Tag Archives: Kim Stanley Robinson

Book Review: Exploring a Mars-topia

Fantasy epics are good. Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time, and Game of Thrones are but the most popular. But what about good sci-fi epics? Perhaps the Dune series? The Rama books? Both are on my List, but I just finished an epic that would be loved by lefties and techies the world over. It’s the Mars Series by Kim Stanley Robinson.

I’ve written about Red and Green Mars, but this is more of a general overview. First up, know that this is truly an epic, spanning decades and stretching out across the Solar System. There is a hoard of characters, though KSR sticks to a handful for most chapters. This is hard science fiction at its best, futurism at its most optimistic.

That’s saying something. KSR doesn’t picture the rosiest picture of the future, but you can tell he has high hopes. If you care about a balanced society, if you care about gender equality, and if you care about the eventual dismissal of neoliberalism, read these books.

And why not admit it. Nowhere on this world were people killing each other, nowhere were they desperate for shelter or food, nowhere were they scared for their kids. There was that to be said.

Mars is the utopia, while Earth languishes in population and corporate woes. It takes a while to get there, and this tension between the settlement and the home world provides most of the major tension, but eventually it seems that the Red Planet comes to peace. We explore new economics,  divergent ways of working and living, enlivened ideas about environment. In fact, the environment is a key aspect of the books, and indeed most of KSR’s books (I’ve heard). Currently Mars in uninhabitable, and would need the introduction of greenhouse gases to make it livable. But where and when do you stop? How much human imposition should a planet sustain?

These are the issues we face now. That is, overpopulation and human encroachment are affecting Earth. Our desires overpower the Earth’s needs (and really, as a result, our needs). We’re headed to Mars very soon (I’m pretty sure these projections fall into KSR’s dates) and the reality is we are going to have to take conservatism with us to the stars. The Mars series tells us how to do it.

But what about the book the ideas are woven into? It’s well-written for the most part. It’s definitely nicely framed and structured, with proper jumps in time and character. There are some awkwardly written sex scenes, but I think KSR deliberately skipped through these quickly, understanding that they’re a bitch to write. That said, the blooming romances and relationships are beautiful and you know these characters so well that they feel natural. Blue Mars does feel like it teeters at the end, not going on for too long, per se, but struggling with how to express the last movement. There’s a lack of grandiose action sequences compared with the first two books, but by now the planet is settling. And KSR does manage to inject some fantastic lines that make you stop and say “whoa”:

Ann was looking at him closely. Finally she said, “Everything dies someday. Better to die thinking that you’re going to miss a golden age, than to go out thinking that you had taken down your children’s chances with you. That you’d left your descendants with all kinds of toxic long-term debts. Now that would be depressing. As it is, we only have to feel bad for ourselves.”

Read it and weep. I mean really weep. That’s what the world faces now. Hopefully that sought after golden age is still within our grasp.

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To Greener Pastures

This blog isn’t only about writing; it’s also about what I’ve been reading. And the last book I’ve devoured (is it bad to admit that I chew on bookmarks?) is Green Mars.

The second in Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Mars trilogy, it focuses on the rebellious and quite literally underground lives of both settlers and natives of the Red Planet. There are none of the massive set-pieces that gave the first book such vivid and exciting hooks. Instead we focus on a planet that is both undergoing radical change by humans, and affecting change in the humans that inhabit it. It is a much more character driven novel (spoiler: unlike the first none of the protagonists are killed off!) with fantastic transitions that mirror a society in flux. After the horrendous uprising of 2061 that saw the majority of Martian cities destroyed and most of the original populace driven to hiding, we finally get to see the effects of terraforming en masse. But it is the heroes of this world that are the most enthralling.

Sax

The man behind the terraforming efforts, Sax sees the greatest character arc. From mild yet stringent supporter of the total transformation of Mars, he is moulded both physically and mentally by an array of challenges. Cooped up under the Southern Pole, he wants to continue his scientific forays. So, with the help of the Swedes (God bless ’em) he gets a new personality, and through plastic surgery becomes another persona all together. A much sexier persona. When on the surface again he gains the affections of Phyllis, another member of the First Hundred (the first 100 colonists of Mars). A devilish woman, they begin an affair, one that Sax finds both discomfortingly new, but satisfyingly exuberant. Eventually his cover is blown, and he is horribly tortured. Recovered by his friends, he begins life again at about the age of 110. Here he begins yet another metamorphosis—he becomes a bit of a bad ass. Having witnessed the blooming of life on Mars, he takes his studies and research to new levels. He both cultivates this blooming, and plans to defend it. He becomes accepting of other points of views, putting his vast knowledge to actual use. Sax is definitely the most interesting character in the whole series so far, actually growing to be a better, more influential person. I look forward to what becomes of him in Blue Mars.

Nirgal

A new character, born on the red soil, Nirgal is the son of Hiroko (self-proclaimed Mother Goddess of Mars). The book opens on his childhood, however short it ends up being. We get a good sense of the openness of this society through Nirgal. Sexuality is freely explored, relationships malleable and ever-changing (often used for political gain), and knowledge the keenest of pursuits. The images of these children of Mars are fantastic indeed. They are gangly beings due to both the gravity and genetics. Strong, sexual, and scheming, these are the young folks who will truly create a Free Mars. Moving on from a blustery beginning Nirgal becomes a powerful and much-loved man. We see a true leader born through other-worldliness. With the young there is hope.

Ann

Though we do not share much of Ann’s point of view, I found her fall into extremism fascinating. She is the polar opposite to Sax: vehemently against terraforming, and firm in the belief that the planet should have been left precisely as it had been found. But change is inevitable, as we see in Sax. Ann, however, changes little, only going further and further into her defensive shell. Perhaps it was the death of her husband that sent her over, much like it affects Nirgal (there are many, many threads through the books). Either way, we witness someone who refuses to change, to adapt, and in so doing may cause more harm than good.

And this is just the start. Robinson lets us spend time with the elusive Coyote (a terribly boisterous rogue), the firm, moody, and captivating Maya (a second favourite to Sax), and the solid Nadia. If there is anything that I will take away from this book (apart from the endlessly juicy discussions on global politics, economics, sociology and more) it’s how to write your characters. There are so many flaws, intertwined in so many relationships that nothing ‘cool’ has to happen. The people reflect the planet, and the planet reflects them.

To quote the natives:

There is no going back.

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Not an ebook in Sight

First up, my haul from the MWF. Couple of nice freebies; I may have to subscribe to Cosmos.

Sweet loot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then two books arrived in the mail today: Green and Blue Mars. The question is, can I resist them to finish what I’m already reading (UnLunDun)?

Temptation incarnate.

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Our Curiosity for Mars

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.

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