Review: Red Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson

  • Title: Red Mars
  • Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Genre: Science-Fiction
  • Why: It’s been staring at me for ages
  • Rating: 3.5 Stars

Description: In his most ambitious project to date, award-winning author Kim Stanley Robinson utilizes years of research & cutting-edge science in the 1st of a trilogy chronicling the colonization of Mars: For eons, sandstorms have swept the desolate landscape. For centuries, Mars has beckoned humans to conquer its hostile climate. Now, in 2026, a group of 100 colonists is about to fulfill that destiny. John Boone, Maya Toitavna, Frank Chalmers & Arkady Bogdanov lead a terraforming mission. For some, Mars will become a passion driving them to daring acts of courage & madness. For others it offers an opportunity to strip the planet of its riches. For the genetic alchemists, it presents a chance to create a biomedical miracle, a breakthrough that could change all we know about life & death. The colonists orbit giant satellite mirrors to reflect light to the surface. Black dust sprinkled on the polar caps will capture warmth. Massive tunnels, kilometers deep, will be drilled into the mantle to create stupendous vents of hot gases. Against this backdrop of epic upheaval, rivalries, loves & friendships will form & fall to pieces–for there are those who will fight to the death to prevent Mars from ever being changed.
Brilliantly imagined, breathtaking in scope & ingenuity, Red Mars is an epic scientific saga, chronicling the next step in evolution, creating a world in its entirety. It shows a future, with both glory & tarnish, that awes with complexity & inspires with vision.

Review: 

The Mars trilogy is one of those sets of books which have been winking at me from my bookshelves for a long while now, and I finally decided to give in to the seduction and give them a go.

The first thing that becomes abundantly clear when reading this book is the staggering amount of research the author has done, not just into Mars but also into terraforming and all sorts of other pertinent sciences for colonising a planet, and I cannot help but admire the sheer effort of doing so. Unfortunately, while it gives the book a very authentic feel, it can also render it rather dry at times. As someone who can’t tell her Ascraeus Mons from her Thaumasia Fossae, the Martian geology (or areology, to use the proper term) went somewhat over my head, and so did a lot of the scientific stuff.

The book is essentially a history of the colonisation of Mars, told from the viewpoint of a number of people, all part of the so-called ‘First Hundred’. They are the pioneers, the first settlers of Mars, and each section of the book is coloured by the thoughts and views of whoever leads that section.

There is Frank Chalmers, leader of the American side of the expedition, permanently angry and always restlessly working to hash out a compromise or way forward in conflict. On the Russian side we have Maya Toitovna, strong but volatile and often led more by her emotions than her rational side. Between them stands John Boone, the First Man on Mars, an inspirational leader for all of mankind; something which Frank often feels threatened by, even if the two are friends.

Other viewpoints come from Michel Duval, the French psychiatrist sent along to keep them sane (though no one does the same for him) Nadia Cherneshevsky, the pragmatic Russian engineer, and Ann Clayborne, who wants to preserve Mars exactly the way it is and who resists all terraforming efforts.

It’s an interesting mix, but for me the enjoyment of the book was very much coloured by whether I liked the person supplying the viewpoint. I was ambiguous about Frank and Maya, I vaguely disliked John Boone with his drug-addicted grandstanding, and Michel’s section was a little strange. Out of all of them I only truly liked Nadia, who prefers to just get on with things, and whose outside-the-box solutions to problems always take people by surprise.

As a history, the events that unfold are fascinating. After the First Hundred, soon more colonists arrive from all areas and faiths of the world, and this inevitably leads to conflict. Things get worse with the rise of the metanats, giant capitalist corporations which have become so big that they’ve simply bought up entire (small) countries to give them an untouchable base to work from. They quickly set to plundering Mars of its resources, aided by a newly-built space elevator, with little to no regard for the people who have set up a life on Mars. It’s a chilling view of the future, with just enough realism to it that you could see it happening.

I don’t want to spoil the end of the book, but inevitably things come to a head, and there is one particular event towards the end that had me blinking in a ‘wait, wtf just happened?’ kinda way. The author here is almost Vance-like in the understated way it is described, so that you really have to go back a few paragraphs to verify that yes, that really did just happen.

Ultimately this is a very realistic, incredibly well-researched book, and whether you’ll enjoy it will depend on how much you can let the science wash over you. A lot of it didn’t fully make sense to me, but it made enough sense for me to understand what was going on, and I enjoyed it enough that I intend to read the full trilogy. I’ll give it 3.5 stars.

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