“Red Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson is probably the best hard science fiction tale of planetary colonization ever written, and is followed by two sequels, neither of which rise to the greatness of this first novel. It harks back to the Golden Age of science fiction in the forties and fifties, when John W. Campbell edited Astounding Stories and pioneered similar types of narrative, where real men and women dealt with the universe in logical, almost engineering-like ways.
“Red Mars” spans a period of some fifty years, and has elements of utopionaism, dystopianism, politics, engineering, technological futurism and interpersonal dynamics and psychology all woven into a dense tapestry. Focusing almost exclusively on certain key members of the First Hundred colonists, it details their initial landing, construction and habitat-building, and then moves off into the exploration of the planet in a search for water and resources. The ethical and ecological impacts of terraforming are not short changed and are discussed at length by these people.
The personal quirks and characters of the colonists is not neglected either. Frank Chalmers, Maya Toitovna, John Boone, Sax Russell form the romantic triage, while Arkady Bogdanov, Sax Russell and Ann Clayborne are the key colonists involved in the debate on terraforming Mars. Many other characters are given weight and time to develop, and we have a keen interest in the way people’s lives turn out. Even relatively minor charcters like Hiroko Ai, Michel Duval or Phyllis Boyle turn out to have subtle but profound impacts on the overall storyline.
Underlying all this is the planet Mars itself: its weather, its geography, its harshness and beauty, its deadliness and uniqueness. The planet is sensed everywhere, on every page, and permeates the background of the book both obviously when needed and inobtrusively when not. It’s one of the most atmospheric books about an utterly foreign and alien environment committed to print.
Not left out are the politics of Mars’s relationship with earth and how the mission was funded, developed and then deteriorates into political bickering and rebellion. As is often the case with colonies, once they reach a critical mass of people, sentiments of independence stir, while the home base, seeing such a place as a wealth generator and resource provider, seeks to hold on to its power and influence. In a time of tensions on earth as resources dwindle and nations are almost on the brink of war for what remains, Mars becomes another piece to be competed for in great power rivalry, and the hope it once held out for being a chance to start over gradually wanes.
For scope and depth and impressive knowledge of geography, engineering, futurism and psychology, it’s hard to top this novel. If it appears dense and packed with information, well, it is, even if that does on occasion detract from the narrative and plotline. Whatever the shortcomings, the fact is that “Red Mars” remains a triumph of science fiction writing and a tough, unsentimental look at the way we, as humans, will one day venture into habitats other than our own.