Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars is one of the few hard science fiction novels that spends as much time delving into the inner lives of its main characters as it does explaining the scientific underpinnings of the theoretical technology and advancements that they are surrounded by. Where other hard sci-fi novels are content to let the characters take a back seat to the scientific details, Red Mars treats it characters like real flesh and blood human beings. Passionate, driven, jealous, vengeful, conflicted. There are no good guys and bad guys, only people. People who have sacrificed everything to make the trip to Mars and who are now confronted with the daunting task of making it their new home. And while Robinson demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of the terrain and conditions of the red planet (as well as a plausible recipe for how humans might alter the landscape to be more Earth-like), he never loses sight of the human drama at the center of this sweeping story of love, loss, conflict, discovery and rebirth.
Red Mars Summary: Beginning in the year 2026, the action begins aboard the spaceship Ares on mankind’s first colonial expedition to Mars. The crew is made up of 100 scientists (mostly Russians and Americans) of varying disciplines, each chosen for their specific expertise in one of the many subject areas that will be necessary for setting up and establishing a permanent human colony on the planet. There is the public hero John Boone, the first human to land on Mars, returning for another trip. Frank Chalmers, the fiercely cynical and driven leader of the American team. Maya Toitovna, the beautiful and beguiling head of the Russian contingent, who becomes involved in a love triangle with John and Frank. Arkady Bogdanov, the political troublemaker who eventually helps ferment a revolution on Mars. Sax Russell, the brilliant physicist whose single-minded pursuit of terraforming puts him at odds with those who want to see Mars left as it is. Ann Clayborne, a geologist who comes to believe that Mars should be left alone and kept in its original state. And Hiroko Ai, the mysterious agricultural expert who forms a hidden colony in order to start her own group.
During the initial stages of colonization, the arguments for and against terraforming begin to coalesce into two distinct camps: The Greens (led by Sax) who believe that changing the atmosphere and ecology of Mars to support human life is inevitable and necessary. And The Reds (led by Ann) who feel that humans shouldn’t have the right to mess with the ecosystem of Mars and that it should be left in a pristine state. With the weight of Eath’s government (and the powerful transnational corporations) behind them, the Greens eventually win out and begin their terraforming efforts. Giant space mirrors, nuclear reactors and large scale heating vents are just a few of the tactics that Sax’s team uses in order to try to raise the raise the temperature of the planet and begin the process of creating a breathable atmosphere. Eventually, however, incidents of sabotage and destruction begin to occur – presumably the work of underground “Red” factions that have not given up trying to protect Mars. Aided by a new influx of immigrants oppressed by the transnationals into working long hours mining for minerals in dismal living conditions, a new revolution is born that will come to envelop the red planet in chaos and upheaval.
Red Mars Review: There is a haunting quality to Robinson’s writing that perfectly mirrors the mystery and scope of the Martian environment – as well as the inner lives of many of the main characters. Although they are all outwardly strong, smart and ambitious, they each hide their own secrets and emotions that drive their actions and their relationships to the planet. While the idealistic colonists come ready to change Mars into their own paradise, they are the ones who are changed. Instead of a creating a new utopian society freed from the injustices and inequality of Earth, they see their new world devolve into the same old patterns of conflict and revolution through a mixture of greed, arrogance and apathy. It is only as the Mars they’ve built comes crashing down around them that they begin to see the way forward.
Red Mars is the first in a trilogy of Mars novels, followed by Green Mars and Blue Mars – each detailing a different stage in the evolution of the planet from a dusty crater to a water rich planet that can sustain human life. While I enjoyed the first novel immensely, I may have to wait a bit before tackling the next two books. I still have a long way to go on this list and there are other books calling my name right now.