Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
(Voyager Classics, £7.99, 671 pages, paperback; first published 1992; this edition June 2001; ISBN 0-00-711590-3.)
Red Mars is, for me, an important book. I'm glad to see that it is for Voyager too; important enough for them to reissue Red, Green and Blue Mars as part of their Voyager Classics series. I may not agree with all of the 36 books selected for this honour (perhaps only around half of them), but would anyone?
These Classics are all bound in tastefully understated navy blue covers but Red Mars in a blue cover seems odd, and I couldn't help thinking that the Mars trilogy might have been better served by a departure from this norm towards equally tasteful dark reds and greens in line with the titles.
Red Mars tells the story of our planet's first interplanetary colony, sent to, er, funnily enough, Mars. Nothing new there you'd think, but Red Mars, whilst dealing with the technical and environmental difficulties of setting up a Martian colony, follows a contrasting group of characters, all members of the original first 100 to land, as they fight to become Martians and not simply settlers from Earth.
Where Red Mars veers far from almost any previous 'realist' treatments of near-future planetary settlements is in not being written as a modern day rehash of the American pioneer dream. Kim Stanley Robinson, not unknown for his fairly left-wing views, examines the joy, freedom and possibilities of setting up an entirely new society on a new but harsh frontier. Mars is not (initially) subject to "The Company", to the US military or any other vested interest. It's a free land, out of reach of any other group. The first 100, although fighting the inhospitable landscape they find themselves in, are free and variously aware that their actions are part of a potent social experiment.
Some of them want to take advantage of this potential to perpetuate the iniquitous systems of Earth (though not so iniquitous that it couldn't get them here in the first place with an awful lot of equipment, it's worth noting) and some are there purely as "scientists".
The scientists try to hide from the realities of politics but, by ignoring the calls of the more inventive or radical colonists to abandon or at least rethink the conventions of Earth, fail to realise that they are just blindly perpetuating the old systems (let's not beat about the bush - the old capitalist systems). Thus the more ambitious colonists are able to twist this, at times, wilful ignorance to their own personal ends and profit.
That the first 100 will survive on Mars is never really in doubt. Robinson has set up the situation such that living on Mars can be hard but - with judicious applications of thought and technology - far from impossible. That's one thing that permeates his vision of colonisation: there is never any doubt at all that human beings will survive and prosper on the red planet. It's almost as though Robinson is setting up the Martian colony for an examination of the socio-political outcomes, which, of course, is exactly what he is doing.
In fact, some of the colonists are more concerned about whether Mars can survive (figuratively speaking) humanity's arrival. The big question is not whether we can live on Mars but how we will live, and the question is there from the start: should the colony remain just that, a colony of Earth doing the bidding of masters millions of miles away, or should it try and fulfil the potential that is stifled back on Earth, and become a genuine experiment in living?
The first few years of the colony's establishment pass in a blur of impressions, and the different personalities pull in 100 different directions throughout Red Mars. Robinson just about manages a fine balancing act between portraying the magnificent, rugged but dead landscape of the planet, and the varied, powerful and living personalities of the settlers. I didn't like many of the first 100 but there's no questioning that you're there amongst the settlers. There's no authorial overview telling you what's happening here or elsewhere; what we see is what the selected members of the 100 see, and Earth itself is never more than another channel on the TV.
Red Mars could be a better book; the endless descriptions of the landscape begin to grate after a while, and some sections do drag, but for the most part this is an intelligent, thought-provoking and very necessary book in its sometimes-uncomfortable examination of the world we live in today. It's the supreme antidote to the unimaginative, triumphalist right-wing sf that so often seems to dominate the shelves.
The fact that I've read so many (predominantly US) reviews that found the politics in Red Mars so repellent only makes it all the more obvious that Kim Stanley Robinson has written something very right indeed here. I only hope Green Mars and Blue Mars won't disappoint - but somehow I don't think they will.
Review by Stuart Carter
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© Stuart Carter 8 September 2001