Wordy Wednesday – Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars

I’m reading Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ve heard about it for years. It’s supposedly one of those great sci-fi novels that every sci-fi fan should read.

I think I’m going to follow this post with another about what I like in sci-fi and why I think it can be a powerful form of literature. For now, just some reflections on the novel and complaining about a character who complains too much.

Overall, Robinson does a nice job, but too much of the novel deals with the physical structure of Mars or the scientific processes. None of the fictional science gets enough attention, and only one discovery has a real impact on the plot – the creation of a longevity procedure, where DNA can be repaired, effectively granting the recipients long life. Of course it has political, social, and cultural ramifications. None of them are dealt with in a very interesting manner. Everything in this novel just kind of plods along. This happens, that happens, then this, then that, then this, and so on. Some of the characters are likable, but it is difficult to care about them.

Another part of the problem is that nothing is really examined. Example: some of the scientists, when talking with Boone about how to set up a new society for Mars, propose a system based on kilo-calories, where every person’s drain on society is measured in kilo-calories (how much food they heat, the heat they use, anything consumed or used for them). The goal of people in such a society, they posit, would be to put as much or more back into the system than they had taken out of it.

I guess bacon would be like hundred-dollar bills? (Source)

But none of the associated questions are examined – or even mentioned. What about children? Do they parents pay their debt as they grow up, or is it like a loan, and when the children reach adulthood they are essentially in debt until they can pay it off? Or, okay, let’s say that children pay off their own debts when they become adults. What about people born mentally ill? How will society deal with them, how will their debt be paid? What about people who get injured doing dangerous work? In the novel, Nadia loses a finger on a repair job, and is very lucky she didn’t lose a hand. But how would she operate if she had lost a hand and was just continually accruing debt?

Nothing like this is brought up or questioned or examined. It’s just – “oh, yeah, that would be nice,” or “a society built on gift-giving, yeah, cool.”

So, in the end, I liked Red Mars, but it isn’t exactly compelling science fiction. Sci-fi things happen, I guess, like the longevity treatment, robotic construction on Mars, and a space elevator. But I don’t think this novel really approaches the sci-fi classic I keep hearing that it is.

You can probably stop reading now. What follows is an entirely unnecessary breakdown of the novel, moving from part to part. It’s just me complaining about how I didn’t like most of it, and if you haven’t read Red Mars, there are spoilers below.


Red Mars is broken up into parts. Part one is from the point of view of Frank, who at the start is just generally an unlikable sack of shit. But his part is short, and interesting things happen.

Part two of Red Mars is from the point of view of Maya. She spends a lot of time feeling helpless while the men around her plot and argue and get things done. She’s even the leader of the Russian half of the Mars expedition and an accomplished scientist, so it feels very strange that she’s just paralyzed by fear and does nothing as others take control of the situation. A strong female lead she is not.

Right, but more emo. Much more. (Source)

I don’t want to say that weak or flawed characters aren’t interesting. They can be very interesting indeed; this one isn’t. The third section, where the point of view switches to Nadia, is much better. This is in part because Nadia doesn’t like Maya – Maya is always complaining about her boy problems to Nadia, and Nadia is busy, you know, fucking building the first permanent colony on Mars. Honestly, who goes to Mars to be a damn bitch about nothing?

Here’s a brief rundown. The book actually opens with a brief vignette of Frank setting in motion the murder of his long-time associate John on Mars, which at this point is a center for immigration. Then the book skips back in time. Now we’re on the spaceship Ares, as the hundred scientists are headed to Mars. One third of the scientists are Russians, one-third are Americans, and the last third are from various other nations. Maya, leader of the Russians, sleeps with the leader of the Americans, Frank. But she eventually doesn’t feel like sleeping with him anymore. Fine, whatever, who cares. Well, Frank isn’t that okay with it, but fuck him, he’s an asshole.

