Red Mars by Robinson, Kim Stanley, 1993

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What one word best describes Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, or for that matter, the entire Mars trilogy? I'm not sure that there is only one word that can be used. But if there is, could it be something like "brilliant," or "genius?" How about "overwritten," or "ponderous?" I think that Red Mars is all these things. Robinson's Mars trilogy is an epic Utopian piece, wherein all the brilliant scientists who populate the story try to work through, on Mars, all of the things that devil our Earth-based society of today. In it Robinson presumes all the usual Earth-bound problems, such as uncontrolled capitalism, severe resource depletion and environmental catastrophe. But by keeping the focus firmly on Mars, which Earth wants as nothing more than a vassal, he tests the patience of Earth as a few renegade Martians make their own plans, many of which exclude the mother planet. So yes, to be sure, words like "brilliant" and "genius" and "ponderous" and "overwritten" do apply to this book. "Epic" certainly belongs in the mix too. Red Mars on its own may be about creating one's own future in the face of a powerful opponent who wants what you have. Or it's about the the ills of social darwinism. I'm not sure which, but I don't think that it matters in the end. Whatever else it is, first and foremost it is probably the most scientifically-passionate tale of colonization that is, or ever will be.

The kernel of the story is this: One hundred brilliant movers and shakers from a number of nations lied their way onto a colony ship to Mars by convincing the psychologists who sifted them through their offices that they could withstand the hardships of Martian life, and that they would be happy to build an Earth-centric mining and shipping industry on the red planet. But as soon as the ship left Earth's orbit their true natures emerged, and the colonists began to fracture into small ideological groups, as if their micro-society were a brittle ice block struck by a ball-peen hammer. Once on Mars many wasted no time fleeing from the main body of the group to parts known, and in some cases unknown. The big group that remained seemed to want to take a reactionary posture, and see what happened. Various others smaller groups advocated for freedom from the yoke of Earth, or for a Martian/agrarian paradise, or for a pure, untouched Martian landscape, or for a terraformed clone of Earth. But the colonists battles over ideology were nothing compared with what was to come.

Red Mars starts with a murder, and a great deal of social upheaval. Mars had been colonized for just over forty years. A vastly overcrowded, polluted and dying Earth had been sending groups there for that long, and the UN had taken political control of Mars, though the first hundred still held the hearts of the colonists. Mars was viewed by a greedy Earth as their salvation from collapse, with its wide open plains and virgin caches of resources. But the "first hundred" had different ideas for what to do with Mars. Robinson really does so much as give a plot here, as a theoretical framework in which to answer the big questions that a mission of this magnitude raises. Questions as basic as "why go to Mars in the first place?" and as fine-tuned and complex as "will fusion power be required to extract free oxygen from the thin atmosphere of Mars, or will fission be enough?" Through long flashback sequences Robinson brought us up to the murder of one of the most important of the original hundred, John Broome. Then went on to detail the struggle for control after the loss of Broome, who seemed to be the only real moderate on the planet.

I do not have a problem with those who choose to call this book a masterpiece of science fiction. It probably is, though it does have some glaring problems. However, the first four-fifths of the novel may well be the best literature on planetary colonization that anyone in SF has yet produced. This is a big book, and Robinson took his time to lay out the problems so that the reader would understand, then took even more time exploring options and solutions. And despite that it does not at all read like a how-to manual. I'll save the discussion of the shortfall for later.

The crew encountered two big problems in this book. The first concerns the technical hurdles to terraforming Mars, and Robinson posited a complete transformation of technology to solve that one. The story is full of innovative, high tech resolutions from nanotech to fusion power to space elevators and orbital installations. There was also a longevity formula that radically changed the viewpoints of the characters, and which I think made the terraforming program a possibility in their minds. In fact the technological base is so well crafted and smoothly presented that it fades into the background, giving the stage to the second real problem, which is best described as diversity of viewpoint and worst as revolutionary brinksmanship:

Arkady shook his head vehemently, causing him to spin a little in the air over the table. "No, no, no, no! History is not evolution! It is a false analogy! Evolution is a mater of chance, acting over millions of years. But history is a matter of environment and choice, acting within lifetimes, and sometimes within years, or months, or days! History is Lamarckian! So that if we choose to establish certain institutions on Mars, there they will be! And if we choose others, there they will be!" A wave of his hand encompassed them all, the people seated at the tables, the people floating among the vines: "I say we should make those choices ourselves, rather than having them made for us by people back on Earth. By people long dead, really."

Phyllis said sharply, "You want some kind of communal utopia, and it's not possible. I should think that Russian history would have taught you something about that."

"It has," Arkady said. "Now I put to use what it has taught me."

"Advocating an ill-defined revolution? Fomenting a crisis situation? Getting everyone upset and at odds with each other?"

A lot of people nodded at this, but Arkady waved them away. "I decline to accept blame for everyone's problems at this point in the trip. I have only said what I think, which is my right. If I make some of you uncomfortable, that is your problem. It is because you don't like the implications of what I say, but can't find grounds to deny them.

"Some of us can't understand what you say," Mary exclaimed.

