by Kyt Dotson
Red Mars represents the beginning of a journey that will put you on the path of understanding the social and industrial responsibilities and challenges faced by every frontier exercise. In this case, that frontier is putting a colony on Mars; something that Robinson portrays as an entirely human event using a cross-perspective narrative between about eight of the First Hundred initial colonists. This book is full of sympathetic characters, political intrigue, and frames itself in the language of science and exploration.
The people we meet in this book are true pioneers, throwing themselves into space on a wing and an oxygen scrubber mere inches from death by suffocation.
The first thing I noticed about Robinson’s prose throughout the novel is that he writes fairly thick, descriptive sweeps of everything. He uses his point-of-view characters with a vengeance and leaves few stones unturned beneath their gaze; by no means are the descriptions barren of emotional context, though, as everything described in whatever detail always edges itself with the inner monologue of the character currently in the spotlight. This makes what would be long, torturous descriptions of Martian geology and the astrophysics of space-flight from Earth to Mars much easier to bear and dulls the razor edge of extremely scholarly science fiction.
If you ever wanted a primer as to the disposition of the geology and history of Mars, you’ll learn it here. The trip to Mars and the planet itself become a focal point for much of the social interaction between the colonists and their struggle to do their intended jobs once they get there. Conflicts and divisions arise quickly in the steampot of a small space with a hundred people in it, even when they all have jobs to do, and some of them have fiery personalities and archetypical characteristics that telegraph their future political sides in the end game.
Many criticisms of this work arise from the disposition of the prose and the stilted nature of the information that Robinson drives into the narrative. This is a colonization story of an alien world that we’ve been studying for decades and there’s a lot of book science and practical built into the story of any homestead. As a writer he’s obviously enamored with Mars as a wilderness, a landscape untouched by human hand or boot and that shows in his lovingly crafted descriptive prose of the red planet and all its majesty.
Reception of Red Mars has been largely popular among science fiction readers, but it’s also been somewhat divisive as a significant number don’t handle his approach to science or the character driven plot. It might be enough to suggest checking it out from the library or reading the first thirty pages at an online retailer authorized to preview the book.
The book begins with something of a shock to the system, and being my first time diving into these pages it caught me a little off guard. Robinson thrusts directly into the narrative literally three quarters of the way though the book by using a flash-forward. We know from the very beginning that one of the characters we’re about to meet (when the flash-forward ends) is going to be dead by the end of the book and we know how. What we don’t know exactly is why.
This book isn’t a psychological thriller and it’s not a action story. This is the story of a stalwart group of frontiersmen who have put themselves on the very fringe of human civilization and thrust shovel into red dirt. While at first they’re separated from Earth by millions of miles of space, they still feel the pull of the politics of their home planet and this provides the backdrop for the struggle that will culminate in the murder at the beginning.
He plays out an interesting struggle of ecological philosophy when it comes to the reason why humans have come to Mars: Earth is overpopulated and on the verge of environmental collapse. This generates the much needed tender to take the spark that will generate the raging conflagration that drives the plot and the characters deep into conflict over the future of Mars and possibly Earth itself.
When you come to this book expect hard science fiction that doesn’t apologize for itself. The story of Red Mars is a filled with complex social interaction, a weaving and winding plot that overlaps itself in unexpected ways, and not only tells the story of the First Hundred but their transformation of Mars and its transformation of them. It’s an epic story about a frontier that is actually in our back yard (give or take thirty-four to two-hundred and fifty million miles.)
If you end up enjoying this book, don’t stop here—the next two books in this series Green Mars and Blue Mars only get more interesting.