Well, Maya ends up in a pseudo-relationship with John. Frank doesn’t like this and acts like a sneaky dickhead. Maya whines about it to Nadia. Nadia mostly ignores Maya’s bullshit and focuses on building the colony. Because it isn’t like it’s a love triangle – John doesn’t give a shit who Maya slept with, and Maya isn’t involved with Frank. It’s Maya and John, kind of together, while Frank is a dick about it at a distance.

Anyway, yes, Nadia is my favorite character because she is most directly involved with the interesting things – colony construction on Mars, solving problems with said construction, being annoyed with Maya. Awesome.

Yeeeeah close enough. (Source)

The fourth part, which is brief, follows the psychiatrist, Michel. He misses Earth. The absence of his home-world is so keen that he is losing time – he walks around the Mars colony, lost in his memories of Earth, and when he returns to himself hours have passed and he doesn’t really know where he has been. Unfortunately, the first half of his little tale involves Maya, still whining.

But Michel’s point of view section also puts us in contact with the stowaway.

Back in the second part, Maya’s point of view, Maya has a brief glimpse of a stranger aboard the Ares. She is sure it isn’t one of the hundred colonists. But who could have sneaked aboard? How could they survive the solar flare without protection, which the other colonists had? Where could they get food?

I bring this up because the reintroduction of the stowaway in part four with Michel is wonderfully done. It reminds us that this mystery is still unsolved, but at the same time it doesn’t solve it. The stowaway just shows up and tells Michel to follow him. It leads to interesting things – the botanists and ‘farm’ colonists responsible for setting up the hydroponics and agriculture for the colony have formed a kind of nature-religion that focuses on Mars. They’re moving to a secretly constructed base to the south. The stowaway is never mentioned besides bringing Michel to them.

In a very short time, Robinson melds together the psychological effects of life on the Mars colony, a secret cabal of nature worshipers, and a brief revisiting of the most interesting mystery the novel has to offer; at the same time, he doesn’t over-do any of those aspects. The stowaway, who was thought by Maya to have some connection to Hiroko (the leader of the farmers), is shown to definitely have connections to them – but we don’t know what the connections are or how relevant they may be.

Part five is John Boone’s point of view. He was the first man on Mars, and now he is involved in a kind of pilgrimage. He travels all over Mars, visiting new settlers, trying to get people to realize that they have a chance to build a new society here. But he’s also looking for the culprits of a series of sabotages, some of which seem aimed at killing him.

The only nice surprises in Boone’s portion of the novel are these – we find out that he takes omegendorphs, a kind of pill that is a cocktail of endorphins and feel-good drugs; we also learn of the longevity treatment that can repair DNA and grant an extended life. There’s some contact with the colonists who hide in secret bases, and Hiroko makes a return, but other than that nothing interesting happens. Boone is a fun character, but of course Maya is involved here which isn’t great.

Then we come to part six, from Frank Chalmers point of view. Things on Earth and on Mars are falling apart. The ‘transnats,’ or transnational corporations, are reaching the peak of their power, and they are determined to strip Mars of resources. New immigrants to Mars are essentially colonial slaves, and they are starting to revolt. On Earth, population control measures are being put into place, and life there is increasingly tyrannical and oppressive.

Political commentary! (Source)

This is the most overtly political part of the novel. Frank tries to slow immigration, but he’s up against massive forces. A space elevator is completed, which will only serve to strip Mars faster. Frank’s bitter politics and bluntly honest speeches are entertaining, but Frank as a character is a little dry, a little monotonous. But he isn’t the entirely unlikable piece of shit he was in the beginning. I’m not sure if that constitutes a character arc, or if Robinson just decided to change the kind of guy Frank is. He ultimately comes to regret having Boone killed, so I’d say character arc. Then again, he seems to miss Boone because he thinks Boone could have helped him during the workers’ strikes, so maybe he’s still just selfish.

