Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson

May 6, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

One of the chapters of Red Mars is titled “The Scientist as Hero”. While I was reading it, I thought perhaps the whole trilogy should be called “The Executive As Hero”, for in a time when corporate executives as vilified for their huge salaries and lavish benefits, Kim Stanley Robinson seemed to be defending their work as both valuable and necessary. To me, this is typified in the idea of the tour of the facilities. A confession: I am not an executive or administrator, but rather an engineer. From my side of the fence, these are usually a farce, a dog and pony show too abbreviated and (if those giving the tour are at all competent) too staged to grant any real insight. I was surprised, therefore, to find touring is the structural core of the trilogy, in two senses. First, as a narrative device, some characters give tours to other characters constantly. After the initial chapters of Red Mars characters rarely do anything as such beyond attend meetings, coordinate various groups of people, and attempt to synthesize diverse opinions into a single vision. In other words, they do the sort of thing CEOs are supposed to do, and what the popular conception equates to sitting around benefiting from the hard work of the real workers. But on a deeper level, the book itself is really a guided tour, obscured only by the fact it is simultaneously a tour of several things at once: what Martian terraforming might look like, what the author views as a superior society to our present one, and the varied neuroses of intelligent, driven people.

I was forced to give the books a low rating because I had to force myself to finish them. It must be said that there are many, many people who love these books. They have some very real strengths, and if you as a reader value them then much can be forgiven. Robinson has done a vast amount of research into his subject and holds little back, spending literally hundreds of thousands of words on descriptions of Martian geography and the scientific details (both real and postulated) of the physics, biology, and chemistry involved with life on Mars. The trilogy is audacious even within the science fiction genre, attempting to chronicle the Martian equivalent of the rise of America from the first settlements to its emergence as a great power in the twentieth century. This sort of epic is rarely seen, and further the sheer length gives the reader a relatively unusual sense of the sweep of time. Events early in the trilogy feel distant towards the end because the reader read about them many hundreds of thousands of words ago. Also, I was surprised to find that while Robinson sticks to a fairly transparent third person narrative he dashes the story with some real literary flair, subtly melding his prose to the psychology of the viewpoint character. The section of Red Mars from Michel Duval’s viewpoint was particularly excellent.

Alas, if, like me, you are not entranced by the endless description of the Martian landscape or convinced by Robinson’s complicated extrapolations of economics and sociology, the books drag mercilessly. When dealing with political intrigue, Robinson is capable of telling a pretty interesting story, but only glimpses of it survive the deluge of details in Red Mars and get completely snowed under somewhere in Green Mars. The characters we spend so much time with never really escape their classifications: Frank is a Machiavellian Politician, Nadia is an Engineer, Sax is a Scientist, and so forth. They also rarely change, and such changes as we see are often attributed to biochemistry. This vision of people as static and unable to escape from their formative influences is depressing and surely untrue in most cases. Minor characters are stereotyped by nationality, a rather shocking attribute for a trilogy that was obviously intended to be very progressive. The plot is relatively focused for most of Red Mars, but the various elements drift apart as the series continues until by Blue Mars it is as diffuse as the solar system whose politics Robinson is describing: characters and plot elements swing around in their designed paths with great gulfs separating them. The characters are often (especially in Blue Mars) curiously passive, rarely influencing events for all their earnest fact-finding and coordinating.

Meanwhile, despite all the descriptions the real focus is not to describe Mars but to describe utopia. This is unfortunate because Robinson is not too convincing when he discusses politics and sociology. His vision of the Earth has dangerously overpopulated was obsolete when he wrote it and now almost comical, his idea that any nation or corporation would pour money into Mars (much less all of them) for some vague hope of mining or creating new markets seems ludicrous in light of the continued failure of the US space program to economically justify itself, and his never-justified use of “metanational” corporations as the snarling villains of his story (surprising, given what I said about his apparent vindication of the executive as a valuable entity) seems hackneyed. Normally, it’s not a big deal if predictions an SF novel makes turn out to be wrong. Brave New World predicted personal helicopters, but it’s not about helicopters, so who cares that turned out to be mistaken? The Mars trilogy is about economics and sociology, so if these age poorly, there’s not much left to like.

Ultimately, if you are fascinated by Mars and interested in an extremely detailed account of humans settling there, the Mars trilogy is definitely worth a try. Otherwise, I would give it a miss. If you read it and find yourself bogged down in Red Mars, then I would give up. I stuck with it mainly because I felt I ought to be familiar with such widely read books, but even that, in hindsight, doesn’t really justify it.

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  1. […] the review Niall mentioned, half-expecting he had me confused with someone else. It turns out I did review the Mars trilogy in 2006. Reading the review in 2012, the language is recognizably my own but much […]

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