"I say only this!" Arkady said, staring at her bug-eyed. "We have come to Mars for good. We are going to make not only our homes and our food, but also our water and the very air we breathe – all on a planet that has none of these things. WE can do this because we have technology to manipulate matter right down to the molecular level. This is an extraordinary ability, think of it! And yet some of us here can accept transforming the entire physical reality of this planet, without doing a single thing to change our selves, or the way we live. To be twenty-first-century scientists on Mars, in fact, but at the same time living within nineteenth-century social systems, based on seventeenth-century ideologies. It's absurd, it's crazy, it's, it's... he seized his head in his hands, tugged at his hair, roared, It's unscientific! And so I say that among all the many things we transform on Mars, ourselves and our social reality should be among them. We must terraform not only Mars, but ourselves."

I'm hopeful that if Robinson ever surfs by here he doesn't get upset that I pulled out perhaps the most telling quote in the book. Because this is really what the book is about. The Martian body politic never really coalesced into anything other than a confederation of "powers" that in many cases could not care less what the rest were doing. Arkady wanted a defensible utopia. Another wanted Mars to be left alone and kept pristine. Another wanted an Earth clone. Still another desired an agrarian paradise. For the most part they worked separately to realize their own goals, but the external threats still existed, and presented the same hindrance to all equally. Earth based commerce had consolidated into mega corporations called transnationals that controlled their own banking systems and exercised their own police powers by basing their headquarters in the nations that were likely to give them the least amount of trouble. These nations, small African or Caribbean powers, were called "flags of convenience," after the shipping companies that used them in the same way in the century before. The transnationals controlled the UN authority on Mars, and sent sharecroppers and slave laborers there to mine and produce raw materials for them. But once there many of the workers fell under the sway of one revolutionary or the other and abandoned their jobs. The transnationals responded to this loss of investment capital by exerting more pressure on the UN, which passed the grief on to the Martians. Frank Chalmers, who was nothing if not an anti-hero for planning and carrying out the murder mentioned above, took drastic steps to quiet the unrest and renegotiate the entire contract with Earth. He balanced the flood of humans and the domination of the transnationals with the new economy that had sprung up since original settlement, and in the climax of the story renegotiated the contract with the UN so that Earth would get what it needed, which was fresh resources and a place for excess people, while Mars would be allowed to pick their own destiny and rule themselves. Most of the rest of the tale was taken up with one character or another traveling around Mars on a quest to understand his or her own people: The Martians.

So if anyone ever told you that this was anything but a sleeper, you were lied to. But it is so fantastically detailed and fast moving that the reader could actually imagine that they were on Mars, traveling around and meeting different groups of people, many of whom had already developed strong and binding Mars-based cultures. Robinson kept reader interest alive until the last fifth of the book, which is about the transnational retaliation for excluding them from the future contract. A surgical strike blossomed into an all out war that totally wrecked the face of the planet, killing most of the UN and Martians alike.

While the last fifth of the book is probably best characterized by easily visualized destruction and chaos (collapsing space elevators and dropped moons? How could it be otherwise?), it is also plagued by large swaths of incomprehensible plot, characters that seem to conveniently spring up exactly when needed, and a general feeling of weariness on the part of the author. Robinson fell into a trap that in the past has daunted genre writers of all calibers from Sterling to Niven and even to Heinlein: He let the momentum and grandioseness of his story get away from him, which made it impossible to describe action in a way that was up par with the standards in the rest of the book. In short, there was too much going on, and instead of culling the story, Robinson jumped around from scene to scene, losing cohesiveness and clarity in the process. That was truly unfortunate because as a stylist Robinson was at the top of his game here otherwise. His control of the complex issues in the early portions of the book was incredible. He never did lose his way with the social issues, but the scenes that built up to the war were just too much for him to handle. Robinson should have wrapped up after Frank negotiated the contract and opened the next book with the story of the revolt. The denouement here was way too long, and the big conclusion happened way too early. The really disappointing part is that in the grand scheme of his trilogy the war was necessary, and needed to happen here.

The thing that you really need to keep in mind though, is that this book is comparable with nothing else out there. Robinson's treatment of the planetary colonization theme is singular in its depth. In fact, it truly stands alone in the entire genre. Consider this: The last time I read Stephen King's The Stand something occurred to me that I wrote about in an essay on that book. King certainly is in no way the technician that Robinson is, though the two have had some huge ideas before, so they have that in common. In writing The Stand King seems to have put an end to the use of the plague theme as a dominant element in the genre. That is to say, since 1978 there have really been no big plague novels, and since The Stand was such a colossus, I doubt that there will be another one anytime soon. King pretty much said what needs to be said about plagues. At least, that is my impression. I think that Robinson may have done the same thing here with planetary colonization novels, especially where the planet in question is Mars. And that is saying much, much more. As important as the plague motifs have been in the history of SF, Mars alone is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. We have had some Mars novels since this came out. Moving Mars, which is a bit more dramatic, was published right afterwards. Marsbound saw the light of day this year, and there have been a few in between. But absent some huge technological change (which was already covered by Bear), you really are not going to ever in your lifetimes see anything as big and real and meaningful as this. There is a very good reason that Robinson became pre-eminent in the genre after this one came out. This book is about the manifest destiny of a new nation, and the enormous strength of the old nations that want what they have, and want to keep them as slaves.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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