Books #10 & #11: Green Mars (1994) & Blue Mars (1996)

author: Kim Stanley Robinson
language: English
length: doorstopper
finished on: 15/3, 5/4

The first thing you might notice about this review is that I’ve included the cover art of the versions that I read. This is partly because I wanted to point and laugh at the bad computer graphics on the cover for Blue Mars (look at it, it looks terrible!), but partly because I’m anal and pedantic about this sort of thing. Ahem. These are books 2 and 3 in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, the first book of which (Red Mars) I’ve already given a sparkling review a few weeks ago. As I mentioned already, I’m combining them into one review because I left the review of Green Mars for so long that I’d already finished Blue Mars before I approached anything resembling “round to it”. Of course, it’s now been so long since I read Green that my review will inevitably feature more of a focus on Blue, which is still more fresh in my mind, but that can’t be helped very much at this point. So anyway, here we are.

Green and Blue, essentially, detail the effects of the terraforming campaign on Mars as it transforms from the Red planet of the first book, adding green plants and later blue oceans. This much is transparent. They’re more complex than that, of course, and they deal more or less with political ramifications in Green and human effects on the characters’ descendents in Blue.

In these books the story moves away from the rock-hard realism of Red and goes into more hypothetical territory. I think this is exemplified the most by the introduction of the longevity treatments, theoretically allowing the characters to live indefinitely, already a minor plot-point in Red but not to the point where it makes a lot of difference to the story. They’re made in a believable way, which is good, but I can’t help but wonder if they will really become possible in the future – whereas I can certainly believe that humans will be able to land on Mars and explore the planet, which was the essential plot of the first book. I just don’t know in this case. Also, I can’t help but wonder whether they were just a cheap device by Robinson to stop his characters from dying before the story was at the right stage, because it’s basically the same main characters that carry the story right the way to the end, with only one or two characters being introduced in each of the latter two books.

Either way, they do become a major plot point, and in many ways, Blue Mars is more about the effects of the longevity treatments than about Mars specifically, employing it perhaps more as a backdrop.

The books are structured much as Red Mars is, in an episodic fashion with each part/chapter narrated from the point of view of a different character. Again, it’s difficult to discern an overarching plot structure to the story, it sometimes being presented more as a faux-history instead of a well-structured story. And each book seems to end in roughly the same way, with a series of revolutions. But there are definitely different feels to both books, even though they pretty much follow on directly from each other.

Green Mars is roughly about the rise and fall of capitalism, with these massive “metanational” companies effectively taking control. The underground, in which all of our focus characters are situated, is a bickering set of left-wing organisations who take a more communistic approach to politics. Yet they have to make an alliance with one of the metanational companies, which I thought was a bit strange. I always expected them to stab each other in the back by the end of the book, but they didn’t, and the metanational plotlines all but fade into obscurity some way into the third book.

Blue Mars is more about the people of Mars and how these aforementioned longevity treatments are causing all sorts of problems – themes that were already touched upon in Green, naturally, with probably all of the characters certifiably insane by the beginning of Blue. There’s a lot of attention given to the fact that the new generations (referred to for some reason with Japanese numerals) are tired of the older generation being around, and yet for some reason the “First Hundred” settlers still seem to be at the centre of every major event that happens in the book.

One character in particular, Sax Russell, seems to show up whenever and wherever the plot demands him. I started to get annoyed at the amount of times characters would travel to a city only to find that Sax was there already. Mars is perhaps a smaller planet than Earth – but would that justify it? The first book already made a big deal out of the fact that Mars has the same land area as Earth, just without any water. This has changed, yes, but it’s still a bit odd.

Blue Mars also has some of the characters travel back to Earth, detailing the effects of the higher gravity on one of the younger Martian natives, which was rather worrying. On Earth they’ve recently had a major Antarctic icecap related flood, described in detail. Oddly, global warming wasn’t mentioned as much as I reckon it would be if the book was written now, and the cause was mentioned as a subterranean volcano erupting instead. I’m not sure how much I believed this part. But never mind.

Later in the book, there’s a slightly surreal and rushed jaunt around the solar system (in fusion-powered rockets whose “somersault” mechanism of slowing down and constant-acceleration-powered artificial gravity was strangely familiar…) to the far-flung reaches of Mercury and Uranus. I was a bit ambivalent about this; in many ways I didn’t feel that this was given enough attention, and it was jostling for attention with many of the other plot elements – Robinson was clearly struggling to get everything in. In many other ways I felt it was a bit irrelevant, and that the story would have strengthened by staying on Mars in a more focused way (see my earlier review on “Mission of Gravity” for an example of a well-focused sci-fi story…).

Blue also contains a primer on string-theory – but as always happens, is a bit fluffy about what this can tell you about the world, so I’m not entirely sure what this accomplished other than being a way for Robinson to show that he’d done research… except research for the sake of research isn’t necessarily a good thing. It also has some political theory, and casts Mars as a utopian post-capitalist democracy. I wasn’t quite convinced by that one, I have to say. But fair enough.

