Books: Red Mars

Red Mars, the first book in Kim Stanley Robinson’s sprawling epic about the terraforming and colonization of Mars, is epitomized by two passages.

The first is found on page 102, shortly after the first settlers arrive on the barren planet:

The stacked crate walls made a ramp to drive the tractor off the lander. They didn't look strong enough, but that was the gravity again.

Nadia had turned on the tractor's heating system as soon as she could reach it and now she climbed into the cab and tapped a command into its autopilot, feeling that it would be best to let the thing descend the ramp on its own, with her and Samantha watching from the side, just in case the ramp was more brittle in the cold than expected, or otherwise unreliable. She still found it almost impossible to think in terms of martian g, to trust the designs that took it into account. The ramp just looked too flimsy!

Any author, writing about Mars, would describe the physical aspect of low “martian g,” with astronauts bounding about and lifting enormous enormous crates with the greatest of ease. So too does Robinson. But he delves much, much deeper than that, exploring the psychological aspects of martian g. The ramp just looks too flimsy!

Robinson hasn’t just written a saga about people who go to Mars; he contemplates what it would actually be like to live there. Each of the book’s eight parts are told from the point of view of one of the “First 100,” the team that makes up the initial landing party. Made up of geologists, biologists, physicists, architects, agriculturalist, and others (there’s even a psychologist to keep them sane), the First 100 is tasked with paving the way for future settlement, by transforming the planet into something habitable (if only bearly) to humans. This project is so monumental that only the first stages are documented in Red Mars; the sequel is called Green Mars because of the establishment of flora; and the thickened atmosphere gives the final book, Blue Mars, its title.

Here’s the second passage, which appears two pages after the first:

Now [Nadia] could wander in the dim ruby light of sunset, her old jazz collection piped from the habitat stereo into her helmet headphones, as she rooted in supply boxes and picked out any tool she wanted. She would carry them back to a small room she had commandeered in one of the storage warehouses, whistling along with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, adding to a collection that included, among other items, an Allen wrench set, some pliers, a power drill, several clamps, some hacksaws, an impact-wrench set, a brace of cold-tolerant bungie cords, assorted files and rasps and planes, a crescent-wrench set, a crimper, five hammers, some hemostats, three hydraulic jacks, a bellows, several sets of screwdrivers, drills and bits, a portable compressed gas cylinder, a box of plastic explosives and shape charges, a tape measure, a giant Swiss Army knife, tin snips, tongs, tweezers, three vises, a wire stripper, X-acto knives, a pick, a bunch of mallets, a nut driver set, hose clamps, a set of end mills, a set of jeweler's screwdrivers, a magnifying glass, a11 kinds of tape, a plumber's bob and ream, a sewing kit, scissors, sieves, a lathe, levels of all sizes, long-nosed pliers, vise-grip pliers, a tap-and-die set, three shovels, a compressor, a generator, a welding-and-cutting set, a wheelbarrow ...

This is an extreme example–there’s only one other itemized list like this in the novel–but, even so, long tracts of the book feel similar. The research Robinson put into this book is staggering, but it’s as if he feels compelled to recount every fact he uncovered in his studies, and at times this makes for a volume as arid as the Martian landscape. (And lest you think “It’s okay! I’m a big science nerd! I’d love to read a detailed explanation of how they sprinkle black dust on the Martian poles to raise the albedo and melt them!”, be forewarned that Robinson goes on at length about every aspect of Martian settlement. For example, thirty pages are devoted to psychological theory and the intricate relationship between introverts, extroverts, stable, and labile personality types. No kidding.)

Despite Robinson’s occasional bouts of logorrhea, I quite enjoyed Red Mars. One thing I noticed: as the chronology of the book got farther and father from the present, Robinson has to rely more on imagination than research, and the novel feels less and less like a textbook. Thus, about halfway through, the nitty-gritty of terraformation begins to take a backseat to the politics of the burgeoning Martian society. By the final 200 pages, it’s almost pure space opera. “Science-fiction” is not only the genre to which the novel belongs, but an apt description of its progression: it starts as science, and slowly slides across the spectrum to fiction.

Written in 1993, some of Robinson’s predictions already look naive in retrospect. The chances of us settling Mars by 2026, for instance, are slim indeed. But in other ways, the book feels perfectly suited for the times. Much of the book grapples with the positive and negative effects of globalization (though the “globe,” in this case, is only half the diameter of our own). Not to mention the difficulty imperialistic powers have in occupying a distance, sandy land occupied by people who object to the interference of outsiders and trans-national corporations. The book would be an allegory for the early 21st century, were it not written in the late 20th.

