” Ann Clayborne threatens most of Martian society with an obnoxious stubbornness, but the later sections following her were some of my favorite in the entire series. In one chapter, she spends time with new Martian fauna and the geneticist that designs them. In another, she takes a trip to Uranus with a fourth-generation Martian girl. She’s the one who least wants Mars to change, and Robinson’s rendering of her coming to terms with the terraforming can be quite moving.

From skimming a few online reviews, it seems that the consensus is that this is the worst of the trilogy, but I think it was actually my favorite of the three excellent books, mainly due to the characters’ mellowing. Plot-wise, it is perhaps an anti-climax. The most dramatic events take place in the early chapters, and the novel winds down with the musings of the aging First Hundred colonists as they accept their losses, contemplate senescence and death, and relate to the vastly different generations of the Martian-born. Honestly, if you’re a fan of tight plotting and the three act structure, avoid Kim Stanley Robinson like the plague. I love his prose, and I don’t mind the long descriptive passages and the time he spends on various ruminations. Even I’ll admit that this volume could have used a little trimming though.

I’m interested to see how much I see the influence of this widely-read trilogy in coming novels. I know one idea in the particular volume has been picked up by other writers. Robinson describes a period of the rapid settlement of the solar system, and he dubs it the “Accelerando,” which was later picked up by Charles Stross. I also hadn’t realized that the future of Galileo’s Dream may well have been in the same universe as the Mars trilogy (there are a few strong hints, including a fictional mathematician that appears in both). The Mars trilogy may not be for everyone, but I do think every sf fan should give Red Mars a shot. Robinson’s detailed world-building and rich prose are hard to match.

Grade: A

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