Friday, 10 January 2014

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Red Mars looks at the first waves of emigration to Mars, through the eyes of certain members of the First Hundred, the original settlers. The world Kim Stanley Robinson paints is complex, filtered through the perceptions of different people, the politics intense and contentious, even the debate over terraforming itself is depicted with lively wrangling.

(Honestly, and this may say something about me, but I never even questioned the general idea of terraforming before. I want to live out there! So that, at least, took me by surprise.)

I did, however, occasionally tune out of the very technical discussions of this engineering process or that geologic one. The writing in those sections I found to be entirely dry. And often it was related in pages and pages of fairly boring text, and then not tied in to how it affected the characters.

The characters themselves were fairly well drawn - not lively, not leaping off the page, but more alive than cardboard. I did enjoy the differences in the way people perceived their actions, and how others perceived the same actions. But not enough was done with this. If you're going to play with perception like that, and I'm glad that he did, in some way, it has to mean something. Not just that Maya sees herself as enjoying sex without strings and Frank sees it as a oneupmanship game. We got them fighting over this, but never really got to see that clash of perceptions come out. And none of these contrasting perceptions ever really came to anything.

And perhaps it is too bad that the most interesting part of the book happens off the page. The hidden colony, the number of colonists who disappear and found a mystical utopian settlement seemed to me to be the most provocative part of the story, yet only a handful of pages were allocated to them.

On the same note, why did we get only one chapter of Arkady's point of view, when he was one of the main figures in the Mars resistance? We got tons and tons of insider viewpoints, yet Robinson sets up great outsider characters and then never spends any time with them.

Instead, the book dwelt (very well) on the difficulties of fighting for what is best for Mars and the early colonists when those on Earth see it as a mere pawn to be stripmined for their financial benefit. This book is deeply cynical about human nature. The only one able to make any compromises is more or less a sociopath (or at least a deeply disturbed Machiavellian figure). Everyone else never bends on anything ever. No one really understands anyone else. Talking and consensus building is useless.

Goodness knows that it's not hard to believe in the truly cynical and exploitative these days, but could we get some of the counterpoint, please? They exist in the ether around this story as it is told, but Robinson never engages with them in depth.

In the end, this book is good, it's just not enough. And there are seeds of something more in there, so it's frustrating that they're not allowed to flower.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees


  1. You do know that this is the first book of a trilogy, don't you? I think you will find most, maybe all, of what you see as missing from this volume, in the other two: Green Mars and Blue Mars.

    1. I do realize that, and you'll see in my review of the second that I acknowledge it: Green Mars

      But I always write my reviews from my standpoint of exactly where I am when I finish the book, so at the time I read the first, that was what I felt.

  2. I see. I assumed that reviews you did of other books by this author would also be tagged the the author's name, as this one is, but Green Mars isn't so tagged. That's why I missed seeing it. I've looked at more reviews now (they are interesting) and I see that wanting interesting ideas, characters, etc, to be more fully explored is a frequently recurring theme. But I've been taught that it's a good thing if the universe of a story has been thought out by the author well beyond the borders of the current story. But even I sometimes get to the end of a novel and say "wait a minute -- the story you gave an ending to isn't the most interesting story here; what about blah blah blah".

    1. Fair enough. I was trying to tag by author for a while after I started this blog, but realized how unwieldy that made the tags. I've gone to just tagging genre, and having a complete index. I keep meaning to go back and strip out the author tags I've already done, but life has just been too busy.

      And yes, that's sometimes the way I feel when I'm finished a book - and I think it's probably more likely in speculative fiction, when people come up with provocative ideas and then do nothing with them. I don't demand that every loose end by tied up, but when I am captured by an idea, I want to see more of it!