Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy

February 2000

I just finished reading these books (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars) and can't recommend them too highly. Red Mars won the Nebula award in 1993, and Green Mars and Blue Mars each won the Hugo award (in 1994 and 1997), and all were richly deserved.

I can't say I enjoyed these more than any other SF book I've read recently (Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon wins that award), but I found them perhaps among the most rewarding of all the science fiction books I've ever read.

What is most remarkable about the books is the multiplex layering--ideas, story lines, facts, visions of the future. A story of the terraforming of Mars, this book is also a love story for the geology and geography of a planet and the slow succession of ecological progression, a rich exploration of how people are changed by their environment as they in turn change it ("We are areoformed as we terraform Mars."), a wonderful, speculative exploration of the science and technology that might be applied not only to such a massive engineering project as the transformation of a planet, but also the kinds of recreational technologies such a culture might develop, and a thoughtful investigation of politics and cultural evolution as a group of very smart people are faced with the possibility of starting fresh.

I was reminded in some ways of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, not because of any particular ideas they have in common, but because more than most novels, both are dominated by conversation. The great shaping conversation between preservationists (Reds) and terraformers (Greens) is only the first of them. There is a rich cast of characters, preserved for the entire saga by the introduction of life-extension technology. (But this is more than a plot device, as Robinson spends considerable energy on the implications of extended lifespans both in terms of individual human psychology, and the "hypermalthusian" pressures on society.)

The books are a little slow at times (though at others quite exciting, as we live through revolutions, natural disasters, and wonderful, imaginative explorations of the planet's surface), but it is the slowness with which you look at the marvelous detail of a new world, seeing it with fresh eyes, and wanting to absorb every detail.

The characters are rich and varied. No one is the perfect hero. Instead, we explore the lives of a band of brilliant iconoclasts, each flawed to a greater or lesser degree, but each, through their interaction, driving the history forward.

There is an enormous amount of truth and insight in these books--psychological, political, and scientific. I love some of the explorations of the psychology of growing old, even as your body remains young. I loved the insights into the way the Martian culture evolved. (It reminded me of the remarks of Ed Anderson, a lawyer I know here in Santa Rosa, who argues that the reason the American revolution succeeded in a way that the French didn't is because of the nearly 200 years in which the new land shaped the expectations of a new people. He finds it ironic how little time is spent in our history books studying the truly formative period of our country's culture. When you're out on your own, you do have a chance, and perhaps even a requirement, to make things anew, and Robinson captures this beautifully.)

I found a lot of food for thought regarding the idealism of the open source software community--the belief of some characters that a new order beyond capitalist competition was possible, that the cooperative scientific and engineering endeavor of Mars as a giant laboratory and development for the good of mankind didn't have to fall back into the old ways of exploitation and unequal distribution of benefits. In many ways, the book is about a culture built on the best of the underlying dreams of science, where people are driven by the search for truth and possibility, not personal gain. We must make a new world!

The writing is often beautiful, because so true. I earmarked numerous pages because I wanted to go back and read a line or a paragraph again. It's not florid, passionate writing, but rather writing that is powerful because it says something. For example:

"There was Jackie walking towards her. There were some aides following some way back, but in front it was just Jackie, coming towards her unseeing; then seeing. At the sight of Maya a corner of her mouth tightened, no more, but it was enough to allow Maya to see that Jackie was, what, ninety years old? A hundred? She was beautiful, she was powerful, but she was no longer young. Events would soon be washing by her, the way they did everyone else; history was a wave that moved through time slightly faster than an individual life did, so that when people had lived only to seventy or eighty, they had been behind the wave by the time they died; and how much more so now."

I won't finish the paragraph, since it reveals a bit of the story that you don't want to know till you get there, but that may be enough. The book is studded with thoughts like that (that history is a wave that moves faster than our individual lives, so that we get out of step with it as we get older and the young start moving things in new directions), expressed richly and out of the small details of observation of characters and events rather than imposed as a kind of narrative voice-over.

If you like science fiction (and maybe even if you don't, but do have a tolerance for a fair amount of scientific detail and speculation, or are just willing to work for a book that rewards that work richly), I highly recommend this trilogy. The New York Times Book Review called it "a landmark in the history of the genre", and I couldn't agree more. I will never think of Mars in the same way again. I want to live for 250 years, engaged in a great and transforming enterprise. And I want a birdsuit!