The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson

Werthead

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Red Mars

2027. A hundred of Earth's most skilled engineers and scientists are dispatched to Mars, braving radiation exposure to land on the Red Planet and establish a permanent scientific outpost. Their goal is to establish whether Mars can ever be a viable target for settlement and colonisation, and if terraforming the planet is possible or desirable.

Earth is overcrowded and choking, with national governments and transnational supercorporations (whose annual balance sheets outstrip the GDPs of most of the world's countries) feuding for control. Soon, vast reservoirs of water are discovered in hidden aquifers deep below the Martian surface, making colonies self-sustainable. To the transnats, this means that Mars can become a dumping ground for Earth's excess population. When valuable mineral deposits that Earth is crying out for are also discovered on Mars, then its exploitation for the benefit of the people of Earth becomes inevitable. The resulting clash of wills and desires of the transnational Earth corporations and the beleaguered settlers on Mars forced to accept hundreds of thousands of immigrants they cannot cope with can only have one possible outcome: revolution, and the cry for independence.

Kim Stanley Robinson's epic Mars Trilogy chronicles humanity's colonisation of Mars, beginning in the early 21st Century and extending over a period of some two centuries. The first book, which covers a period of some forty years, sees the initial settling of Mars by the First Hundred, the welcome arrival of additional waves of colonists intent on scientific research and then the more challenging problems of the arrival of hundreds of thousands of economic migrants, refugees and outcasts on a world that is not ready for them, and the resulting tensions between the newcomers and old-timers, and between the authorities on Mars and Earth.

The success of the trilogy as a whole is debatable, but this first volume, at least, is a masterpiece. Robinson's story rotates through a number of POV characters amongst the initial settlers, the First Hundred, and it rapidly becomes clear that most of them are somewhat unreliable narrators. Maya's complaints in her own POV of her 'important problems' being ignored by the base psychiatrist are given another perspective in her friend Nadia's POV, which reveals Maya is more interested in a trivial love triangle between herself and two Americans rather than in the colonisation of Mars, whilst the psychiatrist Michel's POV reveals that he is giving Maya colossal amounts of time and attention (to the detriment of his own mental health) which is unappreciated. Robinson repeats this trick several times, showing that the ultra-laidback and inspirational John Boone (the First Man on Mars) achieves his famous demeanour through the assistance of addictive drugs, whilst self-deprecating Nadia is actually the most universally-respected of the First Hundred. Character is thus built up in layers, from both internal viewpoints and external sources, making these central characters very well-realised (although characters outside the central coterie can be a little on the thin side).

Whilst the characters are important, it is Mars itself which is the central figure of the book. Robinson brings a dead planet to vivid life, emphasising the differences in terrain and character between the frozen northern polar icecap and the water-cut channels in the depths of the Valles Marineris, with the massive mountains of Tharsis towering high into the atmosphere and colonists eagerly staking claims to future beachfront properties in Hellas, the lowest point on Mars and the first place to see the benefits of terraforming. The ideas of Mars as it is now as a pristine, beautiful but harsh landscape and the habitable world it could be are sharply contrasted, and the rights and wrongs of terraforming form a core argument of the novel. I get the impression that Robinson sides with Ann Clayborne's view that the planet should be left untouched, but he is realistic enough to know this will not happen, if Mars can be settled and exploited in a way that is economically feasible. Mars in this work becomes a success of SF worldbuilding to compete with Helliconia and Arrakis, losing only a few points for actually existing.

On the downside, Robinson hits a few bad notes. Some of these are unavoidable consequences of the book being nearly twenty years old. Even in 1992 the notion that the Chinese would not play a major role in the financing and undertaking of a Mars colonisation mission only forty years hence was somewhat fanciful, but today it is almost unthinkable. More notably, the global recession has made the possibility of a manned mission to Mars, let alone a full-scale colonisation effort, by the 2020s somewhat dubious. Of course, these are issues Robinson could not hope to predict in the optimistic, post-Soviet Union years of the early 1990s.

