on March 14, 2001
I really enjoyed this trilogy, but readers considering it should probably at least consider the following up front:
* You're gonna be subjected to miles of dialog-free prose, more than I've ever seen in any book that proports to be a novel. If you're into the science, and into visualizing what you read, you'll have no problem. But if you're used to Crichton, forget it. The pace will kill you.
* If you don't already know geology, keep a dictionary handy. He uses 150 geological terms I'd never heard of.
* The book has two main topics: Mars and Politics. Don't expect a thriller.
* There are gaps in the science that you'll have to overlook. He's weak on the biological, but strong on the astrophysical.
* The characters are pretty archetypal, so you'll probably relate to at least one of them. But also, some are, well, pretty darn annoying. But they add to the story anyway if you can stand them.
So given that, if you're not scared off, read it. Read all three. You'll like them, and in the end you'll feel like you know a lot about Mars. It's an epic, and a great one despite its occasional shortcomings.
on April 3, 2002
Nominally a future-history of Martian colonization, Red Mars covers the initial 100 Martian colonists, the influx of workers as corporations attempt to exploit the planet's resources, and the consequences as conditions worsen. The book is divided into eight parts, each telling the story from the point of view of one of six characters. Each character is interesting and three dimensional. The first, Frank Chalmers, is a stunning example - a machiavellian sociopath who arranges the murder of his best friend. The book suggests early on that the characters are dysfunctional, but most are not, and Robinson describes each personality in a way that's easy to relate to. Most readers will see some of themselves in every character, and will be moved when many disappear from the story as events unfurl.
Robinson's prose is easy to read and descriptive. He lovingly describes the Martian landscape, and the events that change the planet. He explains the processes and technologies being used to make the planet more habitable. Mars and its future is viewed through different cultures and ideologies. And Robinson describes political and social systems evolving, growing, and collapsing - the only challenges the colonists seem unable to solve are those that cannot be fixed technologically. The ending is dramatic and, cheesy last line notwithstanding, overwhelming.
A word about the politics: Several reviewers have trouble understanding the concept of sympathetic characters not representing the author. Nobody argues that, through Chalmers, Robinson is advocating murder, so why assume that characters portrayed as idealistic hot-heads advocating an enlightened Utopia (not communism) are attempts to convert readers to Marxism? Robinson's prediction of a near future where a handful of democratically unaccountable transnational corporations wield more power than governments is neither unreasonable nor extremist propaganda nor unique; nor is it that people sick of these conditions might reject them for something Utopian, and might make up a sizable proportion of those wanting to leave Earth. Robinson is describing what might happen and why, rather than pushing a particular ideology. It is notable that the consequences of the actions of most of the first 100 are hardly positive: why would an author promote a vision of an enlightened Utopia by having for it such divided, belligerent, builders?
If Red Mars has faults, they are that it is fairly humourless, and some of the science (nothing, fortunately, important to the principle of convincing the reader that colonization is possible) is somewhat stretched.
There are no ray-guns or bug-eyed aliens: there is much to think about. If you're looking for an airport novel, go read L. Ron Hubbard. If you can watch CNN talking 23 hours a day about scandals effecting minor Democrats, and still grumble "Darned liberal bias", you may be too right-wing to cope with fictional characters disagreeing with you; go read some "Doc" Smith or something instead. Otherwise the reader needs patience and a willingness to get inside a whole range of radically different characters. Most of the book is interesting, but the climax is especially so.
Posing more problems than answers, Red Mars leaves the reader uneasy about humanity's progress, with a mix of optimism about what we can do, and pessimism for what we are likely to do; it portrays characters the reader can feel for, and a planet to fall in love with. What a wonderful book.
I am just aghast at the number of non-five-star ratings this book has received. The answer probably likes in the sophistication of the particular reviewers who are underrating this masterpiece. I don't want to make this sound arrogant or patronizing, but the great thing about the Internet (and Amazon reviewing) is that anyone can review, while the awful thing about the Internet is that anyone can review. I'm not sure what else one could want out of a Sci-fi novel than what you find here. My guess is that those who dislike it tend to prefer space opera or pure adventure books. But if you have any capacity to read good literature this novel will almost undoubtedly knock your socks off.
RED MARS has been almost universally praised by Sci-fi writers and academics as one of the finest hard science Sci-fi novels in recent decades. Partly as a result of the influence of Philip K. Dick (my favorite Sci-fi writer, but someone who was almost completely uninterested in the "science" in Sci-fi but instead focused on metaphysical dilemmas), STAR TREK, and STAR WARS, Sci-fi has been less and less focused on science in the past few decades and instead has been more concerned with exploring questions like "what is real?" or adventure stories. Time was when the most denigrated form of Sci-fi was the space opera. Robinson's Mars Trilogy is the triumphant return of hard science in novelistic form. But RED MARS is far more than that. It is as political as it is scientific. I can imagine that a few of the people giving the novel low marks are troubled by Robinson's politics, which are further to the left than any prominent politician in America today. It isn't an accident that many Marxist writers, including Fredric Jameson, who Robinson thanks in the Acknowledgments, love Robinson's dystopian take on role of capitalism in forming the world we live in, either on earth (as in his Pacific trilogy) or on new worlds (as here in the Mars books). If you are a big fan of an unbridled free market capitalism (which by its very nature is utopian, in that it continually describes a world that doesn't exist, but insists could if only we would free the market from all political and social restraint) then this isn't a novel that will warm the laissez-faire cockles of your heart. This is capitalism as rapacious, inhuman, and imperialistic.
