Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
(Voyager Classics, £7.99, 789 pages, paperback; first published 1996; this edition 15 October 2001; ISBN 0-00-712165-2.)
This is it, then, the big one: Blue Mars, the conclusion of the mighty Mars trilogy. It's been a long journey -- nearly 2,000 pages (5 1/2 inches of shelf space -- par for the course for Fantasy, perhaps, but this is sf), a journey that has practically redefined not just the concept of 'political sf' for me but also of 'literary sf'.
Even if Blue turned out to be a mere lukewarm rehash of Red and Green, I think the importance of this trilogy would still be confirmed. As it happens Blue is a further impeccably reasoned and beautifully described development of Robinson's world.
The Mars trilogy isn't a quick and easy read.
Let me just reiterate that point now: the Mars trilogy isn't a quick and easy read, it's a challenging and defining statement of freedom and hope for the future, and naturally some people don't like it. Fair enough. But, whilst you should recognise that reading the entire trilogy is going to take up a larger than usual part of the time you normally spend reading, it will reward that time.
Still with me? OK.
All three Mars books have a cursory timeline in the back that anchor the events in time, just as the exhaustive geography anchor them in space, and I can't help but begin reading each book with these. Perverse it may be, but I personally found it helped to have a vague overview of what's going to happen; and since the timeline is a vague mix of the personal, political and technological, it adds to the anticipation rather than ruining it.
Mars is almost free at the beginning of Blue; the 'metanational' forces of (very) big business nearly driven off the planet, and the dream of a Free Mars is on the verge of being realised. So Blue is about the early years of an entirely new society, no longer just a colony, and where it goes from there. Lots of things happen in the next 750+ pages, but mostly this is a book about people getting on with their lives, recognising that they might be making history or are simply in the midst of great events, often only peripherally, and muddling through as best they all can, and only sometimes better than that.
If Blue has a flaw it is that it could have been titled Wild Blue Yonder Mars, because unlike both predecessors we're deep into the future now. Technology has progressed enormously fast: humanity is colonising all of the solar system, and even heading for the stars. The intense political and social narratives of Red and Green have either played themselves out or seem simply outmoded now, part of a history that is being rendered irrelevant by the pace of progress and change.
Everything is so different that the relevancy of Blue seems to me to be called into question, since we're in an alien time now, not just a place. This had been one of the strengths of the preceding books, that despite being in an alien place we could still recognise the humanity that inhabited it -- in fact the humanity of the people in it stood out all the more strongly. There's a real sense of this slipping away in Blue, so much so that a friend of mine has suggested Robinson might have been better off altering the chronology of the trilogy so that this book finished earlier and Red began earlier.
I'm not quite sure I agree; the Schismatrix-ian elements of this book are firmly grounded by the last 25 of the First Hundred, and the magic of humanity's 'Accelerando' (the flowering of civilisation throughout the solar system) is quite wonderful to behold -- a fitting tribute to the tribulations suffered throughout the previous books.
By beginning Red after the lift-off of the First Hundred from Earth Robinson gives the trilogy a kind of reverse closure, sealing his narrative off from all previous events and sharing with the reader the dislocation of the settlers from Earth. We're cut off because Robinson's Earth is a yet-to-come future world 20-odd years distant, the settlers are cut off because Earth is a physically separate world many millions of kilometres distant. If we had been with the First Hundred on Earth and seen how and what they were like there, then I'm certain that all of them would have been lessened in our eyes simply from their proximity to so many other ordinary human beings in ordinary surroundings.
No, Robinson did the right thing with his chronology; the dislocation allows us to build new mythologies around the blank slates of these characters, each of who is, in effect, reborn (or reincarnated) by the removal from Earth -- the blank slate of Mars echoed by that of its new settlers. That is the memory of this trilogy that I shall take away -- that of it being not just a physical departure from Earth, but more importantly an ideological departure, towards something newer and better. Perhaps to 'smash capitalism and replace it with something nicer!' (as a Mayday banner in London had it), or perhaps not.
I shall miss not having any more Mars's to read. No question, a classic.
Review by Stuart Carter
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© Stuart Carter 16 February 2002