Other problems are more notable. Robinson goes to some lengths to make the pro-terraforming and anti-terraforming sides of the debate both understandable and intelligent, but his political sympathies are much more one-sided. The pro-Martian independence brigade have charismatic leaders and a grass-roots movement of plucky, honest-men-against-the-machine supporters to their name, whilst the pro-Earth-control movement is led by a fundamentalist conservative Christian and resorts to weapons and mass-slaughter extremely easily. Robinson, to his credit, recognises this problem in later books and tries to repair the damage somewhat (Phyllis, presented extremely negatively in Red Mars, is shown in a more sympathetic light in later volumes), but there remains a feeling of political bias in this first volume. In addition, it sometimes feels that Robinson really wants the reader to know about the years of research he put into the book, with tangents and divergences which make the book feel like half a novel and half a factual science volume on how the possible colonisation of Mars might happen. For those fascinated by the real-life plans to terraform Mars (like me) this isn't an issue, but for some it may be. It is also, by far, the biggest problem the sequels face.

Nevertheless, the sheer, massive scope and complexity of Red Mars makes up for this. There is an overwhelming feeling running through this novel unlike almost any other hard SF novel ever published, that this might actually happen. Maybe not as soon as 2027, maybe not with such a determined push towards colonisation and terraforming right from the off, but one day, barring the collapse of our civilisation, we will go to Mars, and many of the challenges and problems faced by the First Hundred in this book are issues that will need to be overcome to make that possibility a reality.

Plus, and this cannot be undervalued, the dry and more sedentary tone of the earlier parts of the book are made up for by the final 100 pages or so, which contains one sequence which ranks amongst the most memorable and stunning moments of SF imagery achieved in the history of the genre to date. Robinson may have the image of being a bit of a laidback Californian optimist, but he sets to blowing stuff up at the end of the book with a relish that makes even Greg Bear look unambitious.

Red Mars (****½) is an awe-inspiring feat of SF worldbuilding and a vital novel on the colonisation of our neighbouring world, let down by a few moments of naivete and simplistic straw-manning of political points of view not to Robinson's liking. Overcoming this, the central characters are fascinating, the sheer scope of the book is stunning and the climatic revolution sequence is dramatic and spectacular. The novel is available (with a nice new British cover) in the UK and USA.
 

The_African

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I started this a long time ago and stopped when something more interesting came along. I remember thinking that Robinson portrayed Arabs in a prejudiced light and being disappointed with his new, human society on Mars not being as ethnically and racially diverse as it could be. I also don't remember the characters being very likeable but I read very little.

I'm more into soft science fiction that involves things that are probably impossible (ie. backwards time travel) or very unlikely (ie. contact with intelligent aliens).
 

Anthony G Williams

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I did read Red Mars soon after it first came out, but I found it very hard going and didn't bother with the other two books of the trilogy. I thought it read more like a manual on how to colonise a planet, with the plot and characters being tacked-on. It became bogged down in detailed world-building, which made it rather slow and tedious. Furthermore, I didn't find the characters at all engaging and couldn't really care what happened to them. I was surprised that this won a major award.
 

Werthead

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I started this a long time ago and stopped when something more interesting came along. I remember thinking that Robinson portrayed Arabs in a prejudiced light and being disappointed with his new, human society on Mars not being as ethnically and racially diverse as it could be. I also don't remember the characters being very likeable but I read very little.
I must admit that conclusion does not ring true for me at all. Robinson depicts several different Arab groups with different customs, following different derivations of Islam (and some secular as well), some supportive and up for integrating into the new Martian society, some keeping their traditional ways, and is pretty fair-handed about it. The only negative is that one Arab kills one of the major characters, but he also shows that that individual was manipulated into doing it by another, American, character. The Mars Trilogy is fair ethnically and nationalistically diverse for such a book, with only a couple of major American characters (and quite a few Japanese, Russians and others).

The only grossly unrealistic thing, to me, was the lack of Chinese and Indians, not just on the initial missions but on the follow-up colonisation effort. If Saudi Arabia and Egypt can afford to ship people to Mars, it seems unrealistic that India and China can't.
 

The Judge

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I found it very hard going and didn't bother with the other two books of the trilogy. I thought it read more like a manual on how to colonise a planet, with the plot and characters being tacked-on. It became bogged down in detailed world-building, which made it rather slow and tedious. Furthermore, I didn't find the characters at all engaging and couldn't really care what happened to them.
Oh, the relief! This was exactly my reaction and I thought I must be the only person to think it in view of the praise it's received! I couldn't in fact read it in its entirety. I read the first third, then I started skipping a dozen pages or so to see if it got any better, reading a page, then skipping again. Having skipped my way through to the end, I tried dipping into it at odd places to see if I could find anything to encourage me to read it properly, but I never did.
 

