When I first laid eyes on the 572-page spine of Red Mars one day in Reid Library, I gulped. For years friends had been telling me to “Read this book,” “It’s the best Sci-Fi I’ve ever read,” “You’ll love it.” Now I was finally going to take the plunge into this monstrosity.
Red Mars is a hard Sci-Fi novel by the inimitable Kim Stanley Robinson. This means it contains True Roman Science for True Romans – not this wibbly-wobbly handwaving that you see in most so-called ‘science fiction’ these days (kidding, I love Sci-Fi). It is more in the vein of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than Star Wars – so, firmly situated in the genre of speculative science fiction. And this novel is a very speculative piece of fiction indeed, written in the 90s and beginning in the near future of 2026. The Earth is splitting at the seams from overpopulation and amid this backdrop, Maya Toitovna and Frank Chalmers head a UN-sanctioned, joint US-Russia expedition to colonise Mars with one hundred of Earth’s smartest and most capable minds. The book follows a series of point of view characters over their journey to Mars, their struggles to tame the planet’s hostile landscape, the petty rivalries and politics that emerge in the embryonic Martian society they form, the clashes between utopian visions of what this society could be with utilitarian concerns, and the moral issue of terraforming.
My edition of the book contains three pages full of critical praise of the book and these are well deserved – it is indeed a ‘staggering’ work. Throughout reading, I was consistently in awe of the way KSR weaves the threads of detailed scientific, geopolitical and psychological elements throughout the narrative to create a near-future world that is eminently believable. KSR does this through his array of PoV characters who each provide a unique, ground-view perspective of his world. This is another one of the author’s most magnificent achievements in Red Mars – the range of characterisation. Each of his PoV characters in Red Mars specialises in a different field essential to the mission – leadership, engineering, psychology, et cetera. Additionally, they are among the elite in each of these areas have been specifically chosen for this mission and incredibly not for a moment do any of his characters seem anything less. In the chapter focusing on psychologist Michel Duval, we see the character explain the world around him through real-world psychological ideas and principles, we see him analysing the personalities of some of the other characters, providing interesting new insight into those characters and into Duval himself and how he sees the world. Each of the chapters is similarly developed – wheeling through hard boiled politics, murder mystery and engineering as if KSR had lived an entire lifetime in each profession.
Having said that, Red Mars is not the most accessible of books. It must be read as a relatively high-brow book – if go in looking for a snazzy narrative with lots of Sci-Fi action and lasers, you will be sorely disappointed (though there are some, it’s not at all the focus of the book). If you prefer to not think about your book after you have finished it, then this is not the book for you. This is most evident in the book’s brutal final chapters, which tread the line between ‘OMFG awesome action’ and the quiet, lonely, introspective pace of the rest of the book. The same part of me that skipped Lord of the Rings to the battle scenes and replayed them over and over as a kid found this to be a disappointing waste of potential to have lasers blowing up everything. But the other part of me found the ending to be an interesting subversion of my expectation of a big epic violent end to the book. Really, what the ending did was stick firmly to what the rest of the book was about – science, change and introspection. Though initially disappointed, after thinking about the ending chapters of this book, I have come to consider them a fitting and poignant capstone. I would highly recommend you pick up a copy of Red Mars. It’s a thought provoking, incredibly smart piece of speculative science fiction.
Aden Curran | @Porotinaus
Aden is from Osborne Park, the most exotic of locales. He enjoys writing, photography and swans.