The Red Planet. Mars, god of war. The backdrop to many fictional tales. From Doom to Total Recall, the planet has captured our curiosity with chances of life and that beautiful red earth.
It was by pure chance that I looked through my bookshelf and picked up Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson at around the time that Curiosity, the biggest rover yet, touched down. Red Mars is the first of a trilogy of books that focus on the colonisation and habitation of Mars by humanity. It’s actually very similar in terms of a trilogy I plan to write, though the chronology for mine is 1) building generation ships on Earth, 2) the travel of a generation ship to a new planet, and 3) the colonisation of that planet. But that’s for when I understand more Science. On with the book at hand.
KSR is not only highly knowledgeable, but also a great writer. His characters are, well, not exactly warm or endearing, but they are believable. The relationships play a massive part in the story-telling, and even if you hate one (in my case I couldn’t stand Michel) you feel their loss (both their emotional loss, and loss of their lives—no one is safe!). These people are scientists first, megalomaniacs second, and philosophers third, with a touch of humanity thrown in. And it’s very understandable; it would be hard being the first colonists of Mars. The book even mentions this, saying that since they’re going to go insane anyway, you might as well send crazy people. It makes for some delicious sequences and conflict in between the exploration of the Red Planet.
This is science fiction at its best, and no rock is unturned (heh). At times the processes do get a weary, with discussions on how best to start a society and whether or not to terraform almost feeling forced. One topic after the other is discussed and argued by the characters throughout the book. This is completely unknown territory that KSM is exploring, and all his characters have an array of agendas. There’s a lot of ground to cover, so the exposition is needed. Thankfully the prose and plot are woven cleverly enough to make it seamless. Warning: heavy science facts and figures may cause headaches and/or paragraph skipping. I preferred the insights into the human psyche, such as the character model devised by Michel, the psychologist for The First Hundred. It’s a clever analysis and cross-section of extrovert/introvert and labile/stabile persons, which ultimately leads to a real-world explanation of the classic four temperaments of the Middle Ages (choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, and melancholic). The question, and answer, of what will become of the future of Mars is just as riveting as the character developments, which in effect shape the evolution of an entire planet.
So, it’s a clever book. It’s reasonably well written with great descriptions despite the fact that Mars is mostly oxidised iron. It has a fantastic grip of real human reaction and structures. But what sci-fi would be complete without some amazing set-pieces. It begins subtly enough, but I have never felt a book build to such a climax before (except perhaps The Scar). Hell—and this counts as a spoiler—a gigantic space elevator is attacked, falling two times around Mars in a pages long description of destruction. I had chills the whole time, and missed my tram stop. There is plenty of action in amongst a very realistic tale of the rise and rebellion of Mars.
I highly recommend this book. This is science fiction that is perfectly within our means. This could happen in the next century, including (and especially) the total meltdown of human civilisation just for the sake of more materials. Literally my one major criticism is the structural editing. How on Earth an editor let the first section (Festival Night) be the first section is beyond me. I was thankfully told the correct way to read Red Mars. So, take it from me—skip Festival Night, read up to Guns Under the Table, then go back. It’s a bit like going into the files of a video game and changing the code.
Read this book, before we actually do go to Mars. The Curiosity is already there.