Sephiroth

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I read the trilogy as it came out, in my teens (between the ages of 13 and 17). I found its scope breathtaking, and it was the work that opened my eyes to hard SF. I understand that some people find it slow and tedious -- and, as others have said, it certainly isn't flawless -- but although I'm unlikely to reread it, I will always remember it fondly.

The depiction of Mars itself, and the process of colonisation and terraforming, is superb. KSR really brings the planet to life in a way that makes you feel you are there. Even now, when I look at a map of Mars, I see places and scenes from those books.
 

clovis-man

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I read the trilogy as it came out, in my teens (between the ages of 13 and 17). I found its scope breathtaking, and it was the work that opened my eyes to hard SF. I understand that some people find it slow and tedious -- and, as others have said, it certainly isn't flawless -- but although I'm unlikely to reread it, I will always remember it fondly.

The depiction of Mars itself, and the process of colonisation and terraforming, is superb. KSR really brings the planet to life in a way that makes you feel you are there. Even now, when I look at a map of Mars, I see places and scenes from those books.
I agree that the trilogy, taken as a single work, is monumental. I found the stories and characters to be quite compelling. The "Martian" short story collection - not so much. But the red, green blue sequence is a major hard SF accomplishment.
 

Werthead

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Green Mars

2090. Sixty years ago, humanity landed on Mars, and stayed. The First Hundred led the colonisation effort, soon joined by other colonists and settlers. Thirty years after arriving, the people of Mars demanded political independence from the trans-national megacorps that were gradually subsuming national governments on Earth into their influence. The result was the First Martian Revolution, a revolution that was crushed. During the fighting Phobos was destroyed, the space elevator linking Mars to space fell and two-thirds of the First Hundred were killed.

Mars is becoming greener, with algae, lichen and primitive plants growing on the surface. The atmosphere is thickening, the icecaps are melting and the terraforming is proceeding at a pace outstripping the most optimistic projections. Now several new generations of native Martians have been born, all chafing against the rule of a planet millions of miles away that they care little about. Thirty-nine of the First Hundred still live, their lives extended by an experimental - and expensive - treatment that is only available to the rich and powerful on Earth, fuelling civil unrest there, whilst being freely available on Mars. Over the course of almost forty years, the Martians prepare for a new bid for independence, one that will be led by reasoned argument rather than mindless violence.

Green Mars is the second novel in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, his epic account of the colonisation and terraforming of Mars. The first novel, Red Mars, concerned itself with the initial landing, exploration and colonisation of Mars, and the changes wrought by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of fresh immigrants from different cultures, culminating in the bloody and failed revolution. The second novel is principally about learning from the mistakes of the first attempt and preparing for a second, more ambitious revolution. At the same time, the terraforming of Mars and the science behind it remains a key focus, as Robinson floods the Hellas Basin and Vastitas Borealis, tents over canyons to make viable living spaces, thickens the atmosphere, and increases sunlight through the arrival of a huge mirror in Martian orbit.

Green Mars is not an action-packed novel, although there are more action beats than I remember from my first read of this novel some twenty years ago. One of the First Hundred is imprisoned by one of the corporations and his comrades have to rescue him, whilst later on some of the more radical groups launch a terrorism campaign against the Earth-imposed government on Mars. Towards the end of the book, the second revolution is launched which results in some impressive imagery: the flooding of the city of Burroughs after the nearby dyke is blown and two hundred thousand people have to walk seventy kilometres to safety and trust that the atmosphere is as breathable as the scientists claim is a stirring image, almost as memorable as the fall of the space elevator in the previous novel.

But for the most part, this is a hard SF novel, concerned with the physical sciences involved in terraforming and with the social sciences of how to meld a new society together out of myriad competing interests. A minor weakness of the first novel is that Robinson's own politics were too often on display, but in Green Mars he does a better job of portraying all sides of the debate. The would-be rebels' extremely reluctant alliance with one of the more democratic megacorps seems to be an admission that as much as you may want to escape the woes of Earth and fly off to another planet to found a utopian paradise, you really can't, at least not whilst that society is dependent on science and technology to survive, and is not totally self-sufficient (yet, though by the end of the novel it's close).

