Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, and by extension the whole Mars trilogy, is an ambitious project. However, ambition is a two-faced creature. There are two types of ambitions: boring ones and exciting ones. Building a death ray is an exciting ambition; ask Tesla. Wanting to make assistant night manager at Linens-n-Thing is a boring ambition. Red Mars, unfortunately, falls towards the boring end of the spectrum. The novel’s sweeping scope seems to exceed its 600 page prison, but it’s boringly sweeping. Maybe in theory building lakes on Mars and heating its atmosphere could be engaging, but in practice the book is drier than the current planet. Writing about a lot is wonderful, but if the a lot is details about microorganisms being released into an atmosphe…………….wha?! Oh, I just woke up. What happened? Right, I’m writing a review.
The novel is the first in a trilogy chronicling the colonization of Mars over hundreds of years. Let’s say terraforming; it’s more PC. The story beings with the first 100 settlers arriving on the arid, red surface of the planet, and probably ends with the planet having lakes and forests. I say probably because I have only read the first book, and will focus my review there. Spoiler alert, but I don’t plan on reading the sequels. Red Mars concerns itself with the first 30 or so years of the terraforming project. It might be more like 60 years; time flows weirdly in the novel. A guy could be roaming the planet in a rover one chapter, and the next chapter he’s still doing it, except time has inexplicably jumped forward 10 years. The main characters of the novel all hail from the group known as the “first 100,” who were the original settlers selected by some kind of UN space organization to head over to Mars in the 2040’s. They’re about half and half American and Russian, with a couple of Japanese. Can you tell the book was written in the early 90’s? For some reason, Robinson assumed the world balance of the USSR/US superpowers, with crafty Japan nipping at their heels, would remain intact 50 years into the 21st century. One of the novel’s main flaws is just how dated it all seems today. Even the technology and info on Mars is kind of…not accurate anymore.
The front jacket urges future Mars colonists to read this book as a reference book. Once you’re done laughing at the fact someone is recommending a book to future Mars colonists, I’ll continue. Indeed, the novel’s main selling point is its plausible, scientific focus in describing the colonization of the Red Planet. Which is fine and all, except they have hyper AI wrist computers that can instantly hack into anything ever. And they have robot factories that can conveniently build whatever they need instantly. And within 10 years of the first arrival, humans have Cliffside Megacities and train networks connecting the planet. Oh, they also discover a miracle cure that extends human life by a hundred years, which is convenient because this way Robinson doesn’t need to write in new characters every 20 years or so. It’s just a lazy effort at realism/plausibility.
However, the main weakness of the novel is the lack of conflict. I am a big proponent of every good story needing a good villain. If the author can’t dredge up a good villain, I’ll settle for just good conflict. Red Mars features plenty of bickering and interpersonal grudges, but none of that adds up to real conflict. It seeks to present a plausible model for the terraforming of Mars, so all the characters are scientists on Mars, trying to terraform it. There is no adventure, no exploration, no personal growth. All we get is outdated information on the Red Planet. Oh, did I mention transnational corporations are evil? They are. And they only care about profit. And sometimes scientists forsake pure science to help evil corporations make money. I swear, I think Mr. Robinson just wrote this book as an F you to academia. Did I mention Robinson is a man? Named Kim?! Someone named Kim should be either a woman, or Korean…or both, I guess the two aren’t mutually exclusive. But a white male? Unacceptable. Go into the Terry Pratchett room, and think about what you’ve done.
Because he can’t have an evil space emperor causing trouble for our heroes, Robinson ramps up the melodrama instead. Is there a space soap opera genre? Maya Toytovna, one of the 3 central characters is parsecs beyond a hot mess. Quite literally all she does is complain about the two men she’s doing at the same time, and then yell at whomever happens to be in front of her, for whatever reason is most appropriate. How did someone like that get selected to go to Mars? What function does she serve on a terraforming project, other than to display to the universe that Russian bitches be crazy? Frank Chalmers is a flesh sack filled with spite and anger, who was sent to mars to cause strife and disagreements, I guess. The list goes on. The characters in the novel aren’t people, they’re wicked stepwhatevers out of a Grimm’s fairy tale.
I’m not saying sci-fi books need to have laser guns and space action to be interesting….never mind, I am saying that. Red Mars is mostly uninspiring, and you could probably get the same effect by reading a few Scientific American articles on the subject. Did I mention it’s boring? The language is dry, the content is not engaging, and the pacing is awkward. Not recommended.