I'm sure I wouldn't have picked up Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars if it hadn't been so passionately advocated by two different people. For one, the 1993 trade paperback cover looks goofy. I'm certainly not one to sneer at science fiction as if the genre weren't capable of extraordinary art, but I'll be real: in a world of so many books I can't wait to read, I do my share of judging covers as a first filter, and the Red Mars edition that came into my hands triggered all kinds of uneasy associations: "trope," "geek," "limited," "silly," "this is not your kind of science fiction, Anna Clark."
The second reason I likely wouldn't have picked it up? It's the first book of a trilogy. Even if I might've leapt beyond my base cover-judging instincts--perhaps swayed by the buoyant book review blurbs of the text--the fact that I was signing up for not one, but three thick paperbacks would have stymied me. There's a lot I want to read out there. I might risk the time on one book I'm uncertain about, but three? All about 600 pages or so? Now that's a commitment. And no, I couldn't let myself think I'd stop after just one if I wasn't that into it. I have a strong aversion to excerpts and abridgments of novels, and the idea of beginning a trilogy without anticipating reading the whole of it simply goes against the grain of my personal readerly integrity.
So I should've missed this book. But then, there they were, two passionate advocates. Extraordinary characters, I heard. Intelligent science. A philosophical bent. One advocate lured me into listening to the first 10 pages read aloud, just to get a taste, and then, yes, I'd hear nothing more about it if I wasn't that into it.
But you know? Those first pages sparked with an authorial vision of Mars not just as a planet, or a power; as people arrived there and experimented with (literally) creating a new world, "now it became a place."
What the hell, I thought. I borrowed a copy.
Red Mars opens in the near future, in 2026, and follows the stories of the first hundred people to create a human colony on Mars. We follow them on the long (and rather eventful) voyage out, peering through flashbacks at the selection process that got them on the ship. We discover how the ship, and the future colony, is designed to ease humans into a wholly new life. To adapt to the slightly different clock on Mars, for example, the colony creates the concept of the timeslip. They operate on a standard 24-hour clock, because they are accustomed to it, but since Martian days are about 40 minutes longer than their Earth counterparts, the clock stops every day at 12:00:00 am--sitting quietly for exactly 39.5 minutes before ticking into 12:00:01 am. That gap is called the timeslip. And, to this reader at least, it seems mythic even in its brand new-ness.
Meanwhile, human assumptions about seasons must be responded to before a new set of assumptions might be built in a new world. Most adaptations are managed by a UN agency (United Nations Office of Martian Affairs, or UNOMA), but, as is wont to happen, our gang--John, Frank, Maya, Nadia, Arkady, Hiroko, Michel, Ann, Sax, and the rest--have ideas of their own about what should be happening to them, or to the planet. Most especially, the conflict over whether or not to terraform Mars (that is, whether to permanently alter its landscape and atmosphere, often using destructive means, to make it more habitable to humans) is the center of the text. Red Mars changes perspectives, shifting close-third omniscience among characters, and spanning decades. The first hundred are followed by tens of thousands more, and opposing ideas of what is worth creating on this new/old landscape morphs from philosophical differences to high-stakes choices.
Red Mars won the BSFA and Nebula awards for best novel. Among the many, many reviewers who glowed in their coverage of this novel, Newsday said this:
An expansive widescreen epic of the settlement of Mars, the kind of sweeping narrative that could be called 'old fashioned' save that few science-fiction writers, old or new, have ever done a job so well. Beautifully detailed and vividly realized, Robinson's novel dramatizes the transformation of Mars ... Not only the best SF novel about Mars ever written, but one of the best novels of political science fiction yet published in English. Readers across a broad spectrum of literary tastes should enjoy it.
Adds Gerald Jonas in his piece for The New York Times Book Review:
In the debate over terraforming and its consequences, Mr. Robinson has all the makings of a philosophical novel of suspense. The stakes are high, the sides are shrewdly drawn, the players on both sides range from politically naive idealists to ambitious manipulators without discernible scruples.