For the most part, our characters are survivors of the First Hundred: Maya, Michel, Nadia and Sax, who have seen their dream (not unanimously shared) of a free, green Mars corrupted by corporate interests. They are joined as POV characters by Nirgal, the son of Hiroko, who represents the Martian-born generation, and by Art, representing the metanational corporation Praxis, who tries to form an alliance with the Martian revolutionaries and then finds himself unexpectedly inheriting the mantle of John Boone from the first book as the guy who can talk to everyone, no matter their agenda. Characterisation is pretty strong, helped by the fact that many of these characters are now extremely old and have changed a fair bit from the first novel: the formerly quiet Sax is aggressive and angry after a spell in jail, Maya has realised what an unpleasant person she was in her youth and is determined to change, and Nadia has embraced her status as someone who is respected and listened to (which pays off handsomely in the final novel in the trilogy).

As with the first novel, this book isn't a thriller or an adventure (though it has elements of those in some sequences). It's a hardcore novel about how the colonisation of Mars could really happen. This manifests itself most notably in a lengthy mid-novel sequence in which the competing factions gather together to decide on the future of Mars. Rather than a quick gathering and a bunch of people agreeing on a way forwards, this takes the form of a month-long conference with tons of arguments which ends in a compromise declaration that satisfies no-one and people are unhappy with but nevertheless reluctantly agree on. Robinson draws parallels (some subtle, most not) not only with the Continental Congress and the American Declaration of Independence, but also with the Russian Revolution, even naming the chapter in question What Is To Be Done? Many will find this sequence mind-bogglingly boring, but those with an interest in history and politics will find it fascinating and convincingly realistic (though maybe only up until the slightly hippy-tastic closing ceremony where everyone celebrates the end of the conference by going surfing on an underground lake, which feels a bit random).

On the more negative side, Green Mars is almost 800 pages long, some 150 pages longer than the first book, and there is less decisive forward movement in the plot compared to the first novel. Some sequences feel rather skimmable, mostly those involving the in-depth political discussions on the differences between the Marsfirsters, the Reds, the First Hundred, the Bodanovists, the Arab settlers and what feels like fifty other groups. Yet Robinson is also laying out the groundwork for the explosive Second Revolution (the novel finishes with the revolution unfinished, giving us something of a cliffhanger), in particular having to explain how the mistakes of the 2061 rebellion are not repeated. Necessary, but not always gripping.

Beyond that, there are the rich, evocative and atmospheric descriptions of the changing Martian landscape, the sheer scope as Robinson tries to channel as many scientific disciplines as possible to paint the most realistic picture possible of the colonisation effort (in this regard there are similarities with Aldiss' similarly fantastic worldbuilding for Helliconia), the richly-realised characters and the sometimes poetic and lyrical power of his prose (though he falls back into a dry, academic and textbook-like approach a little bit too often).

Green Mars (****) won both the Hugo and Locus awards for best novel in 1994 and it's easy to see why. This is inspiring and epic hard SF, though it stumbles a little with pacing and tone. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
 

Werthead

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Blue Mars

2127. The Ross ice shelf has shattered due to volcanic activity and much of Antarctica's ice has fallen into the sea, raising global sea levels by seven metres. Three billion people - a fifth of the human race - have been displaced, triggering the greatest economic and humanitarian crisis in history. With Earth's governments and metanational corporations distracted, the colonists on Mars have launched their second revolution.

The surviving remnants of the First Hundred - whose lives have been extended vastly by genetic treatments - are spearheading the revolution. Their hope is to forge a new relationship with Earth based on mutual respect and understanding, but to the teeming billions of Earth Mars is an escape route, a place to begin again. In the aftermath of revolution, a new way of existence has to be found if the human race is to prosper.

