The colored sands in their patterns, the fluted and scalloped canyon walls, the volcanoes rising right through the sky, the rubbled rock of the chaotic terrain, the infinity of craters, ringed emblems of the planet's beginning... Beautiful, or harsher than that: spare, austere, stripped down, silent, stoic, rocky, changeless. Sublime. The visible language of nature's mineral existence.
Mineral: not animal, nor vegetable, nor viral. It could have happened, but it didn't. There was never any spontaneous generation out of the clays or the sulphuric hot springs; no spore falling out of space, no touch of a god; whatever starts life (for we do not know), it did not happen on Mars. Mars rolled, proof of the otherness of the world, of its stony vitality.
And then, one day ...
Kim Stanley Robinson
Softcover: Published by Spectra on October 1, 1993, 592 pages (ISBN: 0553560735)
1993 Nebula award winner - Best Novel
Red Mars is a love novel for a planet. There isn't a page that goes by in which you do not see an intense passion for our red neighbor from the author.
It is this love that, interestingly, provides the major conflict for this novel. Red Mars is the first of a trilogy (followed by Green Mars and then Blue Mars) that outlines mankind's expansion from Earth to Mars, a step that becomes necessary as the political, economic, and physical environments on Earth begin a dangerous downward spiral.
The conflict here is between the two major perspectives on what man's role should be on the barren planet. Should we leave it as untouched as possible (the "red" philosophy, so named not necessarily because of Communist tendencies, but due to Mars' native color), or should we terraform the planet it to make it livable for human beings (the "green" philosophy, for obvious reasons)?
This novel is not "space opera." Don't expect Star Wars-esque swashbuckling from this novel or else you will be met with sore disappointment. This book is loaded with ideas and philosophies, some of which you'll agree with and others which you will not, and there is an uncompromising attention to detail throughout.
On the other hand, this novel and its two sequels are among the most rewarding pieces of fiction I've ever read.
c h a r a c t e r s
This book primarily focuses on "the first hundred," a group of one hundred scientists who are the first group sent to Mars in order to make it their permanent home.
John Boone is the major character here, and his legacy fills the remainder of the trilogy. Boone is the moral center of the first hundred, remaining the one person that the rest of the first hundred trusts after they begin to splinter along various political axes (mostly the red vs. green conflict, which is overriding). Yet, for being a major character, John is somehow rather empty; he seems not to have any true motivation or direction for where things should go; instead, his gift seems to be to bring people together who wouldn't otherwise listen to each other. That is, with one major exception: he is a strong advocate for the independence of Mars from Earth, no matter what path it takes.
In an incredibly powerful scene that opens the novel, John Boone is murdered by a young and very angry radical, spurred on by John's primary rival, Frank Chalmers. Frank is, in many ways, a "dark" John; he shares many of the same political gifts, but often uses them to splinter rather than unite, unless it is directly for his own gain. His political goal is the opposite of John's as well; Frank spends most of his time trying to set up political alliances and treaties with Earth and the transnational corporations. Frank's subtle mechanisms in splintering the various contingencies is one of the highlights of the novel.
The glue that binds John and Frank together is Maya Toitovna, an often emotionally fragile woman who quite often seems along for the ride, as her supposed primary gift is keeping the first hundred organized, yet they splinter anyway. Throughout the novel, she goes back and forth between John and Frank, almost playing the two off of each other and quite often serving as an antagonizer between two people that would be much better off if she left them alone.
Perhaps the most enigmatic character of the novel is Hiroko Ai, who is essentially the voice of a "green Mars," or at least the idea that on Mars mankind should develop a separate and new culture, independent and different from that which is found on Earth. At no point in the trilogy are we ever deeply involved with Hiroko, and that is part of why she is so important. In her own hidden fashion, she contributes more to Mars than anyone else in the novel, but you have to read between the lines in places to figure out these contributions, which mostly appear in the second and third novels in the series.
Arkady Bogdanov is the very model of a revolutionary. Much like Hiroko (and yet very different), his primary motivation is the separation of Mars from Earth, but rather than developing a new culture, Arkady is most interested in simply gaining functional and political independence from Earth, mostly in throwing off the shackles of the large Earth corporations and their puppets which are involved in Mars.
The main character here, though, is Mars herself. Almost every page is filled with some loving description of the planet which has haunted mankind for ages. It is a red star in the sky that has captured the imaginations of Edgar Rice Burroughs and so many before and after, and the author's love for the place has no bounds here.
There are many other characters that float through this novel (most notably Sax Russell, who is more or less the voice of the scientist/engineer in the novel, and Ann Clayborne, who becomes the voice of the "red" movement), but their stories are filled in in much more detail in the second and third parts of the trilogy.
p l o t
For Robinson, plot is often a secondary element in his novels; the more important part is espousing a central idea or concept through the interaction of characters. For example, he posits in his novel The Years of Rice and Salt that Islam, without Christianity as a counterbalance, would have developed a similar modern society to what we have now (albeit not quite as quickly).
Here, his central concept is the idea that Mars can be made habitable for humans, and the difficulties inherent in this proposition. Mostly, he relates this story by creating characters with deeply-held personal beliefs and bouncing them off of each other, particularly when there is bound to be conflict.
