Kim Stanley Robinson
This is likely going to be a long post, but the Mars trilogy is a long work. It is a monumental treatise and demands a thorough look, as there is much going on in the 2300 or so paperback pages that record the future history of Mars’ colonization. And future history it is – the Mars trilogy is less of a tightly constructed narrative as a sprawling, all-inclusive study of what our first steps on another planet will look like. Because I’m considering the trilogy as a whole, and because a worthy response requires addressing specific aspects of the books, this will be a spoilerific review. I will mark accordingly as we move into more dangerous territory.
To begin, my final word on Red, Green and Blue Mars: read these books. To the SF fan checking off essential books in the canon: read these books. To the person interested in the immediate Solar System rather than deep space: read these books. To the reader interested in the near future of our space efforts: read these books. I am uncertain how any other writer can approach Mars after Robinson’s work; he casts a daunting shadow. As more specific details follow, sensitive readers may wish to stop now and go get these books.
As I said at the beginning, these are more future history than novel. There are characters, stories, action and drama, but the true star of the books is the planet itself. Mars overshadows each individual; their change through the books is merely a symbol of the planet’s evolution. Some books use the setting merely as wallpaper, others use the setting to drive the narrative. There are some books, however, where the setting suffuses the narrative to such a degree that the setting itself becomes a character, complete with its own development. And what a development it is for Mars: the planet is red, arid and hostile at the beginning. The end of the third book shows people in shirt sleeves, eating ice cream on the shores of a Martian lake.
Robinson’s careful research and geography make Mars a vibrant place, not just a setting built to the convenience of the plot. Places and distances are real, people and events are anchored to the geography. The books gain verisimilitude from the setting, much the way historical fiction roots the reader to places and times that are familiar. By the end of the books, the reader comes away with a sense of Mars strong enough to evoke déjà vu, if said reader were to actually travel to Mars. I can easily imagine myself bouncing around there and thinking, “This is where the rebellion started, that is where the space elevator was.”
As befits a history, Robinson tends to go off on a wild hair whenever a topic catches his fancy, be it geology, psychology, political science, aging, physics, or a host of other topics. Characters info dump wantonly, a great many pages are given over to debates about government or the environment, and the reader is privy to scientific debates that would normally be buried in journals. What this costs in narrative coherency, it gains in a broad and supportive background for the history. It also invites periodic skimming, though each reader’s interest will no doubt be caught and lost in different places.
Finally, the characters. Most novels, especially speculative fiction, are constructed around two or three narrative pillars. We are asked to go along with these assumptions, sometimes with little or no explanation, because they serve the purpose of the author. The book would be irrevocably changed without one of the pillars. In this case, the first pillar is the selection of characters that are initially sent to Mars. The second pillar is the treatment that Vlad, Ursula and Marina discover partway through the first book that extends life for hundreds of years. Without the treatment, the stars of Red Mars would be dead, at the latest, by early in the second book. For whatever reason, however, Robinson elected to keep the same characters around for the whole of the saga, either to ground the story in recognizable people, or to dodge generational issues. (This is not to say that there aren’t future generations, or that they are marginalized. There are, and they aren’t, but the First Hundred maintains their prominence over a couple hundred years.) This also frees Robinson to spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the effects of aging, especially in the last book. Some may like this, some may not. My own opinions about the elderly are about what one would expect for a person my age, but these are the choices Robinson made, so I go along with him for the ride.
As for the First Hundred, their initial selection wields a subtle influence over the rest of the book. One strength of the Mars trilogy, and the result of its historical feel, is the sense of inevitability that pervades the book. It feels as though, should we make moves towards the Red Planet, the story Robinson tells is exactly what will happen. This inevitability frustrated me immensely at the end of Red Mars, desiring as I did a completely different outcome and story arc. It was only late in the second book that I realized that, while the story moves inexorably forward, reality will be different simply because the people that go to Mars will not be the people in the book. Robinson’s characters are genuinely weird; without them, everything changes.
What happens, for example, if Hiroko isn’t this crazy visionary who smuggles a Caribbean anarchist on the ship? What about Vlad? Remove him and his treatment and everything changes. What if Sax and Ann aren’t the OCD people that they are? What if Frank isn’t pissed all the time? I think that most of what happens in the trilogy flows from these characters, as most of the pressure points in the plot are tied to one specific character or another. Hiroko and Coyote may be the most crucial (and the most batty), but it is a team effort.
As for narrative structure, each of the three books follows roughly the same pattern: several hundred pages of meandering setup, an occasionally arbitrary trigger with 200 or so pages remaining, and finally the resolution of whatever crisis simmered throughout. There are interludes of action during the long buildups, but this is slow developing stuff. Anyone looking for excitement or battles will be disappointed, but I doubt that those sorts of people will make it past the cover description anyway. If I may use an off-kilter simile, the Mars Trilogy is a bit like a good barbecue. Everything is prepared, seasoned, and cooked low and slow, with the reward for the patient being a great meal. Just like no right-thinking chef would microwave a rack of ribs, no author could colonize and terraform a planet, lead the colony through self-sufficiency and revolution, create some truly bizarre cults and movements, and finally present this new world without spending considerable time in preparation. This may not be for everyone, but some people also prefer Jack in the Box to a porterhouse steak.
Some caveats of a slightly spoiler-oriented nature. Green Mars was my favorite of the books, I think, while Blue Mars was the weakest. Some reviews I have read rated Red Mars the highest; it may indeed be the best, but it took most of the book to rearrange my preconceptions, limiting my enjoyment a bit. Not a fault of the book of course, just my own perceptions. Anyway, to me Blue Mars falters a bit because the focus starts to unravel. The core of the independence issue is resolved in the second book and, as the characters themselves admit in Blue Mars, the key ideological divide on Mars between Reds and Greens is destined to vanish within a couple of decades. There are questions remaining, of course, but the narrative arc is on its downward track.
As a result, Blue Mars moves both inward and outward from the center, bringing in new colonies and projects, while focusing on political minutia on Mars. The colonies are the more interesting of the two, but are dealt with somewhat perfunctorily in service of Martian political narrative. These side stories seem worth of opening the series out, ala Bova’s Grand Tour, rather than just tossing Mercury and others out the window once they serve their purpose.
Likewise, the politics are interesting and the creation of the Martian government is an absorbing, if time and page-consuming, process. Some of the politics, however, devolves into personal rivalry between characters of dubious emotional attachment (i.e., I never cared much about Jackie and her brood and never figured out why Nirgal was so attached to her) or generational bickering. The latter is always vulnerable to further angst about growing old, people fretting about memory, morose musings on death and mortality, and characters the reader might wish silenced getting a chapter or two to pour out their hearts. Again, some may enjoy these bits (and dislike the parts I found interesting), but this is the sort of writing that resulted in mass skimming.
In the end, however, Mars remains. Several weeks on, the books stay with me, their images bright in my imagination. The last, in particular, of people lounging by the lake, enjoying the pleasant weather keeps floating up from my subconscious. I don’t remember the details of the characters present, their conversations, or why they were even at the lake, but that image, and its illusion of attainability, is still close to the surface. My disagreements with Robinson’s choices (and I consider them choices, not flaws) fade away, as does my irritation with some of the characters, leaving Mars behind. The characters have a deep, emotional attachment with the planet, one I presume they share with the author. The enthusiasm is infectious.
Rating: Franz Beckenbauer, in his pomp.