Red Mars

red mars1

Novel * Kim Stanley Robinson * Space Conservation * 1993


This is one of my white whale books, all of which I intend to slay in 2018 lest I go all whale-crazy like Ahab. At least I think that’s what happens, because Moby Dick is one of those books I’ve never been able to finish. Soon. Right now, however, is a book about something very different from murdering majestic sea creatures out of spite. Instead it’s about murdering an entire planet! I’ve tried to read this sci-fi classic no less than three times before, and failed each time before I finished the first hundred pages. Usually, that’s enough for me to relegate a text to the discard pile forever. Yet there’s something about this book that hinted at something better, something I would enjoy if I could manage to engage with it. Also, it’s one of these seminal science fiction texts that I feel like I should read. Actually, that’s the one thing in common with my other white whale books: being the person I am, I should read and enjoy them. It’s a special kind of stupid available only to people who have made the critical error of making the study of language and literature one of their life’s focal points.

Red Mars, then, is a story about the colonization of Mars. This is a concept that’s in the news lately (as of March 2018), because Elon Musk is going to save humanity with his rocket cars. This is hard science fiction, by which I mean there are graphs and equations and shit. This is also a large scale novel which takes place over many, many years and deals with many characters and several viewpoints. There’s a lot to keep track of, but for the most part Robinson keeps it all together. It’s also the first book in a trilogy I may or may not return to. Red Mars is a dense, sometimes intense read, so it’s hard to work up too much enthusiasm to return to the Martian chaos that Robinson unleashes with his story of not only colonization, but the eventual terraforming of the red planet.

I bounced off this book the first few times because quite frankly the story starts poorly. The novel begins in media res, many years after the first people on Mars showed up, when there are full-on cities and towns popping up around the planet. That’s not the issue. No, the real problem with the introduction – and we may as well get it out of the way – the book as a whole, is that Robinson isn’t great at writing characters. They’re certainly not the worst I’ve ever encountered, not by a long shot, but it’s clear that Robinson is more comfortable talking about science and his vision for the colonization of Mars than he is about people. So he begins the book with one of the weaker scenes in the entire story, made even more annoying because it’s clear that the scene is supposed to be actiony and mysterious and is intended to pull us into the intrigue of the novel. It does not. It’s confusing, the reader has very little idea of who these people are and what they’re supposed to be doing. The viewpoint character is a near-unreadable jackass, made even worse because he then promptly murders his friend and then bingo-bango, we skip back in time to the beginning.

In this instance, the beginning is the long rocket-ride to Mars. The important characters of the novel all come from the “first 100,” who are the group of people who make the initial effort to set up the earliest settlements. This group is ostensibly led by the Russian Maya Toitovna and the American Frank Chalmers. The crew is comprised of mostly Russian and American scientists, although there is a smattering of other internationals. One of the Americans is a man named John Boone, who is the actual first man to have landed on Mars, so he carries a lot of weight. However, there are plenty others in the first 100 who are vital to the story which follows, some whom are more interesting and complicated than others. Unfortunately, the principal arc belongs to Maya, Frank, and John who have the most tepid love triangle ever going on between them, made all the more uncomfortable since these people all start off in middle age and by the end of the book are in their 70’s. Which, okay, old people fuck, sure. But they’re so clumsily written, and their relations are filled with broad, didactic explanations of their fits of passion, that it’s nearly impossible to give a shit about them. Anyway, the various relationships in the book are not a compelling reason to read this book. That best reason is Mars itself.

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I much prefer the understated cover. It’s way better than the weird 80’s montage cover above. That one looks like Huey Lewis’ “Working for a Living” should be playing alongside of it.


Actually, Mars itself seems a little dull. The planet has as much landmass as Earth, so it’s a vast place, and the landscape is a contorted mass of extremes. Insane canyons and craters and impossible mountains seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Plus it’s crazy cold, heavily radiated, and is a nightmare of dust. What makes Red Mars compelling is Robinson’s attention to detail and his unwillingness to shy away from political reality. There’s a lot of idealism present in science fiction, and often the reason given for humanity pushing into space is simply “because we can.” I fully understand that idealism and wish the rest of the planet felt the same way, because space is awesome and we should be up there doing stuff. Yet humans are also awful at running Earth, so what makes us think that we’d run Mars any better? Red Mars is all about that conflict. The first 100 are mostly idealistic scientists, and not even they can agree about the best way to manage the colonization.

There are various positions among the first 100, and these positions become synonymous with the various characters. Again, depth of character is not the strong point. For instance, Arkady is like, the fun one, but mostly he’s the Communist. Frank is the angry realist. Ann is the strict preservationist. Sax wants to terraform. John just wants everyone to be cool. Phyllis wants money and power. Hiroko goes freaky religious and nativist. We see all of this right away, and while as characters these people aren’t terribly compelling, the ideas they espouse are. Since Red Mars is all about scope and scale, it’s fascinating to watch these ideas bloom and grow into entire movements which end up tearing the planet apart, and it all makes logical sense. Humanity is not homogenous, therefore if all of Earth is going to be represented on Mars, there is going to be conflict. Because we’re essentially psychotic apes, this conflict will nearly always turn violent.

One thing I had a hard time trying to figure out over the course of reading Red Mars is who the hell was paying for all this. It would be insanely expensive to even land a single person on Mars, let alone a hundred. Their initial ship had to hold a hundred people for like nine months! Then, when they get there, they have to have the supplies and equipment to build a functioning town on the surface of an alien planet. What’s the financial return on that? As the novel progresses and time moves along, thousands of people start making the journey, and that’s when those initial ideas start turning into movements. You’ve got the “transnationals,” which is to stay the corporate masters of late-stage capitalism who show up and are there to exploit resources. Never mind that there’s no immediate return on this massive investment, they keep sending equipment and people to mine the bejeezus out of the place. So the miners and builders are in direct conflict with those who were up there first and side with Ann, who are called “reds.” Because Mars is red, you see. These are the preservationists, who believe that Mars should just be left alone like a planet-wide national park. Then you’ve got conservationists who want to mediate between the two, and meanwhile tensions rise and I still don’t understand how anyone is making any money.

There’s one other major factor aside from profit, and that’s the state of the Earth. As the novel moves forward, it becomes clear that our home planet is in trouble. Overpopulation is a major problem and every country is feeling the pressure of insufficient resources and an angry, increasingly desperate populace. Mars is then seen as a release valve for the teeming masses, never mind that the colonization process is nowhere near ready for a major influx of people. Terraforming takes decades, if not centuries, so in the meantime people are forced to live in cramped enclosures with people they vehemently disagree with. When violence breaks out, it’s the infrastructure that breaks down. The novel ends with cataclysmic aquifer breaches and not a much about the future of the planet settled. Red Mars is a novel of ideas which are becoming more immediately relevant. We’re going to have to figure this out eventually, and when we do it’s too much to hope that our nature will have evolved all that much. The best way to do that is to engage with these ideas now, before we start whipping rockets into space.

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