The Bookworm: Red Mars

Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson. 572 pages. Bantam Books. 1993.

He couldn’t tell them. No one could tell them. Only time, and Mars itself. And in the meantime they would act in obvious contradiction to their own best interests. It happened all the time, but how could it, how? Why were people so stupid? (p. 460)

Bobblehead lent me Red Mars, the first of Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy about the colonization of Mars, a while back and I slowly chipped away at it for the past couple months. It’s a pretty long book, made longer by the tiny text and tight typesetting. But I stuck with it and finally polished it off last night. To be honest, it would have been difficult not to stick with Red Mars, try not to absorb every word, because it is a fantastic book.

Wow. Red Mars is epic.

Its story begins in 2026 when 100 colonists — the so-called “first hundred” made up of astronauts, medics, computer programmers, architects, engineers, biologists, and geologists — begin a one-way, nine-month trip to Mars. Once they arrive, they use shelters and equipment dropped beforehand to establish a small colony. Slowly but surely, they gain a permanent foothold on the alien planet, building permanent housing, learn the lay of the land and life on Mars, mine the atmosphere for needed gasses, metals, and water, and explore first-hand a vast world that had only been seen from space.

The narration follows four of the most prominent members of the first hundred — Maya, Nadia, John, who had been the first man on Mars years earlier, and Frank. Other characters play prominent roles, mostly in concert with the main four. Though the voice of the narration does not change much as the point of view changes, mostly from section to section, Robinson does an incredible job of fleshing out each of the main characters, making them into their own unique individuals with their own personalities and quirks.

For better or for worse, the first hundred are stuck on Mars for good. (Some do yearn fondly for “Terra.”) But though they are all on Mars together, their opinions differ about their future and that of the planet. Some believe they should keep Mars as close to its native state as possible, while others think they need to terraform the planet by all means possible. Should they remain scientists and simply study the planet, or should they become prospectors seeking minerals and developers seeking real estate? Also, others advocate for the creation of a completely new society, something native to Mars and uncompromised by earthly history and ideology. Backed by a lot of corporate funding, and with Earth’s human population spiraling upward and resources becoming increasingly scarce, I am sure you can guess what begins to happen. What transpires is the messy, difficult, but fascinating business of making Mars a permanent home for humans.

Red Mars is an outstanding piece of literature and a sci-fi masterpiece. The writing is astounding. Bobblehead always gushed about the research involved in Red Mars’ writing, and I now know why he was so amazed. Red Mars covers just about everything one would ever want to know and need to know about Mars, getting there, and living there. It is staggering to imagine how much work and research Kim Stanley Robinson did to write this book, to make it so vivid and realistic, as if he himself had toured the red planet and had the vacation slides to prove it.

That is one of the things I loved so much about Red Mars — its believability. Yes, it is science fiction, but it is not outlandish, absurdly imaginative, or implausible like Star Trek or even Star Wars. (Star Wars always struck me as being much more believable than Star Trek, which is probably why I was never a Trekkie.) Whether or not the colonization and eventual terraforming of Mars is ultimately possible, Red Mars presents a very believable version of what that process may look like.

Despite having just written that… Is the colonization and terraforming of Mars possible? Hmm… Though I do not believe it is — it certainly is not ethical given the woeful stewardship of our home planet — I will remain open-minded about the possibility of it happening. (In one of the astronomy classes I took in college, the professor said terraforming Mars for human habitation was impossible. The planet is too small, and thus its gravitational pull too week, to sustain a breathable atmosphere. Any oxygen in Mars’ atmosphere will escape into space.) Bobblehead, however, seemed much more optimistic and sure. While discussing Red Mars recently, he dismissed my skepticism by saying something long the lines of, “All you need are the robots. Once you have those, it should be pretty easy.” Robots are used extensively for all kinds of stuff in Red Mars, including massive construction projects that boggle the mind. Sure, I suppose Bobblehead has a point that having armies of robots would be key, but such reliable engineering, programming, and automation is a long way away, if it can ever be achieved at all. That may be one of the least plausible aspects of Red Mars, especially in a 2015 sans Hoverboards. (I can’t believe it has taken me this long to mention Hoverboards this year. Oh, the fictional delusions of the past…)

Robots play a major role in the terraforming project, so if they are implausible, perhaps terraforming another planet is also implausible. However, what terraforming seems to boil down to is systematic environmental destruction. Modern humans are pretty good at that, so selfishly changing a planet for our own interests may not be beyond us after all.

Though those technological aspects of Red Mars may be a bit less believable, Robinson was incredibly prophetic in many other ways. Just about all the main characters have their own personal “AI,” which seems to be a cross between HAL 9000 and Apple’s Siri. Later in the book, everyone has their own multifunctional wrist pad, a miniature extension of the AI system capable of video calling. And characters talk about “the net,” an electronic space where news and videos are posted.

The visual detail in Red Mars is stunning, and Robinson does an amazing job of painting lifelike landscapes and scenery — no doubt a testament to the research he did. Though mind-blowing, his descriptions of the land have a tendency to go on and on and on and on AND ON and on, especially when John and Frank are traversing the planet. In those parts of the book, I felt like the vivid descriptions became too much of a good thing, especially after so much of the book had already covered a lot of terrain — literally.

Here is something interesting that I thought is worth noting: the first hundred, I believe, are millennials. Or at least some of them are. It is revealed that John Boone, the first man on Mars, was born in 1982 — a good year to have been born in (wink, wink).

Red Mars was definitely a fun departure from my usual reading. It had been a long, long time since I read any science fiction, and I look forward to borrowing the next two books in the future.

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