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.