In many ways, Red Mars reminds me of its fantasy counterpart, The Fellowship of the Ring. To appreciate both, you have to wade through a lot of sometime laborious backstory, and many times you can’t help but think that you’d rather have read the book than to still be reading it. But your appreciation for the sheer amount of effort and inventiveness the author put into the story keeps you turning pages, and, by the time you’re done, you feel like the novel was more of an experience than just a read.

Or perhaps it’s just enough to say this: though getting through the first 600 pages of the Mars trilogy was sometimes a chore, I am still eager to read the remaining 1,400. That’s saying something right there.

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30 comments.

  1. My wife and I recently read the Red Mars trilogy. It should have been called “The Rocks of Mars, Plus a Few Humans.”

    Red Mars was decent, Green Mars was excellent, and Blue Mars… well, let’s just say some people finish it, and some don’t. I honestly found Moby Dick easier to finish than Blue Mars. By the time I stopped, I mostly wanted the remaining characters to fall into a wood-chipper.

  2. yeah….i can’t handle sci fi. speculative fiction. whatever.

    these passages did not strike me as being particularly masterful. then again, i expect my standard for masterful is very different than that of the sci/fi world.

    but hey – if you like it! that’s all that counts.

  3. That second passage does have a lot of appeal to me. Of course, I’m an engineer – a collection of all of that stuff sounds really cool! (Except the X-acto knife – I’ve no idea what that is.) I think KSR’s just appealing to my inner geek.

    I enjoyed the whole series – there’s a lot of inventiveness in there that’s written about with an attitude of “this is standard technology”, when it’s only standard for the characters in the novel. It does go on for a long time, but the the entire series spans around 200 years, IIRC.

    Also, I’m interested to hear your thoughts on Catch-22 – one of my favorite books.

  4. When I read this series it felt like Kim felt a need to legitimize the depiction of the Mars colony. Once he felt it was well established in a factual framework he was able to tell the actual story. Overall this series is quite good. The second book is by far the best in the series, the third ending, as I recall, somewhat anti-climacticly. This is, at it’s heart, a series about relationships. Personal, political and mercantile.
    Enjoy!

  5. If you enjoy practical but entertaining books Tim, I can heartily recommend

  6. I found “Red Mars” unreadable.
    It reminds me of everything I hate about science fiction where endlessly researched world building tells me nothing about the experience of another planet, of the alien. He constantly breaks the “show, don’t tell” rule endlessly interjecting factoids that take the reader back to earth rather than letting their imagination take them deeper into Mars. Bradbury’s Mars is more real to me than
    Robinson’s will ever be.
    When I look at the kind of depth and wonderment that Gene Wolfe achieves in “Book of the New Sun” it makes Robinson’s lists and facts look very superficial in comparison

  7. Unfortunately, by Blue Mars it seemed his imagination had failed him, and huge portions of the book were taken up attempting to explain why there weren’t any aliens or shocking scientific advances in the twenty-second century. Although those bits were better than the bit where two characters discussed how there weren’t very many words for some colours, but lots of words for others. For pages. And pages. And pages.

    The whole trilogy suffers from this sort of thing to an extent. At times it reads like the bastard child of a brilliant novel and the world’s most meandering textbook. I think the “brilliant novel” bits of Red Mars are strong enough to carry the book, but the balance is increasingly away from them as the trilogy progresses.

  8. How you could read this giant book filled with such minutiae, but had to bail on Moby Dick, is a mystery to me.

    Perhaps you need the unabridged version in which Melville spends 24 pages discussing the contents of the whale’s belly.

  9. Have you read Accelerando?

    http://www.accelerando.org/ and
    http://www.accelerando.org/_static/accelerando.html

    I was figuratively blown away by these books, just great mind expanding reading.

    Also, please recommend more books – After you recommended the Time Travelers Wife, I’d read pretty much anything you suggest. kthx.

  10. If you think Red Mars is dull, don’t even attempt Robinson’s first approach to Mars, Icehenge. I found it a nearly impossible slog.

    The Mars trilogy is like a lot of heavy-duty escapist fiction – it is better re-read than read. Other examples are the Lord of the Rings, anything by Neal Stephenson, etc.

    For those interested in this review but unwilling to go off the deep end with these three massive books, Robinson’s Antarctica is a wonderful book, with a similar style, but much, much less of it. Also, the things that are important to Robinson; the process of science, post-feudal economics, universal liberty and sufficiency, justice, human relationships and interesting technology are all in Antarctica with more cogency and fluency. Also, way fewer words.

  11. I loved the trilogy, but I haven’t been able to pick it up for a re-read, at all. Which I normally do all the time. It’s heavy going. Very rich and interesting and vibrant. But it does get heavy, especially with the political and psychological aspects. The science is secondary, I think.

