Thursday, April 5, 2012

Book Review: Red Mars (Book 1 of Mars trilogy)

Red Mars (1993), Kim Stanley Robinson. Paperback, 592 pages.

Awards: BSFA Award, Nebula Award. Nominated for Hugo, Clarke, and Locus Awards.

Summary: In the year 2026, one hundred scientists construct and man a permanent settlement on Mars, ushering in an age of exploration, colonization, and exploitation of the Red Planet. For a more detailed summary, click here.

Delta-v. V for velocity, delta for change. In space, this is the measure of the change in velocity required to get from one place to another - thus, a measure of the energy required to do it. 
Everything is moving already. But to get something from the (moving) surface of the Earth into orbit around it, requires a minimum delta-v of ten kilometers per second; to leave Earth's orbit and fly to Mars requires a minimum delta-v of 3.6 kilometers per second; and to orbit Mars and land on it requires a delta-v of about one kilometer per second. The hardest part is leaving Earth behind, for that is by far the deepest gravity well involved. Climbing up that steep curve of spacetime takes tremendous force, shifting the direction of an enormous inertia. 
History too has an inertia. In the four dimensions of spacetime, particles (or events) have directionality; mathematicians, trying to show this, draw what they call "world lines" on graphs. In human affairs, individual world lines form a thick tangle, curling out of the darkness of prehistory and stretching through time: a cable the size of Earth itself, spiraling round the sun on a long curved course. That cable of tangled world lines is history. Seeing where it has been, it is clear where it is going - it is a matter of simple extrapolation. For what kind of delta-v would it take to escape history, to escape an inertia that powerful, and carve a new course?
The hardest part is leaving Earth behind.


Writing Quality: 7/10

Depth of Concept: 9/10

Rounded Characters: 7/10

Well-Developed World: 9/10

Page Turner: 7/10

Kept Me Thinking: 8/10

Overall Recommendation: 8/10 


Writing Quality: 7/10. Robinson's oeuvre has often been described as "literary" science fiction, and that is probably an apt description. I'd be hardpressed to think of many sci-fi or fantasy writers who are more capable with varied vocabulary, beautiful phrasing, or engaging dialogue, and I think he easily bests Robert Heinlein, Orson Scott Card, and Frank Herbert to name just a few. While I wouldn't put Robinson up there with the masters, with Cormac McCarthy or Herman Melville, he's a very good writer, with an ability to make technical science bloom with poetry (see the excerpt). Robinson's ability to squeeze poetry out of his material is not a constant, but it's always a pleasurable encounter. Ultimately, though, Robinson's great literary contribution comes less from word-smithing and more from the thoughtful intermingling of literary, philosophical, and scientific worlds. 

Depth of Concept: 9/10. Robinson is first a thinker, and second a writer. Don't get me wrong, he knows how to write, and he writes better than most. Robinson honed his intellectual acumen over many years on the way to completing a doctorate in English, and that academic training and rigor shows in his vocabulary, in his comprehensiveness, and in his interdisciplinary perspective. It's clear that Robinson is obsessed with Mars, but it's hardly the pulpy stuff of Edgar Rice Burroughs (think John Carter). This is a novel about politics, about ecology, about philosophy, about sociology. I'd suggest that Robinson's world-building is equally as impressive as Tolkien's, with more fascinating political and social twists and turns than George R. R. Martin could ever dream up. To be fair, Robinson's concepts are much more straightforward and perhaps less richly layered, and certainly less ambiguous than what has been praised in Joyce or Melville or Rushdie or Pynchon. But what makes him especially intriguing is that Robinson isn't just making crap up; he's basing this tale of colonization on trajectories that humanity could legitimately take. As a literary project, Red Mars is no Paradise Lost or Moby Dick; but as an intellectual project, it stands up there with the best that you could find. In its attention to detail and holistic thinking, it puts any product of Larry Niven or Arthur C. Clarke or a host of other hard science writers to shame.