Blue Mars is the third and concluding volume in Kim Stanley Robinson's epic Mars Trilogy, his account of the colonisation and terraforming of Mars extending across almost two centuries of human history. It opens with the Second Martian Revolution in full swing, picking up from the cliffhanger ending of Green Mars. The city of Burroughs has been flooded and most of the UN and metanat forces have been forced to pull back to the city of Sheffield atop Pavonis Mons, where a space elevator links Mars to space. The opening sequence of the book depicts the battle for Sheffield, which is followed by politicking as different factions from both Earth and Mars try to create a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Blue Mars is similar in general style to the first two books in the sequence, with atmospheric passages on the terraforming of Mars and descriptions of the ever-shifting environment coexisting with lengthy political musings and notable scenes of character development. Robinson focuses the somewhat rambling nature of Green Mars by presenting much of the third book through the viewpoints of two of the First Hundred: Sax Russell, the scientist-genius who made most of the terraforming possible and has been the leading advocate of the 'Green' position (the total terraforming of Mars); and Ann Claybourne, the geologist who has never believed that terraforming was moral and is the leading exponent of the 'Red' viewpoint. By the time of Blue Mars, with the planet's atmosphere mostly breathable and liquid oceans appearing in the north and in the vast Hellas Basin, it appears that Sax has won the argument by default, but Robinson challenges this by showing Sax's dissatisfaction with the process and his growing realisation that something special has been lost with the destruction of the 'old' Mars. Simultaneously, Claybourne realises - belatedly - the value of being able to experience Mars first-hand without the need for spacesuits.

The two viewpoints and their newfound convergence stands as a metaphor for the entire novel. The Martian position that immigration from Earth should be banned before it overwhelms their still-fragile biosphere, and the Terran position that their planet is choking to death on people and as many as possible need to be dumped off-world, likewise need to find common ground to the benefit of all, as do the tendencies of corporate-driven right-wing politics and those of the liberal left. If Blue Mars has a theme it is that compromise, if often unsatisfactory to everyone, is the only way that society can function and move forwards.

This may be stating the obvious, but Robinson nevertheless explores the theme in tremendous depth. The political bias which infested Red Mars is much more moderate here, with Robinson showing that the huge corporations do have some positive roles to play in the future affairs of both planets, although some traces of naivete remain, particularly when a right-on member of the First Hundred wins a debate by making some pithy remarks, awing his political opponents. Those who despise politics may find the novel a little dry for their tastes, but may also enjoy the growing cynicism of the First Hundred, whose lengthy lifespans have allowed them to see the cyclical nature of politics and social movements and grow bored with them.

It's arguable from the second volume that Robinson made a mistake in killing off his most dynamic POV characters in the first novel, with the surviving members of the First Hundred being a little too passive to embrace fully as protagonists. These lingering doubts are removed in this book, with Nadia, Maya, Michel and particularly Sax and Ann working well as our principal characters (with second-generation Nirgal and Art, a liaison with an Earth metanat, also putting in good work as viewpoint characters). Their extended lifespans, which could easily be dismissed as a convenient plot device to save Robinson the complexities of writing a multi-generational storyline, have come at a cost, one that Blue Mars dedicates a lot of its closing chapters to exploring. These long lives also give them a unique perspective on events, ranging from tried cynicism to delight at seeing new generations coming into the world, which Robinson enjoys exploring.

Like its predecessors, Blue Mars is as much a social textbook and a scientific treatise and thought-experiment as it is a novel. There are some dynamic action scenes earlier in the novel, but for most of the book events are slow-paced and descriptive. Robinson is describing the social, scientific, economic, philosophical and even military implications of the terraforming of Mars on a broad base. For those interesting in such matters, Blue Mars is as easy to recommend as its two predecessors. For those interested in a more straightforward, plotted novel with a much tighter focus across a smaller passage of time, Blue Mars is as likely to disappoint as Green Mars before it.

For myself, Blue Mars (****) is an effective conclusion to one of the most ambitious SF projects of all time. Robinson's writing is at its strongest in this novel, as he attempts to fuse hard SF with real literary ambition and comes close to succeeding. The concluding chapters in particular deliver a terrific emotional charge as, after two thousand pages, the story of these flawed people and the world they have transformed finally ends. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
 

Patrick Mahon

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Thanks for reviewing all three books, Werthead - I've had them sitting on my shelves for ages. You've just encouraged me to dust them off and get reading. Cheers! :)
 
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