Perhaps the best example of this comes early on, when Sax Russell and Ann Clayborne have a very public argument that has major echoes throughout the remainder of the trilogy. Ann's point is to advocate holding off on any sort of large-scale terraforming of Mars until the planet can be studied in much more detail, whereas Sax, the everloving science geek who sees Mars as a huge sandbox, argues very effectively on behalf of terraforming the planet. This argument seems so innocuous when it occurs, but it sets the framework of the entire trilogy more so than any other scene (even if you don't really get to know Sax or Ann until after Red Mars finishes up).
There is a love triangle of sorts that does thrust much of the progression of the novel. Maya's alternation between Frank and John provides much of the forward thrust of the plot, alternately sending John and Frank down various paths which end up having ramifications for many of the other characters and the planet itself. Another interesting aspect of their love triangle (and other relationships in the novels, such as the Vlad/Marina/Ursula polygamy) is that it shows that adults in middle age and even later can still develop new romantic and sexual relationships.
Yet, still, the reason to read the novel is not the plot; it is in the carefully designed dilemmas and arguments about the logistics, politics, and economics of terraforming a planet, along with some postulation about near-future economic changes and scientific advances, that thrust this book along.
i s s u e s d i s c u s s e d
Robinson hits his stride when he's intertwining issues with his story, and Red Mars flows like cognac on a sleepy winter night. Here are some of the more thought-provoking concepts that he touches upon in Red Mars.
Transnationals Robinson posits that in the next fifty years, corporations will become even more monolithic and will eventually take over the governments of small nations, moving their headquarters there and running the nations like a corporate campus. This gives these companies a great deal of freedom, in that they no longer have to obey the rules or tax laws of any country, and also gives them political clout in international organizations like the United Nations. The possibility of such transnationals gives one pause and brings into question the sense of long-term and permanent free trade agreements such as NAFTA; what if, say, Mexico were taken over by a large conglomerate of US corporations, essentially shielding them from US tax laws but giving them free trade with the United States? There is a benefit here, though; the transnationals have a large enough research and development arm that it essentially enables them to go forth with such enormous projects as a colonization mission to Mars and some of the other massive projects mentioned below (almost all of which are funded by these huge corporations).
"Red" Vs. "Green" Ignoring the issue of whether it is possible, is it right to terraform Mars? Should we, as humans, visit this seemingly barren planet and turn it into an environment in which humans along with plants and animals from Earth can live? This leads into a great forest of questions: is it ethical to genetically engineer plants that can thrive in the ultra-cold and harsh environment of Mars? What about slamming an icy asteroid into the planet to add oxygen, hydrogen, and water to the biosphere?
Ecological terrorism There is a section of the book in which an act of "ecological terrorism" occurs: a number of plants capable of surviving in the cold are distributed over the entire planet using a very stealthy mechanism. The question is, if you're distributing life, is it ecological terrorism? Is this sort of act punishable, and if so, how harshly?
At other points in the novel, acts that equate to terrorism of various kinds occur, and Robinson carefully spells them out with both the right and the wrong of such acts being apparent. A revolution occurs in the book, and with it a large requisite number of terrorist acts against the United Nations and the transnational corporations. Are these acts justified? Should such wanton destruction of property be punished? How can they be punished if there is such a vacuum of power?
The "Longetivity" Treatment At one point, a "longetivity treatment" is developed which enables extensive DNA repair in every cell and thus significant extension of the lifespan of a human, to the point where people can live for centuries upon centuries. Obviously, if everyone were to receive such a treatment, massive overpopulation would occur extremely quickly. If such a treatment existed, should it be available for everyone? If not, who, then? If it is made available for everyone, should there be strict birth control mechanisms put into place on a global scale (if not, then Earth's population would reach the trillions in a matter of decades)?
There is another interesting aspect of the longetivity treatment, and that is how it almost functions as a plot device for the entire Mars trilogy. Most of "the first hundred" were born in the 1980s and 1990s, meaning that many of them are ranging in age from 30 to 60 when they arrive on Mars. Red Mars itself covers several decades, meaning that these people would all otherwise be extremely old senior citizens by the end of the first novel of the trilogy. The longetivity vaccine solves this problem by making them more or less immortal, meaning that life expectancy in terms of the primary characters means very little and that you can follow two hundred years of "history" (the rough span of the trilogy) through the eyes of the same set of characters.
The Space Elevator In the novel, a space elevator is constructed, connecting Mars to an asteroid and making it very easy to launch raw materials into space for return to Earth and for new visitors to be ferried to Mars. Obviously, there is great value in such a device, and the question of whether it makes sense for Earth immediately comes to mind (hint: I feel strongly that the answer here is "yes"). What would we gain from this, and is this gain worth the investment in constructing such a thing?
Robinson deals with these issues and countless more in the novel and asks so many powerful questions that you can't help but almost be overwhelmed by them. If you read this novel with a thoughtful mind, it will provide many weeks of food for thought.
This writeup started with the statement that Red Mars is a love story for a planet. While that's true, the love spreads beyond that: Robinson loves the human potential and the great ideas that we can conceive of, and this novel is as passionate about great ideas and the people who create them as it is about the red planet.
Take this novel in bite-sized pieces. Let the ideas flow through your mind like twigs on a stream; let them dam up and then break through. Let the possibilities of our future run over you.
"What is this place?" Maya cried.
"This is home," Hiroko said. "This is where we start again."