Oh, right, and now that Boone is dead, Maya loves Frank! She’s always loved Frank, it was just easier to be with Boone! Isn’t Maya the best?

Part seven is Nadia again, and I didn’t realize how much I missed her as a character until I had to wade through Boone and Frank. Mars is at war. The security forces from Earth are reacting violently to the declaration of revolution initiated by Arkady, Nadia’s husband. Nuclear reactors have been sabotaged, communications are going down. Nadia refuses to take part. She and a small group of people are flying around, using the construction robots to patch things up and repair the damage done. But some things they can’t fix. Rebels destroy the space elevator, and the cable falls to the ground. It’s long enough that it wraps around the equator of Mars and then some, crashing into the ground with such force that is digs a trench all around the planet. The destruction is massive.

Nadia is looking for Arkady. No one seems to know where he is. And that is what I liked most about this novel. Here’s a small, human moment set against a backdrop of a sci-fi war. She wants to find her husband, and she is afraid she’ll find him dead. Still, in this section we get too much description; it looks like this, over here looks like this, so on and so on.

Part eight is Ann, a geologist who didn’t want Mars to be terraformed. She wanted it to be rocks forever, so people could study them. Kind of difficult to sympathize with her position. But, as she, Nadia, Frank, Maya, and others flee the Earth forces that are killing off the first hundred colonists, she realizes that she has been childishly stubborn and a drain on their resources. She starts to help out, slowly, but it’s another small character arc. However, again we are seeing this in between large blocks of text, all about how the underground oceans of Mars are spilling out on the surface because of reactor meltdowns or attacks from the war. Look, a lot of water. It turns to ice. So much water, you guys. So much ice. Let’s keep describing it.

Water, ice, etc. (Source)

Eventually they reach Hiroko’s hideout under the South Pole. And that’s it. The end. The planet is essentially under military rule, and the ending is a small attempt at a happy ending. They’ll start again here, is what Hiroko says. Uh, except, you know, if the first hundred colonists are being blamed for the revolt, then people are going to be looking for you. Mars might be large, and they might have ways of avoiding detection, but it won’t be long before they are discovered. And then…well, yeah, it wasn’t a great ending. I wasn’t looking for a happy ending, just something that wasn’t trying to trick me. I know they’re fucked, Robinson. Have them realize it. They’re intelligent scientists. Now I think they’re stupid, because they’re being stupid.

There are two more books in this series, but I absolutely need a break – probably a long one – before delving into those. I think it goes Green Mars and then Blue Mars. Ugh. We’ll see.


About seansynthetic

"...so I says the the guy, I says to him, 'No, YOU ain't allowed back into this Chuck-E-Cheese.'"

Posted on July 18, 2012, in Wordy Wednesdays and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. i skimmed your detailed review, because it’s been ages since I read Red Mars, and I want to read it again soon, and have some surpriess waiting for me. Although I do remember that scene where Nadia loses her finger, if I recall, she dwells on it a lot later.

    You’re right, that Robinson doesn’t take any of his questions to the nth degree, the way Mars’s population and society is discussed, it’s like Mars will only ever be a perfect society, with no one being disabled, or ill, or greedy, or anything. That’s just kinda his style, i guess.

    • Yeah, I’m not sorry I read it, I just felt like it lacked something. I just wanted him to at least acknowledge some of the questions raised by the proposed social structure.

      Have you read the whole trilogy? Are the other two worth dedicating time to?

      • I read the 2nd book, and then got distracted and didn’t finish the series, even tho for some reason I ended reading Red Mars at least one more time after that. this was like 8 years ago, so I barely remember the 2nd book.

        If you’re interested in more Robinson, give his new one, 2312 a try. It takes place in a parallel universe to the Mars trilogy, and i think he does a smidgen better in answering some socital structure problems/questions. Not awesome better with those types of questions (it’s not that kind of story), but better. Also, it’s way better paced than Red Mars.

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