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Review: Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson

red marsIn 2020, John Boone sets foot on Mars for the first time. Seven year later, 100 colonists arrive, a mix of Earth’s most intelligent people best suited to create a new world in order to deal with the ever-more-crowded Earth. The new colony has been completely prepared for them, with large deposits of materials dropped on the planet over the course of several years, and it’s up to the colonists to set everything up and determine the future course of Mars. As ever, divisions appear almost immediately, between those who aim to preserve the beauty of the planet, those who would like to turn it into another Earth, and those who serve a corporate agenda, among many others. Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel is an epic journey into precisely what it might be like to create an entirely new civilization in the face of pressures from many varied directions.

I took a leap into a new territory with this book and I’m very glad I did. Red Mars is an example of so-called “hard” science fiction, the sort that actually makes plausible sense and has been thought through from a scientific perspective. I chose to buy it because I really wanted to read 2312, but thought I should probably go for a cheaper paperback before I decided I knew I wanted to read the newer release. Red Mars is one of Robinson’s best known books and has garnered a huge amount of high ratings – and that choir is one I’m about to add my voice to.

That’s because I really loved this book. It took me a very long time to read, about a week and a half, which is intense for me, but I was really savouring it and getting involved deeply into the world that Robinson creates around the new Mars. I loved some of his descriptions so much that I even marked out pages, something that I virtually never do. Here is one of my favourites:

She recalled vaulted ruins she had seen years ago on Crete, at a site called Aptera; underground Roman cisterns, barrel-vaulted and make of bricks, buried in a hillside. They had been almost the same size as these chambers. Their exact purpose was unknown; storage for olive oil, some said, though it would have been a n awful lot of oil. Those vaults were intact two thousand years after their construction, and in earthquake country. As Nadia put her boots back on she grinned to think of it. Two thousand years from now, their descendants might walk into this chamber, no doubt a museum by then, if it still existed – the first human dwelling built on Mars! And she had done it. Suddenly she felt the eyes of the future on her, and shivered. They were like Cro-Magnons in a cave, living a life that was certain to be pored over by the archaeologists of subsequent generations; people like her who would wonder, and wonder, and never quite understand. (145)

That passage sums up a lot, to me, about why this book is such a wonderful read. It really is a civilization, but it isn’t exactly created from scratch; instead it’s created from our culture, that which is already all around us, and it’s an incredibly intriguing vision of a future that might yet be. This is science fiction’s purpose, to make us consider what might happen in the future, and I was hypnotized by Robinson’s version of that future.

That’s not to say that the characters aren’t brilliant in their own ways, too. We only spend time with a few of the first 100, but by getting to know them, we experience a whole range of pure human emotion. The span of the book is fairly lengthy, and by the end, most of the first hundred have grown older, old enough to see the civilization they essentially birthed take on a life of its own. But while they are celebrities for that, they are also just people, with all of the little struggles and drama that all of this entails. Despite their intelligence, they suffer grief and loss and experience love and joy in equal measure; they might all be clever but they completely disagree in many ways, and the fabric of civilization stretches and tears to accommodate their dynamic personalities.

It’s all just plain fascinating. There is a small amount of science in this book; they do build various things to help keep them alive, after all, but I never felt particularly overwhelmed or frustrated by any of it. Instead, it just seemed plausible, that the author had considered all sorts of odds and ends that others don’t, and the pure logic behind it made the entire book that much more credible.

In short, a fantastic read, and highly recommended if you’ve ever wanted to try science fiction, or are looking for an addition to your speculative fiction library.

And just to round this post off, two more quotes:

He was losing the crowd. How to say it? How to say that they alone in all that rocky world were alive, their faces glowing like paper lanterns in the light? How to say that even if living creatures were no more than carriers for ruthless genes, this was still, somehow, better than the blank mineral nothingness of everything else? (17)

“The beauty of Mars exists in the human mind … Without the human presence it is just a collection of atoms, no different from any other random speck of matter in the universe. It’s we who understand it, and we who give it meaning. All our centuries of looking up at the night sky and watching it wander through the stars. All those nights of watching it through the telescopes, looking at a tiny disk trying to see canals in the albedo changes. All those dumb sci-fi novels with their monsters and maidens and dying civilizations. And all the scientists who studied the data, or got us here. That’s what makes Mars beautiful. Not the basalt and the oxides.” (212)

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