Friday, May 21, 2010

Red Mars

Red Mars (1992) was among the first novels that I read when I was really getting into "serious" science fiction.  I remember enjoying the book, particularly the level of technical detail described by Robinson, and enthusiastically recommending it to everyone I knew.  Well, I recently had a chance to give the novel a fresh look (or a listen since it was an audiobook) and it didn't completely live up to my memory.

The novel chronicles the first permanent human settlement on the planet Mars in the year 2026 (a date looking increasingly optimistic as the years go by!).  A crew of one hundred of the brightest scientists, engineers, and other technical luminaries has been chosen to establish a base and open the planet to further colonization in the coming years.  The array of characters who will shape Mars for years to come is introduced as they begin a year-long flight to Mars aboard the spaceship Ares.

After the initial settlement has been firmly established, the gates are opened for immigration to the red planet.  The UN commission on Mars initially tightly controls the influx of people to ensure that proper infrastructure is in place on their arrival.  Within a span of years, however, the interests of individuals and the planet itself begin to be passed over in favor of the interests of transnational corporations who have come to Mars looking for profits.  A good portion of the book deals with the reactions of the original colonists to these developments and how key characters attempt to influence them.

There is an increasing, planet-wide sense of outrage as it becomes clear that Mars is headed down the same profit-driven path that has led to Earth's problems.  Acts of sabotage abound, and soon Mars is in the grip of a revolution--the corporations and UN on one side, the Mars-first groups on the other.  The war culminates with an apocalyptic series of events that might return Mars to its original, barren state.

While the technical and political aspects of the colonization are an important focus of the novel, Red Mars is also an intense study of character and personality.  Each colonist is chosen to go on the inaugural mission because they are a leader of their field and used to being in a position of authority.  This setup leads to inevitable conflicts among the mission personnel.  These conflicts come into sharp focus early in the novel when the question of terraforming Mars arises and the original one hundred are split into camps with different views.  The fallout from this fundamental difference of opinion shapes the majority of events in the novel.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first third of the book.  The technical descriptions of the initial phases of settlement are truly phenomenal.  However, there are points in the story that get bogged down due to excessive (IMHO) levels of detail.  This seemed to occur on a semi-regular basis when characters needed to "find their way" or decide on a course of action.  The geology of Mars is interesting, but you can only take so much wandering around in a rover with detailed descriptions of escarpments, sediments, alluvial plains, etc.  Despite the few sections that take some slogging to get through, Red Mars is a good, solid hard science fiction read--I give it 3.5 hamsters.

1 comment:

  1. Books like this make a tough audiobook, since those slow-ish, detail filled section can be read/skimmed much faster than they can be spoken. I've had a few non-fiction books that were deadly as audiobooks but were a good read on paper.

    I'd be curious to hear what you think of reading (not listening) to Blue Mars. See if the difference in format makes for a different experience.