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Red Mars – review

January 17, 2012

Narrating Red Mars are a string of characters with distinctive points of view, which makes this first novel of Kim Stanley Robinson‘s science-fiction trilogy feel like a collection of sequentially related short stories. This is brilliant. It creates a very real separation between characters and subordinates the plot, submerging it beneath the hopes, accomplishments, and failures of people who have their hands full just trying to make their own lives work. This richness elevates Red Mars above your typical space story.

Set in the near future, Red Mars follows several of the first one hundred people sent to colonize Mars. Red Mars is followed by the novels Green Mars and Blue Mars and I understand the whole trilogy spans 200 years, though this first book is something like several decades. In Red Mars some interesting terraforming does indeed occur, but the real story is about the sociological changes to humanity. Heads up people, this is science-fiction pumping on all cylinders.

Red Mars brings new and richly individual voices to each chapter of the story–with one or two characters getting a second go. Point of view saturates each of these chapters, which are dense, deeply invested with the casually scientific jargon of that character’s particular specialty–this allows Robinson to educate the reader in an off-hand way that avoids feeling pedantic. The long chapters have two great benefits: they allow us to spend significant time with each character, to see how one’s cultural background influences one’s actions, which genuinely makes each character feel like a real, unique individual; also, these long chapters immerse the reader into that character’s isolation, which is a subtext always percolating beneath the surface–isolation is part of the experience of life on Mars.

What really stood out for me was the meta closeness of structure and theme. I’m oversimplifying, but Robinson’s writing style seems perfect for his subject–I’ve never read anything else by him so I can’t say if this is intentional or natural or both. A sequential collection of related short story chapters is on the one hand the goal of every novel–each chapter should read like it’s own little story–and on the other hand what Robinson creates is something like a plotless novel–the literary equivalent of the Jackalope. The deep focus on characters reminded me of reading Checkhov. Remember, I’m oversimplifying.

The plot is obvious: Earth sends pioneering scientists to Mars to begin the work of making it habitable for future generations. In this case, though, you’ve got the plot and then you’ve got the stories: Mars and Earth are separated by vast distances of empty space / each of us is part of a team and also alone in our own space suit, protected from a poisonous atmosphere / we’re paired with and isolated from our coworkers and friends by the thoughts in our heads or the differences in our values / each of us is unique, with our own story, but bound together by proximity and circumstance, individuals contributing to the greater story / we are together whether we stand apart or dive right in. Individual choice or fate, it’s all one.

So yeah, I liked Red Mars. I’m glad I got to spend time with John Boone, Maya Toitavna, Frank Chalmers, Arkady Bogdanov, Nadia Chernyshevski, Michel Duval, and Ann Clayborne–and Hiroko Ai, Saxifrage “Sax” Russell, Phyllis Boyle. Red Mars kicks ass. Go read it, or at least be happy knowing there’s literary science-fiction out there.

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