Jeff's Reviews > Red Mars

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
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's review
Jul 01, 2007

really liked it
bookshelves: science-fiction
Recommended for: fans of hard sci-fi
Read in October, 2010

I picked up Red Mars at an airport bookstore on a layover in Kentucky. It's a good read in that it presents a plausible story of traveling to and colonizing Mars that isn't grounded in science that hasn't been invented yet (or that will never be invented, based on everything we think we know to be true today). While the science is sound as far as I can tell, it is the characters who drive the story and there is an enormous and diverse cast of them.

"Red Mars" presents characters that start out as human archtypes, but once you get to know them they turn out to be much more nuanced and three-dimensional; their archtype is just a mask that hides what makes them tick - qualities that are exposed over the course of the book (and, I assume, its sequels). If this sounds like a set-up for several hundred pages of psychoanalysis and social commentary, it is. One of the things that I am getting from this book is that if there is nothing more in the universe than what we know right now, we will still find that there are monsters out there - and they are us. Likewise, there are deep and satisfying answers to big and vexing questions to be found in the universe - but we won't recognize them anymore than we do already in the here-and-now.

If I have one complaint about the book so far it is this: I don't like the characterization of religious people, even if it turns out that some of them aren't really as stereotypically obnoxious as they first appear. While I'm not exactly a fan of fundamentalists of any stripe, I've learned that not all born-again Christians are overtly homophobic, creationist, anti-environmentalist, closet racist douche bags (though a disproportionate number of them certainly seem to be). Likewise, not all Muslims are Jew-hating terrorists, and not all atheists are environmental crusaders who are easily imagined running around naked at home, practicing clandestine bisexuality.

I don't know if the author threw these types of characters into the mix to make his main characters look better by comparison or what, but taken as a whole they dumb-down what is an otherwise excellent portrayal of human beings dealing realistically with extraordinary situations. When all is said and done that is what "Red Mars" is really about, and if the book doesn't get any better than it is (I'm 3/4 through it), it will have succeeded in telling an interesting - if less than thrilling - story of these characters interacting with one another.

Update (February 4, 2011): I finished this book over a year ago, but never got around to updating my review. I'm leaving it with three stars and my comments above about the characters starting out as charactures that are slowly rounded-out through the narrative. Unfortunately, that process didn't work out so well, as many of these two-dimensions characters evolved into three-dimensional douches.

Some additional thoughts:

There's nothing worse, IMO, than a genre writer who tries and fails to write a scene from outside of his genre because the results are usually just sad. One of the faults with earlier sections of Red Mars is that Mr. Robinson doesn't write particularly prurient prose, but insists on going there repeatedly as the crew of the Ares bed-hop and experiment with coitis in micro-gravity. Odd as it sounds, the author's description of the Tharsis Bulge was more exotic than Frank and Maya and John's zero-gravity love triangle, or Hiroko's implied Yoko Ono-esque sexual hold over the entire crew of the Ares.

Likewise, profundities attributed to his characters often sound kind of dumb. For example, the first words spoken by John Boone when he - the first human being on Mars - exited his lander was "Well, here we are." That is not the sort of eloquence for which great orators are known, yet Boone is described repeatedly as a great speaker who is naturally likeable and charismatic. Mr. Robinson would have done better to have decided early on to either show or tell us how scrumtrulescent Boone is, but not attempt both.

Of all the characters presented in the book, only seven or eight are really memorable enough that I can recall their names off the top of my head, and of these only two really stand out on their own merits and not just because the author insisted through his narrative that they're important.

That having been said, I thought the climax of the story - the ill-fated Martian Revolution and the ruthlessness with which it was put down by the transnationals - was very well written for a book that seems to have been intended as 1) a "hard" sci-fi guide to terraforming the Red Planet, 2) a character study of the sorts of people who might be willing to take on such an endeavor and how they'd interact, and 3) ultimately had trouble showing me how great/flawed/brilliant/compelling it kept telling me its protagonists are.

Consequently, I was very pleasantly surprised at how well the build-up to the revolution, its execution, and its aftermath was written. While not "technothriller" material by any stretch, it's an accessible and envisionable description of the strategy, tactics, and even logistics employed by the revolutionaries in their afforts to free themselves from their Earth-bound benefactors-turned-oppressors.

The only downside is that when the innevitable body count began in the aftermath, there was only one character whose passing I lamented. Frankly, there were quite a few surviving characters who I found myself wishing were dead - the disconnect between what the author wanted me, the reader, to think of them and what I actually thought of them at the end of the story was just too great.

Three stars for "Red Mars."

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