Book #9: Red Mars (1992)

author: Kim Stanley Robinson
language: English
length: 669 pages
finished on: 3/3
book cover I guess reading this book is related to the Mars-gushing I inadvertently showed when doing the review of Watchmen. The book’s premise is fairly simple to outline: people go to Mars and colonise it! It’s the first of a trilogy, which I’m now going to read the rest of, because I found it very difficult to fault this book (therefore the review will be fairly short).

I really liked it. I thought it was well-crafted and well-structured. Each chapter gains the perspective of a different character, and I really like it when you get to see the same piece of story from another character’s perspective. The cast is quite varied, too, and there’s plenty of opportunity for conflict. We focus on the “first hundred” settlers, mainly scientists.

The book’s descriptions are vivid, and I got this slightly spooky feeling when I realised once or twice that everything Robinson describes about Mars in this book is real. Some of the other sci-fi I’ve read recently, which one could go and read on the rest of this blog (but also including books I read last year), has a sense of realism, but it’s always slightly out of reach. In Robinson’s book, Mars is real, it’s there, and I honestly want to just go there and find out for myself how accurate he’s being. Despite the descriptions being vivid, it’s one thing to be told that one or another escarpment or cliff is 5 kilometres high – it’d be another thing to actually see such a monstrosity for oneself. It seems Martian geography is one of extremes. And then I realise I can’t. It’s still just out of reach…

Plotwise, it’s slightly thin on the ground, as the book does tend to emphasise its central concept over an overarching plot, and it could be better summarised as a series of plots, each character and chapter introducing a new one. The chapter of John Boone, the first man on Mars – and not really anything like Neil Armstrong since he’s not a recluse – is a prime example of that, because he is acting as a detective, and the chapter follows several of the crime novel tropes to the letter, such as the long explanatory paragraph about who committed the sabotage (or whatever) in the final few pages of his chapter, picking up on details that a casual reader wouldn’t have noticed. Furthermore, the first chapter of the novel is Boone’s death (starting in the middle and going back to the beginning; a common device), so we already know that he’s been assassinated, and the next chapter after Boone’s chapter basically picks up where we left off with the first chapter, emphasising the temporal and plotwise difference between the two.

The other thing I found great about Robinson’s book is that there is just about nothing even in the human/Earth side of the story that I found unbelievable. There were a couple of obvious things that haven’t happened, such as South Africa renaming itself Azania, but aside from that, he does a brilliant job for someone writing 10 years before 9/11 of predicting the atmosphere of slight islamophobia that would later permeate American society. One can’t fault him for not predicting future events; that’s impossible. But the fact that many of the characters are wary of the religious Arabs that are coming to Mars I found uncomfortably familiar. At the same time, I reckon this is partly because they were religious more than they were Muslim, implying that America has become much more secular. The other thing was the atmosphere of anti-commercialism, which I feel is still very relevant to today, and then later in the book, there was an apocalyptic feel accompanying the outbreak of war, essentially between the poor southern nations of Earth and the rich northern nations – all going on in the background while Mars has its own war, of course. It was all this extra flavour that I felt gave the book extra credibility.

Anyway, I guess my main problem with the book is that it’s a bit of a doorstopper, and as part of a trilogy, it becomes even more of a doorstopper. And I don’t really think I can fault a book on just that. So it says a lot about a book when the only thing I can think to fault it on is the fact that it used “degrees Kelvin” instead of “Kelvins”. So yeah, good book.

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3 Responses to Book #9: Red Mars (1992)

  1. Kelemta says:

    My family are all quite into science fiction, and while I’ve never really gotten into it that far I enjoy a good book of any genre and have been meaning to check out some more sci-fi, so I’ll look for this book some time. It sounds pretty interesting, and the structure seems like it would lend itself to reading a chapter at a time (because I usually have at least three books on the go at any given time, so I like being able to pick one up at a new chapter without having to read back now and then).

  2. Finlay says:

    Maybe. i should probably warn you that the chapters are quite long (vary in length, really – a couple of them seem like a third of the book each and another couple are very short) and the book actually calls them “parts”. And they’re divided up further into unnumbered chapters.

  3. Kelemta says:

    Ah, right. Depending on the book that can either be fine or very annoying… Hopefully I’ll be able to find this at the library, someone else has recommended it to me just this week.

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