Rounded Characters: 7/10. Robinson's characters do not have all the ambiguity and layered meaning that you'll find in Melville or Joyce or Rushdie, but his characters are well-developed, varied, and realistic. Red Mars is the story of a new world civilization starting from the seed of a scientific colony, and the make-up of the first colonists and later immigrants is a complex mix of competing scientific and social interests. Characters are frequently introduced as proponents of one interest or another, as seemingly straightforward archetypes (the environmentalist, the ambitious politico, etc.). But Robinson's use of conflicting character point of view and changing political and social alliances brings out a depth and even ambiguity in most characters that keeps you guessing much as you would if reading a compelling biography without knowing the outcome ahead of time.

Well-Developed World: 9/10.  If you enjoy the prospect of a well-developed scientific thought experiment set in a viable near future, this should be your first stop. Looked at another way, and just for the sake of another comparison point (both novels detail the life and times of two worlds in transition), I'd say that Robinson's world-building leaves Frank Herbert's Dune far behind in the dust, which I know might raise some hackles. Sure, Herbert has his sand worms (which I concede are awesome), but Robinson's worlds expand so smoothly, and so far beyond his own vision and into the realities of our physical universe that his "world" viably encompasses quite a bit of the brilliant scientific and intellectual thought of many other revered thinkers, whether scientific, social, or political. 

Page Turner: 7/10. Robinson breaks up some really engaging events and conflicts with quieter character musings about science, religion and society; in that sense the pacing of the novel is not always consistent, and this is probably not a novel that you'd try to finish in a day. But that's okay; there's so much in it to think about that it probably would serve you well to bite off hundred-page chunks to digest before moving on. There's also the change in POV throughout the novel, which works brilliantly as a way of presenting events and plot-lines from different angles, but also breaks up the tension of the narrative. The novel also sometimes reads a little bit dry and removed, a bit like a rambling textbook, with intense moments of change infrequently sprinkled throughout, but not always with characters you care deeply about. But at its worst, Red Mars should feel like a surprisingly entertaining university class; you'll complete it feeling educated, intrigued, with an expanded worldview (or Mars view), and perhaps even inspired by what humanity is on the cusp of achieving. Perhaps the story could have benefited from a more aggressive editor, but I'd contend that the scope of Robinson's vision would be quite difficult to pack tightly into a Michael Crichton-sized package; as it is, you may sometimes feel you have to wade through portions of the story, but there's always a reward at the end.

Kept Me Thinking: 8/10. Although Robinson's novel did not capture my psyche in a state of existential or intellectual anxiety (a good thing, I swear!) comparable to a reading of Moby Dick or The Road, it's still an intellectual heavy-hitter. Its insights and intellectual leaps tend along hard-science lines, and if that's your thing, then you'll find no better than this. But even if hard science isn't your thing, Robinson's awareness of Marxism, feminism, modern political developments, and literary history provides a host of other concepts to muse about. 

Overall Recommendation: 8/10. This novel would be a worthy pre-req for students entering university, the sort that is often used to introduce freshmen to social realities they may not have encountered before. I remember being required to read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red, among others. I mean, our own President has announced plans to put men on Mars during the same time period that Robinson projected nearly twenty years ago. It's a project that would cost billions, perhaps trillions of dollars, and the ramifications of such a project are both incredible and risky. Robinson gets at the root of a lot of the issues that might be involved, and if you're going to be either a supporter or detractor of the NASA program, which eats your tax dollars like candy, this is a fabulously engaging narrative and resource (Silent Spring, by contrast, bored me to tears).

Books To Compare: The sheer scope of Robinson's vision in just this first novel of the trilogy reminds me of Rushdie's wide-ranging exploration of national and political crises in India and Pakistan in Midnight's Children. It isn't quite the work of art that Midnight's Children is, but if you were able to make it through Rushdie's masterpiece, you certainly won't find it too difficult to wade through Red Mars. Of course there are also comparisons to be made with any science fiction novel written about Mars, of which there are many. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out Red Mars on Amazon. 

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