  12. We’re hitting on the central issue about “hard” science fiction. Author Margarer Wander Bonnano once commented at a convention that science fiction is first and foremost literature and you don’t start a good story by writing a dissertation on the evolution of a star (I suspect she was twitting Robert L. Forward with that one.) My favorite books about politics on colonized planets would be the equally “hard”, but much more exciting, Moving Mars by Greg Bear and the Robert Heinlein classic, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

  13. I started the Mars Trilogy when it came out, and Red Mars was amazing, but truly one of the most frustrating reads I have ever had, his style and the multiple flashback in flashback while introducing you to the characters just dragged on, but in the end, it was a good read, and prepped me for the next.

    Then I went on to Green Mars, and agreed, it was the best in the bunch, and very enjoyable, but it took some time (since for me it was years between the books) to get reacquainted with the characters and locations.

    And as others have said, Blue Mars needed to be read, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as Green.

  14. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole series. If you do too, I strongly recommend you read The Martians (1999) afterwards (“An additional collection of short stories and background information”).

    The second passage you quoted is heavily reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe. Oh those cataloged piles of stores and equipment! Flotsam and jetsam, alive, alive oh! (Heartwarming stuff, for listmakers and fans of the SAS survival handbook…)

  15. I second the recommendation of Accelerando too. Very Gibsonian.

  16. Yes, KSR goes a little heavy on the info-dump. I think you have to cut him a little slack, he’s describing an entirely new world. His Mars series is a success on many levels: good characters, an interesting story, interesting concepts, and his ability, through accretion of detail, to convince the reader that this is another world.

    He covers politics, economics, rivalries, and a variety of sciences, without, I think, slowing the story too much. One of the central conflicts, between people who want to terraform the planet, and those who want to respect its original lifeless ecology, was a slap-on-the-forehead moment for me. It never occurred to me that anyone would dispute the need to terraform Mars, but as soon as KSR introduced the idea, it was obvious.

    It was perhaps a bit of a cheat to invent a longevity treatment, so that we can have the same characters over the long timeline of the three books. I think it works rather well to carry the reader along, without introducing too many new viewpoint characters. He does something similar in Years of Rice and Salt, which is perhaps even more impressive, a re-imagining of the past 700 years of human history through the eyes of a handful of recurring characters.

    As for the third book, Blue Mars, it is a farewell. The characters are old, losing their memories. It could have been sad and depressing. Instead, KSR lifts it up, I think, to a level of poignancy.

    Steve L.

  17. I totally agree with you, couldn’t have explained it better myself, so I won’t. I agree with some commenters that the pace is glacial at some points. But I found it easier to consume than Melville’s theories about why sperm whales are really fish and not mammals because the bible says so. I think you have to read Moby Dick for the charm of 19th century writing. Smell the coal fires and the whale blubber and the sweat of men that bathe three times in their lifetime. I think in some extent, Robinson has succeeded in doing the same for a near-future exploration of Mars.

    Dang, caught myself reviewing that book anyway!

  18. I can’t express how much I hate Nadia and would gleefully — as someone else put it — use a woodchipper on her.

    Still, the fact that I have such an intense reaction to her is some tribute to KSR. His central characters, at least, have a realness and historicity to them.

  19. I suspect one reason Robinson includes long lists and painstaking details is to make the story seem more rooted in reality. I think this is a very old tradition; it gives you the impression that if there is so much detail in the story, then it *must* be true!

    I also found the books to require more than the normal amount of effort to read, but I was happy I finished them–I think the ending works so well precisely because you share a visceral sense of the characters’ very long life stories.

  20. I enjoyed Accelerando a good bit, though the title is a good clue that Chapter 1 does not resemble in any fashion Chapter 10. (Chapter 1 did, however, resemble the better writing of Stross’ friend and fellow scots SF writer, Ken MacLeod.) It’s about the lives of people who adapt, with various levels of success, to runaway technology. I mostly liked it, though, because it was quickly apparent that Stross is about my age, and spent roughly the same years as me on USENET and therefore we share some cultural experience, despite the fact that he’s a Scotsman and I’m a West Coast American.

    As for the Mars trilogy, I read all 3, and dipped into (but have very little recollection of) “The Martians,” a novella about the first 100 astronauts training in Antarctica. I found them to be enjoyable reads, and learned all sorts of crazy things as time, politics, and technology began to run away with the characters.

  21. This is seriously one of my favorite series. It got me hooked on the whole Mars sub-genre of SF. I think one of the things that I liked about it was that there were so many little seemingly inconsequential details that I came out of the read feeling like I’d really been submerged in the experience. I felt the same way about his Antarctica, to a much lighter extent.

