Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson

red marsI borrowed Red Mars from the library maybe twenty years ago. I don’t recall much, but I must have enjoyed it because during the next few years I bought the two sequels, Green Mars and Blue Mars in hardcover when I found them being sold cheaply, but for some reason didn’t get around to reading them.

I kept looking for a hard cover edition of Red Mars to complete the set, but didn’t hold out much hope.

While visiting the Galaxy Bookshop, a science fiction specialist in Sydney, I saw on their noticeboard a wanted ad, in which someone was trying to get a hardcover copy. Many years later I saw one in a second hand book shop in Narrandera, NSW. It was an American first edition and from memory cost around $300.

Earlier this year I finally found an affordable copy for myself, a British first edition at a small fraction of the cost of that US book – basically it was less than the price of a new release and didn’t reflect it’s apparent rarity.

In addition to copies of each volume of the trilogy, I also have book of short stories, The Martians, using the same characters

It’s not surprising that Robinson won some of the top science fiction awards for this series of novels. He creates a complex near-future society in the process of colonising Mars, looking at the technical, political and sociological challenges faced. I think he pulls it all together magnificently, with exceptions that I mention later.

A major theme is the conflict arising within a new colony when the colonists interests begin to clash with the interests of the colonial powers who sent them. Should the new colony on Mars exist to be exploited by the home planet? Or should they start to make their own way, free of the engrained mistakes of earth’s history and politics?

We have been sent here by our governments and all of our governments are flawed, most of them disastrously. It’s why history is such a bloody mess. Now we are on our own, and I for one have no intention of repeating all of Earth’s mistakes just because of conventional thinking. We are the first Martian colonists! We are scientists! It is our job to think things new, to make them new.

Part of the appeal of books like this – and I found Robinson did it well throughout Red Mars – is conveying a sense of awe, of the majestic, an encompassing experience of the unimaginable scale of a journey through space and the arrival at another planet.

And then experiencing the alien landscape of that planet, with features of a size far exceeding anything on earth.

* Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system, 25kms high with a footprint that would cover the majority of France.

* Valles Marineris, a system of canyons  stretching for nearly a quarter of the planet’s circumference, 4,000 kms long, 200 kms wide and as deep as 7 kms, dwarfing the Grand Canyon in the USA.

And then there’s the technology required to get there – and to ensure survival upon and after arrival.
It takes significant skill to convincingly describe all of that, as well as imagine the kind of  social structures that would emerge to make it work, considering the options of maintaining or challenging the expectations of a parent society on a planet far removed by both distance and experience.

But to me the timeline of the book is a minor let-down.

In Red Mars, The first colonists head for Mars in 2026 six years after John Boone was the first man to set foot on the planet. The timetable for such achievements was even ambitious for the year the book was published in 1992, so specifying the years for those things to happen perhaps wasn’t Robinson’s wisest writing decision. So far I’ve seen no reason why specified dates (especially those not so far into the future) were necessary.

I also found that the progress of development on mars seemed to happen far too quickly. Within a couple of decades, several cities and industrial complexes have been built, connected by a variety of transport options: trains, airborne dirigibles, and road traffic; and there are constant and regular arrivals from earth to the new colony, exacerbating unease among earlier colonists who see the society they had hoped to establish being corrupted by the greed of their former planet.

I recall watching that first moon landing in 1969, and hearing commentators predicting the first manned mission to mars by the mid 1970s. Instead, the progress made in the Apollo moon missions was abandoned, and only in recent years has anyone started to seriously speculate again about the possibility of a mars mission.
With that kind of history, the outlook of a 1990s book speculating about a 2020s Mars landing and almost immediate colonisation seems excessively and unrealistically optimistic.

“Song” 23 of my “31 Songs”.

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One thought on “Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson

  1. Glad to hear you found an affordable copy. And your summation, descriptions, and analysis — plus inclusion of an impressive piece of music done well in quite a magnificent music hall — were fun.

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