Red Mars

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson:

Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars


“… Even without an imagination you can see what kind of power we have. Maybe that’s why things are getting so strange these days, everyone talking about ownership or sovereignty, fighting, making claims. People squabbling like those old gods on Olympus, because nowadays we’re just as powerful as they were.”

“Or more,” Nadia said. (323)

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars is now twenty years old, but it still provides a compelling story about 21st-century colonization of Mars. The hefty book describes the lives and work of the “first hundred” in the initial settlement expedition, who subsequently become something of a free-floating elite within colonial Martian society, as well as the inception of the project to terraform Mars. It is very “hard” science fiction, with lots of “areological” (i.e. the Martian equivalent of geological) detail, and a good deal of political and philosophical reflection.

The novel also includes a lot of literary allusion, not only of the predictable Martian sort (to Bogdanov, Burroughs, Bradbury, etc.), but conspicuously to The Lord of the Rings and to the stories of Phillip K. Dick (on whom Robinson wrote a dissertation). The “hardness” of the story can make a reader overlook its intense metatextuality. In fact, I was about 80% of the way through my read of the book before I realized — long after the telling quote reproduced above — that the key members of the first hundred who serve as the book’s protagonists correlate very closely to ancient Egyptian gods. Once discovered, I find the relationship so vivid that I’m surprised to see no discussion of it in a quick search of the ‘net. (Since the details of this correlation could be taken for plot spoilers, I’ve separated them from this review. Scroll down to the Comments field on this linked page.)

In more recent science fiction, the blindingly bright future of information processing seems to have eclipsed many of the still-valid technological concerns that are foregrounded in Red Mars. So it was very refreshing to read such an “old fashioned” story written with such care for them. The “first hundred” characters, despite their sometimes superhuman intensity, are all believably flawed. Robinson makes it possible for the reader to care about even the worst of them. (Except for Phyllis Boyle. I did not like her a bit!)

Red Mars is the first volume of a tightly-composed trilogy. Popular opinion seems to consistently rate it as the best of the three, but that does not deter me from reading further, because it is very good. I suspect that the larger work suffers from the syndrome that afflicted the Matrix movies. The brilliance of the initial installment stands out in contrast to prior work in the larger genre, while the sequels — no worse, and in some respects better — fail to provide the same sense of astonishment, since they are conserving and continuing the story developed in the first. [via]



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