Mars. The “red planet” has had a powerful presence in the human imagination for thousands of years. Because it is visible with the naked eye, and because of its striking colour, Mars has been directly observed by countless people. It has worked its way into mythology, religion, scientific inquiry, and of course into science fiction. From the lurid alien world of the Victorian and pulp eras, to the more grounded portrayals that followed the visit by Mariner 4 in the 1960s, to the contemporary realistic approach, Mars has been a staple of SF.
In particular, the idea of colonising Mars has fascinated writers for generations. Because of the planet’s relative closeness to Earth, the presence of its atmosphere, and the existence of water ice on the surface, colonisation by humans has long been a tantalisingly plausible prospect. Since the findings about the red planet provided by the Mariner and Viking spacecraft, depictions of human colonies in SF took on a more realistic and scientifically-grounded approach. Of these works, the epic Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson is arguably the best known and most acclaimed.
The trilogy comprises the novels Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars which were originally published in 1992, 1993 and 1996 respectively. As their titles imply, the books are not only about an effort to colonise Mars, but to go further - to terraform it, to permanently alter the planet to better suit human habitation. The shift in colours reflects the alteration to Mars over the course of the series, from the hostile red planet, to the green planet in transition, to the blue Earth-like world.
The series is truly huge in scope - in paperback, the trilogy totals over 2,200 pages and the narrative covers almost 200 years, beginning in earnest with the first mass landing on Mars which takes place in 2027. It’s a timescale which, if you think about it, doesn’t leave humanity much time to get organised, at this point. Robinson’s books aren’t huge just in terms of page count or timescale - they also touch on a wide range of ideas. Red Mars alone includes substantial material on geology, climatology, psychology, political theory, social dynamics, biology, genetic engineering, even architecture.
All of this has clear potential to be even drier than Mars itself, and it likely would be in the hands of a lesser writer than KSR. But he was a master even by 1992, likely in part to being taught by, among others, Ursula K. Le Guin. Crucially, people are always central to the series and KSR’s characters are thankfully multi-dimensional. The author also employs a structure whereby numerous individuals are followed for significant lengths of time, allowing the reader to see the colonisation mission from a variety of radically different perspectives. There is no denying that the Mars trilogy is a major undertaking, an intimidating read which probably won’t suit those new to SF. However, KSR’s inclusion of believable, rounded characters is a key part of how he makes something of tremendous scope not only readable, but genuinely engaging.
With this introduction to the series as a whole taken care of, it’s time to focus more specifically on the first part of the trilogy - Red Mars.
Originally published in 1992, Red Mars focuses on the initial decades of the human colonisation of the planet. To a large extent, it is based around the “First Hundred”, the one hundred individuals who make a mass landing on Mars in the spacecraft Ares in the year 2027. An early part of the book depicts the journey of Ares from a troubled Earth to the untouched wasteland of Mars, during which KSR introduces a subset of the First Hundred in some detail.
Even before the travelers arrive on the red planet, they are already debating what they should do when they arrive. They are even questioning whether those who funded and organised the mission back on Earth should be listened to. Tremendous differences in personality, background, and ideology are exposed long before arrival which will have implications for decades to come.
The middle part of the book focuses on the practicalities of colonisation, and the emerging terraforming effort. The debates about whether Mars should be terraformed at all begin to intensify, and the First Hundred splinters relatively rapidly into distinct factions which coalesce around particular views. The arrival of additional people from Earth, often five hundred at a time, triggers a further intensification of political conflict. This leads into the later sections of Red Mars, in which the planet becomes almost as hostile to life as it was before the Ares arrived, albeit for different reasons.
KSR’s use of characters is central to the success of Red Mars. Any experienced reader of SF knows that even some of the genre’s best writers have struggled to deploy believable characters in their stories. Many classics of the genre, for example Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (1974) succeed despite being populated only with lifeless, two-dimensional cut-outs. Red Mars is very different. The travelers aboard the Ares are, to a large extent, very believable individuals with distinct character traits.
The First Hundred consists largely of members from the US and Russia, 35 from each country. The American contingent is led by Frank Chalmers, an ambitious and at times ruthless workaholic with numerous connections in Washington D.C. He has a gift for languages and an increasingly strong bond with late-arriving Arab colonists. A key member of the Russian contingent is the pragmatic engineer Nadia Cherneshevsky who loves to build things but often finds herself lonely and neglected on Mars. Ann Clayborne is a brilliant geologist who abhors terraforming, suffers from depression and is difficult to get along with. Michel Duval is the psychologist among the First Hundred, a Frenchman whose ability to act as their therapist is undermined by his own severe homesickness.
To be fair, there are weaknesses in KSR’s cast of characters. Most notably, Hiroko Ai is a biologist who veers too close to the familiar stereotype of the distant, inscrutable Japanese woman. However, for the most part Red Mars is as much a gripping human drama as it is a science fiction story. For example, it is easy to begin to care whether the beautiful Maya Toitovna, leader of the Russian contingent, ends up with Frank Chalmers or with his rival John Boone, the first man to set foot on Mars. Romantic subplots can often be completely unwelcome in an SF novel, but they work in this context because KSR actually has things to say about the effect that arriving on a new world will have on human relationships.
Red Mars is clearly not a book for SF novices. Its sheer length and the breadth of its ideas make it a challenging read for almost anyone, especially given the knowledge that two even longer books follow it. But whatever your level of interest in Mars, this is an important and compelling story which reflects how much SF had changes in the decades up to 1992. While a human mission to Mars seems about as unlikely as ever today, the situation on Earth seems to become increasingly similar to the warlike, collapsing world depicted in Robinson’s novel. While Red Mars entertains with its story of an adventurous mission to an exotic world, it is also a reminder that in the here and now, one planet is all we have.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.