Coming back to Sax, his storyline in Green was one of the more interesting ones, because he was tortured by the authorities, causing a stroke and linguistic aphasia. While I feel that this was just an excuse to write a clumsy stream-of-consciousness chapter from Sax’s muddled-up mind after the fact, I did admire the research put into aphasia by Robinson, and I liked the fact that my degree actually was somewhat relevant to anything in the world for once.

I don’t remember having many problems with Green in general. I was much quicker to finish that than Blue, which as I say is packed to the brim with ideas and gets quite tough going once or twice. I really liked the character Nirgal, who was introduced in Green. All in all, it was good. And more exciting, because there was the direct ominous threat of the authorities, as if they’re living on borrowed time – and one major character disappears towards the end, her whereabouts (because everyone’s sure she disappeared of her own accord rather than being executed by the authorities) becoming the great mystery of the final book. But apart from her, Blue doesn’t have the same urgency. It also commits a couple of crimes that I wanted to expound upon a little bit.

First of all – and this starts to happen in Green a bit – Robinson seems to find it hard to stop writing the younger characters as petulant, impulsive teenagers, even when they’re nominally in their 50s. I couldn’t work out why this was – whether he was trying to display the characters from the older characters’ point of view or whether he just couldn’t stop writing them in a certain way. Or it’s also possible that the fact that the older characters are still alive causes the younger characters to act in this way. I didn’t like it, either way, the fact that it was never truly explained to me. It’s all to do with the fact that all his writing in this area is, as far as I’m concerned, strictly hypothetical. I have no idea what the effects of this longevity treatment would be, and I have no concept of living to 200 years of age, so I have a hard time identifying with the characters.

Secondly, I think the turning point for me when I stopped quite believing what he wrote was when his characters start using the longevity treatments (something to do with stem cells) to overwrite their genetic code and give themselves the ability to breathe air with a high concentration of carbon dioxide, which is rather necessary on a planet such as Mars. And one younger character splices in cat DNA so that she starts purring. The problem with this is that my every understanding of how genetics works is that this is not it; DNA is more like a cookbook rather than a set of instructions for how the body works which the body will follow forever more. Essentially, you would have to introduce new DNA before incubating a human, treating the womb like a sort of oven, to follow the cookbook analogy. Once it’s cooked you can’t undo the chemical reaction. And it’s not like cats have a purring gene that you can just splice into your human body. To me it’s ridiculous. I would have had less of a hard time believing it if they had had surgical implants, quite frankly. (But maybe they were surgical and it wasn’t explained properly. Then we just have a slightly different problem…)

Furthermore, the problem of breathing the air is forgotten about shortly after this plotpoint is mentioned, and I wanted closure on it – did they actually get the air down to Earth-like concentrations of carbon dioxide, or did they forget about it too and keep it high and just have everyone splice the special breathing apparatus into their bodies? Anyway, it was the most egregious example of hypothetical sci-fi that Robinson pulled out his arse, the whole breathing thing, and a perfect example of why I liked the first book better.

Thirdly, Robinson needs to stop writing awkward sex scenes! You know, I’m just reading along innocently, and admiring the research put into the Martian landscape and how it would change with the introduction of a massive ocean and- oh… right, they’re having an orgy. A little warning would have been nice.

But on a slightly more serious ending note, I really did enjoy these books (it’s just more cathartic and entertaining for me to nitpick and complain). There is a lot more to say about them; as after all, they both exceed 600 pages and are brimming with ideas, but as I say, this is both a strength and a weakness. They need maybe a bit more direction and focus in some areas, and less pulling stuff out the arse. I definitely enjoyed them, though. And Robinson is definitely on top form with his descriptions of the landscape of Mars (and Blue has a lot of maps dotted around through the pages, which helps out a lot!). I now only wish I could go there and see it for myself.

Game: Holiday Lemmings (1994)

aka: Christmas Lemmings
developers: DMA Design
played on: 30/3

I won’t bore you too much with this review. As I mentioned already on the blog, I’m now going around collecting all the Lemmings games that I haven’t yet played, and Holiday Lemmings is right up on the list.

It’s basically another expansion pack (along with Oh No! More Lemmings) to the original game, with exactly the same gameplay, but in a cutesy Xmas graphic style. Except that the Xmas graphics are almost exactly the same as the snow graphics from ONML, but with christmas lights and open fireplaces instead of water and deadly traps.

Let me be quite frank about this game: it’s nowhere near as good as Original Lemmings or ONML. I completed it in an evening, after all, although that’s partly because it’s shorter at 64 levels instead of 100 or 120. But the levels, at that, aren’t of as good quality. For one thing, they’re all in the same graphic style, and are therefore monotonous, but more importantly they’re just all outstripped majorly by the harder levels from the original games, especially ONML, which gets incredibly hard towards the end. That said, maybe I’m biased because I’d just played through the second half of ONML.

