Thursday, May 11, 2006

Red Mars

by Kim Stanley Robinson

I first read the Mars Trilogy five or six years ago and loved it so I figure it's about time for a reread. It was interesting to see how different my reaction is to it now than when I first read it. Characters which I previously found sympathetic have become contemptible, and vice versa. I guess this is a result of Robinson's skill at characterisation, as he creates believable, fully realised people, not just characters shoe-horned into good guy and bad guy roles for plot purposes. For the record, the first time I read it it was the cynical, emotionally stunted Frank Chalmers that appealed to me, whereas this time around I preferred reading about his friend and rival, the all-American first man on Mars John Boone despite his arrogance. The real difference between them is that Frank works in the big cities, willing to compromise and use the political system to provide a new future for the human race, while John uses contrary methods of roaming the wilderness and preaching non-violent revolution, but to the same ends.

Red Mars is the first book in this trilogy, and it follows a team of scientists sent to colonise Mars in the mid 21st century. The book deals with both the practical scientific and engineering challenges they face, trying to survive in a hostile environment where even the air is poisonous, and with the political and ethical issues that arise as they build a new society from scratch. In this first book the main question is whether Mars should be terraformed for human habitation. Robinson has clear sympathies for the environmentalist perspective of leaving the planet as it was found, but at the same time recognising that the continually degrading environmental and political state of Earth may render such an ideologically pure position impossible. The major conflict of the story is introduced about two thirds of the way through the first book, when the Martian natives (i.e. the earliest colonists) who wish to create a new world order based on fairness and free of the wars and greed that ruined Earth revolt against the Powers That Be back home (a corrupt and ineffective UN and the huge transnational corporations controlling it) who see Mars as just another place to squeeze money out of.

This conflict is only just getting going at the end of the first book, so most of the book deals with the scientific challenges they face. Robinson suffers from a little bit of pro-science Pollyanna-ism, as with few exceptions every endeavour, from the bio-engineered Mars-friendly algae to the enormous space elevator, goes smoothly and according to plan. The science is all quite plausible (with the possible exception of the immortality treatment, but that can be forgiven as a necessary plot gimmick required to keep the same POV characters around over the hundreds of years that the whole trilogy spans) but it stretched my belief a little to think that there would be no setbacks or disasters when dealing with these staggeringly huge engineering projects.

That's the only complaint I could make though, Robinson is a great writer and this series is (to this date) his masterpiece. It works perfectly on the levels of plot and character, and the overall themes and questions that it raises are important and thought-provoking. It's nice to think that with a fresh start on a far away planet that it might be possible to build a new, better society than the one we have here, but of course, even in a completely different environment can human nature ever really change?

It's a toss up as to whether I'll continue with this series or move on to his global warming series, has anyone read those?


Jungle Rhino said...

I found blue and green mars to be a bit plodding, but the first is definately a good read. Have you read Mr. Ericsons' latest book - it's come out recently but I haven't got around to buying it yet. I've been rendered temporarily penniless by radiator eating Leprechauns... damn dirty Leprechauns!!

Jon said...

Yeah I thought the first one was the best when I first read them too.

I'm currently reading the new Erikson. Pretty cool but no different to the rest of the series really. The only problem is that it's been so long since I read House of Chains that I can't remember what's going on.