Author Kim Stanley Robinson is a giant of science fiction, a remarkably prolific writer whose range of knowledge is (forgive me) mind-boggling. Red Mars is not only a tour through the landscape of another planet, drawing on the hard-nails of physics, geology, biology, botany, technology, astronomy, ecology, and bio-genetics, but it is peculiarly attuned to the frictions of more amorphous concepts: politics, community-building, leadership, negotiation, corporate business, media, social revolution, violence, peace-making, activism, religion, romance, language, immigration, hero-making. Robinson is damn near prescient: I swear to God, he predicted the existence of YouTube in this early-90s text (see: John Boone watching random videos uploaded by other colonists, including colonists performing Hamlet and experimenting with karate). Such a swath of information and insight might've felt intimidating, or boring, or pretentious if weren't threaded through a strong story. While the cover of the paperback might belie the fact, the narrative of Red Mars propels the story, rather than the information bellowing beneath it. (One strange gap: money. There is very little acknowledgment of how money systems translated into the daily life of Mars, which, especially decades into the colony with corporate interests and immigration dominating the news there, leaves a strange void.)
To be sure, some of the Russia/United States tension in Red Mars (embodied in the nationalities dominating the Martian colony, and in the uses that UNOMA and corporations intend to make of the planet) feels dated. While this isn't some kind of Cold War epic that rustles up old space-race drama -- the novel was published after all that, but only just -- Red Mars at times feels oriented in that direction, giving a little bit of mustiness to its pages. It also felt distracting to come across the names of transnational corporations on Earth (intent on playing a larger and larger role on Mars) that had real-life counterparts: Mitsubishi, Amex, Armscor. I felt like laughing every time one of these names showed up in the text; the names carried a certain absurdity, as if this were stage set for a blatant fable, rather than a fully realized novel.
Now, I have a habit of shifting among several books at a time, depending on my shifting moods. It is highly unusual for me to read any book straight through without dipping into any other book for a change of pace. But that's what happened with Red Mars. This surprised me -- in the first half of the book, there was never a clear moment where I articulated any reaction to the book beyond "that's interesting" and "this is pretty good," seemingly short of the amazement I'd imagined would be necessary to tuck away Kelly Link's stories and James Baldwin's essays until I was done with it. This isn't a cliffhanger, either. There is suspense, yes, but it unfolds with remarkable patience. There is, rather, a sure, slow eye for detail -- the characters are scientists, after all -- and attention stays on how things are built, what things are made of, how things move, colors, looks, substances.
This is a novel of nouns. The text is plain and specific; this seems suited not only to the scientist narrators, but to the fact that for such an ambitious, concept- and information-heavy book, linguistic flourish would have been too much. The novel would've broken under the weight of it all. But Robinson doesn't mistake plain speech for stilted, or vapid. He calls things by their names, and these things are extraordinary enough to glow in their own right. He doesn't mince words, doesn't bother saying things he doesn't mean; without verbal padding, the reader feels a patient narrative moving quickly -- not any easy balance to hold for 600 pages. And then there are moments when the plain speech breaks open, for just a line or two, and poetry shines through with a suddenness that slices the heart. Consider:
The sky had darkened. It occurred to (John) that it might be just another double eclipse: Phobos was so close overhead that it blocked a third of the sun when it crossed in front of it, and Deimos about a ninth, and a couple times a month they crossed at the same time, causing a shadow to be cast across the land, as if a film had got in your eye, or you had had a bad thought.
And also, another moment in John's perspective, shortly after receiving a medical treatment designed to correct the affects of human aging (a plotline I imagine is developed in the sequels, as it was left hanging rather randomly in this one). John is swept into the energy and dancing of Sufi whirling dirvishes. Coming at the end of a paragraph that spans a page and a half, brimming with long sentences, comes this:
...They chanted the names, Arabic, Sanskrit, Inca, all the names for Mars, mixed together in a soup of syllables, creating a polyphonic music that was beautiful and shivery-strange, for the names for Mars came from times when words sounded odd, and names had power: he could hear that when he sang them. I'm going to live for a thousand years, he thought.
As much as the novel relies on the sturdiness of nouns in its story-telling, it also leverages questions: How does history determine what happens next, and when is it helpful to loosen ourselves from its pull? Is it even possible to disconnect from our history to create something new? If not, then what's the point of trying? How do analogies--understanding our individual present or future through the lens of our past--limit us, and when does it liberate us? When are these analogies the same thing as memories? How does nostalgia shape what we hope for? How does what we hope for shape our nostalgia? For us unwieldy, strange, tense, passionate human beings who carry our humanity wherever we go, is it possible for things to work? This, then, is where we are left. For now.
Author Image Credit: The Guardian