Red Mars

by Kim Stanley Robinson

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Those who espouse scrupulous realism as the
ultimate goal of the novel rarely give much
thought to science fiction.  Sci-fi, after all,
represents the antithesis of realism.  

Or does it?  A handful of science fiction authors have
advocated a so-called "hard" approach, one in which
fanciful and extravagant notions are pruned away,
leaving behind plausible future
histories in which each scenario
and equation possesses the ring
of truth, or at least plausibility.  
(Example: Stanislaw Lem’s
His Master’s Voice.)  An even
smaller cadre of genre writers
has constructed quasi-realist
character-driven stories, in
which the human element pushes
the plot forward, and technology
is only a platform for the novel
and not—as with so much sci-fi
—its raison d'être. (Example:
Daniel Keyes’
Flowers for Algernon.)  Still others
have turned to the social sciences, constructing future-
oriented stories that achieve verisimilitude through
their acute comprehension of group dynamics and the
influence of institutions on our personal narratives.
(Example: Ursula Le Guin's
The Left Hand of
Darkness.)

But no science fiction author has done a better job of
integrating all of these approaches into a vivid, holistic
style than Kim Stanley Robinson.   Perhaps the best
measure of his fidelity to realism is the fifteen years
Robinson spent researching Mars as part of his effort
to enhance the plausibility of his Mars trilogy—
Red
Mars
(1992), Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars
(1996).  The end result is that strange variant on the
landscape novel, one in which our author seems as
much at home taking us on a tour of
Noctis
Labyrinthus
or Olympus Mons as William Faulkner is
describing Yoknapatawpha County or
Cormac
McCarthy the Tex-Mex borderlands.  

These novels are geologically rich and scientifically
informed, but Robinson’s approach is essentially
ecological.  He understands that all landscapes are
parts of larger systems, and that inhabitants stand out
as the decisive inputs in shaping and giving meaning
to any terrain, whether right outside our doorstep or
on another planet.  Those interrelationships
constitute, in a nutshell, the core focus of the Mars
trilogy, Robinson's realism enhanced by his constant
grounding of technology in the psychological and
ideological leanings of the people who wield it.  This in
itself is a noteworthy achievement within the context
of the science fiction genre, which usually turns the
cause-and-effect relationship upside down—forcing
characters to act as unwitting extensions of the high
tech concepts that drive the plot.  But Robinson is
even more exemplary in his grasp of the nuances of
the personal motivations at work in large-scale social
engineering.  Bad things happen in this book, as they
do in all novels, but instead of falling back on the
simple good-versus-evil stick figures of most genre
works, Robinson shows how dreams, hopes, and good
intentions can have mixed or disastrous results
through compromise, naïveté or—that most powerful
force in human history—the law of unintended
consequences.

Red Mars chronicles the efforts of a multinational
force, under the direction of the United Nations, to
colonize another planet.  Think you've seen it before?  
Not, really.  Robinson dispenses with the usual tricks
of the trade. Hence you won’t find little green men
here, or extraterrestrial life of any sort; no strange
viruses or rad high-tech weapons; no death stars or
evil galactic empires; no warps in the fabric of the
universe or wrinkles in time or wormholes to other
space-time continuums.   The biggest obstacles to
success faced by the fledgling Martian colony come
from familiar human foibles:  conflicting visions of
community organization, incompatible agendas,
flawed institutional structures, and the usual problems
resulting from what philosopher Karl Popper called
"holistic social engineering."

In fact, this work could serve as eloquent testimony to
Popper’s advocacy of a "piecemeal" approach to
manipulating complex systems, since—as that
philosopher points out in
The Poverty of Historicism
—the complexities of large-scale change inevitable
prove beyond our capability of managing.  "Even with
the best intentions of making heaven on earth,"
Popper writes, "it only succeeds in making it hell—that
hell which man alone prepares for his fellow-men."  
Change the word "Earth" to "Mars" in this sentence,
and you have a tweet-sized summary of Robinson’s
novel.  In his stirring narrative, the degree of change
that the colonists, and later waves of transplanetary
migrants, impose on Mars makes the machinations of
the French and Bolshevik revolutions, which so
disturbed Popper, seem like mere child’s play.  
Powerful interests not only jockey to impose their
preferred legal, financial and political structures, but
the very ground underfoot and atmosphere overhead
are equally in flux, micro-managed by those who
inevitably become intoxicated by the potential to
remake a whole world.   It is to Robinson’s credit that
he brings each of these spheres of power and influence
into his story, from the economic to ecological, and
without ever getting preachy or academic.   Each
schema and ideology plays out in plausible human
terms.

Robinson allows his story to unfold gradually—
Red
Mars
takes place over a period of several decades—
and he frequently lingers over interludes that other
genre writers would pass over quickly or ignore
completely.  A lengthy section on the training
simulations for the Mars landing shows off this author
at his finest—and his most typical.  This part of the
story plays no part in pushing ahead the larger plot,
but with Robinson the digressions often provide much
of the fun.  His concept here is a simple one:  an
obsessed programmer forces the crew to work
through a host of unlikely and almost impossible
landing constraints in various simulations, most of
them resulting in a crash landing and the death of
every astronaut.   Robinson lavishes ample creativity
and know-how on this modest sub-plot, and the end
result could almost stand alone as a short story.  

Another digression offers an analysis of the
psychological profiles of the colonists via an ingenious
framework that marries modern structuralist
schemas with the ancients’ theory of the four human
temperaments (sanguine, choleric, melancholic and
phlegmatic). We encounter many similarly well-
crafted sections throughout Red Mars, with interludes
offered up on the complexities of constructing
habitats, repairing drilling equipment, screening
potential astronauts, as well as a host of other
situations that might sound dry to you, but which
present ample drama in the context of Red Mars. In
short, this author does not require an exploding death
star to keep his readers turning the pages.

But just when they might conclude that Robinson has
renounced the plot-driven fireworks that are so
typical of the outer space genre, he surprises them
with a cascading series of dramatic events that give
momentum to the final third of
Red Mars.  Here our
author pulls out all the stops, and readers are treated
to cataclysmic incidents of Hollywood proportions.  
But the sobering reality is that no grand villain or
adversarial alien empire was required to do the worst
damage here.  All the ingredients for disaster were
implicit in the conflicting agendas of the first colonists.  
In this sense, Robinson’s Mars has become an
extension of the same problems we face on planet
Earth in the here and now.

So there is a message in this book, but not a heavy-
handed one, nor one that—as so often happens in
message-driven novels—weighs down the narrative
with pre-packaged polemics.  This book is also a fine
example of story-telling, well plotted, carefully paced,
coherently constructed. In short, Kim Stanley
Robinson has given us that rare and artful
combination, a work of speculative fiction that pushes
our imagination both outward and inward, allowing us
to envision a totally new world and forcing us also to
reconsider the old one around us.  
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A Clockwork Orange

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Ender's Game

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The Yiddish Policemen's Union

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Dhalgren

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Nova

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

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The Man in the High Castle

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Ubik

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VALIS

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Camp Concentration

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Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

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Lord of Light

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This Immortal


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Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
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Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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