Book Review: Red Mars

Regarding space-related topics and scientific research, Casey Handmer’s blog is one of my references. So when Casey started his Mars Trilogy Technical Commentary and I learned about Kim Stanley Robinson’s masterpiece, I was instantly intrigued. In Casey’s opinion, KSR’s Mars Trilogy is “one of the finest works of literature ever composed.” It took a couple of weeks of futile resistance before I gave in and ordered the first book in the series, Red Mars, a 420 pages tome that attempts to depict a scientifically credible human colonization of Mars1.

An incredible amount of research went into this book, and it shows. Still, there’s never an overabundance of scientific or nerdy details; quite the contrary, to be honest, and, at least to me, this is one of the book’s weaknesses. It’s astonishing how pivotal moments in establishing the first human colony on the Red Planet are glossed over. One hundred of Earth’s best scientists travel to Mars to create the first human settlement. During their richly narrated, almost two-year-long voyage, we get to know the main characters and learn the ins and outs of the first colonial spaceship. Yet, when they finally reach the orbit, the reader is left with no clues on the undoubtedly dramatic first landing. The settlement is already established in the next chapter, with a second one already in place on Phobos’ surface.

Red Mars Omitting details such as the first landing is undoubtedly an editorial choice. Given the time scope of the narrated adventure (by the end of the trilogy, it will span a few centuries), it probably makes sense, but I couldn’t help but feel betrayed in some way. The story is more about how humans could establish a society and cultural identity in a remote colony, how such a community develops over time, and, more importantly, how and why conflicts emerge with the distant home first and within the settlement itself later on. While reading, I often thought, ‘Hey, this all reminds me of the American colonization!’ and then, ‘I wonder how much percolated into S.A. Corey’s The Expanse,’ terraforming and Earth-Mars trouble playing prominent roles in both series. In many ways, and I know I am making enemies now, Red Mars could have served well as a prequel to The Expanse2.

One thing I found confusing at first but later came to appreciate is that the story isn’t told from a single person’s perspective. Instead, it sprawls across an extensive cast of characters as it expands over time. Viewpoints shift from one character to another, and people we thought we understood suddenly seem strange and different when seen through someone else’s eyes. The Mars society is messy, very human, and often petty, with few clear answers and no simple solutions. In Red Mars, we don’t get an optimistic portrayal of the future of human society. Here, Star Trek’s pacified civilization and the idealistic United Federation of Planets are far away to come, if ever.

Overall, I liked this book, probably a lot, but I don’t think I will read the next installments in the series, at least not right away. Maybe in a while, when Mars dust has settled.

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  1. Red Mars was first published in 1992. That’s something to be considered when evaluating it. Also, some details tenderly show its age, like when characters look at ‘videotapes’ recorded by remote satellites and surface cameras. [return]
  2. Disclaimer: I never read The Expanse; I only watched and loved the TV show. So yeah, I don’t qualify for an informed opinion on that franchise, let alone compare it with another one. [return]