Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson


Al-Qahira, Ares, Auqakuh, Bahram, Harmakis, Huo Hsing, Kasei, Ma’adim, Maja, Mamers, Mangala, Nirgal, Shalbatana, Simud, Tiu, Mars. Our nearest neighbor has had many names throughout the world.

Ever since I was little I wanted to go to Mars. I dreamed that astronauts would one day land there and build bases and I would go and live there. When I was in Primary I would tell my teachers that I was going to serve a mission on Mars. The Red Planet has always held a deep fascination for me.

That is why I picked up “Red Mars” in the bookstore and looked at it and had to buy it. It is a story about terraforming Mars, after all. How could I resist.

“Red Mars” is SCIENCE Fiction. This is not “our mumble-mumble is techno-babble so we have to make up a new particle and robots can now have children” fiction. This is fiction that is firmly grounded in science. It is, in fact, so grounded in science that it has formulas and diagrams in the text. The characters are all scientists who think like scientists (this is probably the biggest shock if your only exposure to science fiction is Syfy). When the story is told from the point of view of the psychologist we learn about his theories of psychological classification that he has developed to analyze the other colonists. When the point of view moves to the Russian mechanical engineer we see how things fit together and how much more insulation things need on Mars to keep water from freezing (or air, for that matter). We see how much stronger metals are on Mars because of the reduced gravity and how fine the soil is because of the billions of years that it has had to blow around and rub against other grains. We learn about chemistry, physics, biology, botany, sociology, psychology, and even fluidics.

All of this makes this book sound like a textbook of ‘look how much I know’ but it doesn’t feel that way when you read it. Kim Stanley Robinson’s prose is beautiful and exciting. His story is gripping and his characters are real in a way that I don’t think I have ever encountered before.

One hundred scientists are chosen to take a trip to Mars – to spend the rest of their lives there. They are screened psychologically, chosen from different countries all around the world – mostly Russia and the USA – and spend months living in a base in Antarctica familiarizing themselves with the equipment and tools. The project is supported by hundreds of different companies and conglomerates around the world so that there are BMW tractors and Ford lifters and Suzuki computer terminals and hundreds of familiar companies involved in making Mars a part of our history.

The First Hundred, as they call themselves, board a ship in orbit that takes them to Mars. The trip takes nine months and by the time they arrive factions have risen up among the crew. Arkady Bogdanov wants to separate themselves from Earth, to become completely independent of government and Earth ideas. Sax Russell wants to start Terraforming immediately. Frank Compton wants to become the political leader. Nadia Cherneshevsky just wants to work with her tools and build things, she doesn’t care who for. Hiroko wants to start a new religious order, one based on new ideas and legends that they will gain on Mars. Each of them has their own following.

At first they resort to merely arguing about their ideas while their lives are consumed with building a base. Then the overpopulated Earth starts sending people by the thousands, mining the Martian soil for precious metals, and some people get killed, and Sax starts his plan for Terraforming and some people (I guess they aren’t tree-huggers on Mars) want to leave Mars alone, and it all devolves into a revolution.

As I mentioned before, Kim Stanley Robinson writes beautiful prose. Every sentence feels lovingly crafted and put together. His characters feel so real that I felt like I existed in that community. His descriptions of Mars are so vivid that I feel like I have been there. At one point while reading the book I tried to explain it to somebody and I started to say “I wish you could see what Mars looks like.” Fortunately I caught myself before saying that. The scale of everything on Mars is hundreds of times larger than on Earth. Olympus Mons, the great mountain, rises so high that it breeches the atmosphere well before its peak, making the Himalayas look like foothills. There are canyons that are a hundred times deeper than the Grand Canyon and stretch a third of the way around the planet. There is a single crater that covers most of the entire southern hemisphere. This grand scale translates so clearly into “Red Mars” that I feel like I have been there.

It also felt very real that their Terraforming efforts seemed to have a lot of give and take. They bred trees that could withstand the cold and would help convert the large amounts of CO2 in the air into breathable oxygen but this reduced the amount of greenhouse gases so the overall temperature of the planet cooled.

The other thing that I enjoyed about this book was the names. The First Hundred name their base Underhill, any reference to the great Tolkien’s work always makes me happy. If this was the only good thing about the book I might have finished it just for that. They build a small nuclear reactor to power their base and the Russians dub it Little Chernobyl. Once people start to arrive they build a spaceport called Burroughs (after Edgar Rice Burroughs) and there are other towns built named Bradbury, Senzeni Na and Shikata Ga Nai. Several Earth companies put their money together and move an asteroid into geosynchronous orbit above Mars and extend a massive cable more than twice the length of the circumference of the planet in order to ferry people and ore into space. Perhaps most poetically of all they name the asteroid Clarke, after Arthur C. Clarke who was the first person to imagine (and prove the possibility of) both satellites and a space elevator.

The scope of this book is decades and it is only the first of a trilogy. It starts out with just a hundred people but by the end of the book there are possibly millions on Mars. I think that is also the point where Kim Stanley Robinson loses his ability to hold on to all of the characters. The beginning felt epic and grand and was exciting and very personal. The ending was historical documentation of grand events. It lost that personal intimacy with the characters that the beginning had.

Even though this is part of a trilogy I don’t really have a strong desire to read the rest of the series. Maybe this is because it feels like the story could have ended. It wasn’t a very satisfying ending but I don’t feel curious about what happens next. I blame this on the the loss of closeness to characters that the last half of the book had.

I will probably finish the series someday. I just don’t have a burning desire to go out and buy the last two books so that I can read them.

Overall this book was a rush of science, emotion, science, and beautiful descriptions. It was almost worth it just for the experience of going to Mars and seeing the Valles Marineris, and Olympus Mons myself. It was worth it to feel the biting cold through the suits and to see the moon Phobos tracking lazily across the sky. I have finally been to Mars, and it was glorious.



3 thoughts on “Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson”

  1. Have you read the sequels? They tend to be pretty good. The cavalcade of characters weakens the emotional resonance for me — but that’s because there isn’t much in the way of traditional plot since he’s going for the ultra-realist if Mars was terraformed sort of plot…

  2. I actually think the sequels are better. And the awards agree with me — this was nominated for a Hugo while both Green and Blue Mars won the hugos. He’s a darn good writer of the ultra-realist sort of space exploration sense.

    I haven’t read Bova’s treatment of Mars settlement yet — I’m curious if he’s any good.

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