    But this series is the primary reason I planted saxifrage in the rockery :-)

  22. now you see why moby dick was a classic of it’s day.

  23. Brace yourself for the moment in which two of the characters lift themselves up (literally) by their bootstraps.

    They’re in a dirigible, right, flying over Mars, and the winds pick up and start to push them off course. Their (electric) motors aren’t strong enough to push them upwind and get them back on course. Crisis! Do they get blown off into the Wild Pink Yonder, never to be seen again?

    No! One of them has a brainwave. The dirigible’s carrying a cargo of windmill generators. So, follow me closely here, he hangs all the windmills out of the gondola, into the wind. They start turning, and generate electric power; he runs cables to transmit the power into the engines, and the extra power is enough to put them back on course!

    Seriously. A central element of the plot of this book makes as much sense as Popeye sitting in the back of a boat blowing into the sail to make it go faster.

  24. This was a great series when I read it (ten years ago when it came out). My wife got me the last book in hardback for Christmas, so it was clearly something I was looking forward to reading.

    Robinson is not as good at plot as he as at description, and while you may feel like he’s writing a story it’s more a tract on geology, space travel, terraforming, social engineering, and several other subjects. I always felt that the descriptive portions (who knows what regolith is? I do! I do! Now, anyway) were the strength of the material in all of the books.

    He does throw in plot to keep people interested, but it’s more like opera than standard fiction. You have long arias that don’t advance the plot in any way, but that instead give commentary on a situation, then short passages of arioso or recitative that are boring as hell (in general) but that advance the plot. Some may feel that the “hard” parts of the book are the boring sections, but to be honest if you’re reading for plot you’ll be very disappointed at the end of the series, which is exciting but really doesn’t wrap anything up. It’s more like a travelogue through the future than a story per se.

    If you liked this book and wonder how the world would be different had the Black Death killed off 90% of Whitey instead of 25%, check out The Years Of Rice And Salt by the same author. It’s a series of vignettes that pass through time, with a rather weak unifying element of the personages reincarnating from generation to generation. Still, it’s much better than Silverberg’s Rome book that just takes major historical events and wraps them in togas.

  25. Doug, you’ve apparently only been to bad opera performances. Those boring recitatives in the hands of singers and directors who know what they’re for are exquisite.

    I definitely agree, though, that the same structure makes for really boring SF (see comment above).

  26. I’ve read Red Mars and Green Mars twice each. I’ve never been able to finish Blue Mars though.

    I still giggle remembering the space elevator wrapping itself three times around Mars.

  27. I have a copy of Green Mars that I picked up at a library sale and I’ve been on the lookout for the other two since then. We’ll see how or if I enjoy them when I get a chance to read them in order. But meanwhile, I must recommend Robinson’s Escape from Kathmandu, which is sort of a collection of related short stories rather than a novel, but had some of the best make-me-laugh-aloud-while-reading moments ever. It’s almost hard to believe the same author wrote the passages above, especially the second one.

  28. Oh, and if you’d like to read a thoroughly and unabashedly silly Mars book, try Larry Niven’s Rainbow Mars.

  29. I’ll chime in here that Red Mars is one of my all-time favorite books, though I do admit that the first time through I had to have a dictionary handy. Where else would I have learned what pingos, karsts, and katabatic winds are?

    Green Mars was somewhat as good, and Blue Mars is still a struggle for me — yes, I reread them fairly often. I find that the characters are for the most part quite real in my mind (I don’t get how someone could hate Nadia!), and any semi-plausible science doesn’t bother me in the least.

    The Years of Rice and Salt totally grabbed me with its premise, which includes reincarnation, but completely petered out halfway through…plotting does seem to be Robinson’s weak point.

    I found his Forty Signs of Rain trilogy fairly pedestrian…seems like he wanted to write film scripts this time. Though I haven’t read it in a long time, I remember his novella A Short Sharp Shock being interesting.

  30. One of Robinson’s key stylistic points, which really jumps out at you if you read more of his writing, is his constant emphasis on the interior voice. He tells a lot of his story through what the narrator sees.

    So, in the Nadia passages, we gets tons and tons of somewhat tedious nerdy detail about allen wrenches and tractors (and we learn about the machines to colonize Mars). In the Maya passages, we get hour after hour of self-centered relationship watching (and we learn about the relationships between the people that colonize Mars). And in the John passages, we get high minded political theorizing, with a glaring blind spot for the darker side of human nature. It’s an effective device, but you only once you realize you’re dealing with an unreliable narrator (a bit like Gene Wolfe’s work, there). And an irritating narrator makes for an irritating chapter.

    Also, for what it’s worth, his wife is a geology professor at the University of California. That explains the regolith (and about 100-or-so other pages).