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Book Review: Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson

The epic of the first Mars colony begins.


Red Mars

Spectra, 1992, 592 pages



Winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel, Red Mars is the first book in Kim Stanley Robinson's best-selling trilogy. Red Mars is praised by scientists for its detailed visions of future technology. It is also hailed by authors and critics for its vivid characters and dramatic conflicts.

For centuries, the red planet has enticed the people of Earth. Now an international group of scientists has colonized Mars. Leaving Earth forever, these 100 people have traveled nine months to reach their new home. This is the remarkable story of the world they create - and the hidden power struggles of those who want to control it.

Although it is fiction, Red Mars is based on years of research. As living spaces and greenhouses multiply, an astonishing panorama of our galactic future rises from the red dust.




Red Mars is a modern SF classic, one of those "big SF" books that was nominated for and/or won every award out there. It's the tale of the first Martian colony, and covers a couple of generations of history. The "First Hundred" who established the original settlement become larger-than-life, almost mythical figures to those who follow after them, but as Mars begins to be taken over by political and economic factions bringing old issues of exploitation and oppression, followed by resistance and terrorism, from Earth, the Hundred are just as conflicted and prone to squabbling and working at cross-purposes as all the other settlers.

Early on, there is a huge debate over terraforming Mars, eventually becoming a conflict between the "Reds" and the "Greens." Other cultures arrive on Mars and have their own ideas of what it means to be a Martian. There are several sub-story threads involving Muslims — orthodox, Sufi, and Bedouin — all seeking their own stake in the future of Mars.

After decades of immigration and development on Mars, great cities complete with underclasses and undergrounds have arisen. There are frontiers where colonists disappear, forming lost and hidden colonies of their own. Space elevators rise into orbit. And then the First Hundred watch much of what has been built up brought down by an uprising among the children of Mars.

If you are a space exploration geek, and especially if you are one of those who still dreams of a Mars expedition in our lifetime, then Red Mars may fire you up with a realistic view of what emigration to Mars might actually look like. It is almost certainly not an accurate picture of what will actually happen, should we ever get that far, but it's a realistic picture of what could happen.

I did have some issues with how easy it was to turn Mars into another "Wild West" where people could literally take a hike out into the boonies and hide in unmapped outposts. Despite the hostile environment, and notwithstanding the debates over terraforming, the fact that Mars is inherently inimical to human life at times seemed to have little effect on the Martian way of life, nor did it impede colonization growth as much as it should have.

There were a lot of characters, and Robinson covers their differing POVs well. This was necessary to describe an epic with such an ambitious scope — the entire early history of Mars would be a very different story if told through the eyes of one or two protagonists. Yet it also made none of the protagonists, individually, very important, and I found none of them very interesting, except perhaps Hiroko, the mystic Earth/Mars mother who is the first to slip away and create a hidden commune, waiting until the end of the book for its purpose to be revealed.



Verdict: A dense and meticulous work of hard SF, Red Mars will appeal to fans of all the authors to whom Kim Stanley Robinson pays homage: Ray Bradbury, Ben Bova, Edgar Rice Burroughs, et al. Its futuristic vision appealed to me, yet the story and the characters never fully engaged me, leaving me lukewarm about continuing the trilogy.




My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, kim stanley robinson, reviews, science fiction
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