I’m quite glad that I played it on the Mac version, though, because it’s the only one to have a speed-up function. I found out recently that this feature was introduced on the Mac version and none of the other ports before it has the function. I can’t imagine playing through some of the more lengthy levels on the PC version; I think I’d die of boredom.

Basically there’s a lot of building in this game compared to the previous ones, I found. Not all the levels are bad, granted, but there were more than enough times when I reached a level whose only challenge was having to build multiple long bridges to make me get angry when I reached them. I would have liked more simple puzzles – I think my favourite level was one called “Steel Block Party” which fitted on one screen.

Oh, and the other thing is that the 1994 version of the game includes all the levels from the 1993 version as well (32 levels from each), but they come after the 1994 levels, so the end effect is a set of levels which peaks in the middle and suddenly goes back to being really easy again. This was very annoying.

The other thing that I’m not sure whether to like was the music, which was just the ONML tracks. You see, there was a 1991 and 1992 version of Xmas Lemmings too, which were 4 level demos – I’ve played these, and the Christmas music becomes quickly jarring and annoying, and that’s when you’re not playing it over and over. I think I went over this with Lemmings 2, where I turned off the music on the Polar tribe because I became sick of Rudolph and Frosty very quickly. So I think this was probably a good move. Except that it just detracts from the tone.

Also, I remember seeing somewhere that they took out traps from the game because it’s Christmas and they wanted to be nice at Christmas and not kill any lemmings. This is a lame excuse for what’s probably a memory saving device, and a lame memory saving device because it leads to monotonous levels without traps, where the only hazard in the environment is falling off the bottom of the screen. And since many of the levels seemed to have been hacked together at short notice, relatively few of them had been given a proper decking out with the Christmas lights, making most of them look very bland.

So anyway, I’m glad I played it, but I much prefer the originals.

Film #8: Submarine (2010)

director: Richard Ayoade
watched on: 29/3

I’m getting lazy again, whoops. Well, it’s a combination of factors, really. I’ve left the review for “Green Mars” for so long now that I’m just going to combine it into the review for “Blue Mars”, the final installment in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. That and I wanted to make the “official announcement” for anyone who cares (probably no-one) that I won’t be trying to read 52 books in 2011, because after the three doorstoppers that were Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, I’m now hideously behind. So I’d rather take it at a leisurely pace and just remember to update this more frequently. Also, to bring us back to the true subject matter, I wasn’t entirely sure what I thought of this film, which I essentially went to on a whim, either, just like the last one. But overall, probably a little more positive… and I’m actually familiar with the background genre.

Or I say a whim, although it was slightly more well-thought-out than that in that I think Richard Ayoade is a very funny man (I’ve been watching The IT Crowd again over the past couple of days) and I wanted to see his first feature film. But the essentials of whimness are there; after all, I pretty much decided to go to the film right before going to it…

So it’s a coming-of-age story set in dreary Wales, where all the characters are a bit inane and do stupid teenagery stuff. Fine. The only thing is, I think I’m a bit past coming-of-age stories in general – not much that the characters were doing I could identify with in any major way except for that awkward young person thing that they had going, and I couldn’t quite understand why the two main characters were interested in each other, especially her for him.

Anyway, there’s not really a good way to say it, but it really had that first feature film vibe to it – Ayoade is still a newcomer to filmmaking and needs to hone his style, as do the actors, particularly the two young ones. The boy in particular could be a bit wooden (and most of the pictures online are of him looking gormless).

Basically, there was some good subtle comedy in there and I spent half the film chuckling away to myself… it’s just that then there was a rather abrupt change of pace when Issues such as cancer or divorce and depression start being introduced into the story, and I’m left sitting there unsure whether I’m really allowed to be laughing at the film anymore. Mood whiplash, as they call it on TV Tropes. I suppose it’s meant to be true-to-life, or something? I don’t really care, because true-to-life doesn’t always work in films. Here it was just a bit slipshod; not executed well enough.

At the same time, I did think it was one of the few films where the characters acted in a somewhat believable way. At least, I didn’t think the boy was being a complete idiot – he panicked like any sane person would, while the girl was self-centred right the way through. Again, not sure what he saw in her (which I guess is where the everyone-in-films-is-an-idiot trope comes right back into play)… but then, I guess I never had the experience of falling in “love” at 16, so I don’t really know what to make of it.

Another thing that annoyed me was the overuse of the slight grey/sepia tone (as seen in the photo above). I’m pretty sure Wales isn’t that grey and dreary, and that it was a cheap device to make the environment seem worse that it perhaps actually was. To me, this forced pessimism clashed with the idealism of young love that it presented. It all comes back to me not quite believing that she is interested in him back and not quite understanding why he is interested in her. Meh.

Anyway, overall, good, and quite a funny film, but definitely needs improvement.