I find the epic sweep of Robinson's vision to be almost overwhelming. He balances almost perfectly scientific, political, social, and narrative concerns. His characters are both many and richly drawn. His Mars exists in a way that only rarely do Sci-fi writers make possible. I can't point to many writers who have made their imaginary world so tangible and believable. I don't have the scientific expertise to address the plausibility of the many terraforming and climate altering techniques and tactics addressed in the novels, but I never found anything in the book to be absurd or silly.
I loved the various components making up this book. And the characters are more developed and vivid than in most Sci-fi novels. While John Boone never really emerged for me as a believable character, many of the others like Frank, Maya, Nadia, the irrepressible Arkady, Ann, Sax, and many others did. Thanks to gene therapy that helps extend life by renewing the genetic structure of the body, many, though not all, of these characters make it into GREEN MARS or even into BLUE MARS. The trilogy itself extends over several decades. I can recommend few works of fiction as highly as I recommend this. But if you are looking for a great yarn rather than a great novel, look elsewhere. This probably isn't for you. But if you are instead looking for a truly great novel, for a trilogy that might represent the apex of Sci-fi writing of the past twenty years, do yourself a favor and read not just RED MARS, but the two other novels in the trilogy as well.
on March 12, 2003
The author's breadth of knowledge in science and political theory is impressive, to be sure. Years of research evidently went into this book. But often it seemed he was straining to showcase just how much he knows. The psychiatrist's long esoterica on human temperaments is a case in point -- dry as the Martian soil and entirely gratuitous. (Where was the editor with scissors?)
Initially, I enjoyed the vivid descriptions of the topography and the explanations of how people built the first colony. Beyond the book's halfway point, I was saturated with it -- too much of a good thing. Getting through the last third of the book was a struggle (a coherent plot might have helped here). That disappointed me, because the beginning was engaging.
The characters turned out to be caricatures, not people. How many times could the ultra-grouchy Frank say "shut up" or "you idiot"? And Maya, the Russian beauty with the angst of a note-passing high school sophomore -- what space program let her in?? Then there was the flaky cult leader, and the rigid environmentalist ever flashing righteous scowls. It's an annoying, exaggerated cast of characters with only a few exceptions.
Also irritating was the insertion of the author's political dogmas, which revealed corporations and free-market types as predictably evil, bent on destroying the planet (just as they do on Earth, curse them all). The collectivists, of course, were the ones we were all supposed to cheer.
But OK, lots of it was interesting. The space elevator, terraforming ideas, survival on a hostile world. The author managed to stoke my imagination several times. He proved an able wordsmith, displaying flashes of brilliance at times. But the editors really let him down, I'm afraid. Several hundred pages needed to go and didn't.
Still, for those who like science and believable ideas about interplanetary travel, the book may be worth plodding through in your Martian rover.
on December 28, 2008
Like many other reviewers, I think this could have been an excellent novel, if only the editor had done a better job. Excess verbiage needs trimming, and gaps need filling. As it stands, the book gets bogged down too much and too often.
Entire parts could be distilled down to a chapter. "Homesick", in particular, reads like the author forgot he was writing a novel, and was just delivering his pet theories on psychology. "Falling Into History" consists largely of a planet-wide tour by John Boone, most of which seems to serve no other purpose than to illustrate that Mars is a planet, and planets are big. Yah, I knew that. "Guns Under The Table" could have been a lot shorter, given that it ends up being that none of the details had any bearing on the plot, the story, or the history.
Descriptions of the magnificent desolation of the martian surface were really moving at the beginning. Unfortunately, the author apparently thinks the reader has a short attention span, for he can't go two pages without reiterating this, at times word for word. It gets to the point where one can recognize these from their lead-in and know to skip a paragraph. Or three.
I found many of the characters shallow and one-dimensional, "caricatures, not people", as another reviewer put it. This was disappointing, as a few seemed to have some depth. Boone charisma's really came through (once the author finished shipping him all over the planet for no real purpose). I could really sympathize with Nadia at times (when the author wasn't hammering us with her tendency to engineer everything). But too many of could be summed in a few words and then omitted from the prose. "I don't care what happens to these people."
Another irritation is that after slogging through all 572 pages, the "end" is very unfulfilling. In truth, the book doesn't end -- it just stops. I realize that "real life" often lacks neat endings, but this is fiction, and even history books manage to draw lines between events.
All in all, if I knew it was going to be like this, I wouldn't have bothered.
on November 16, 2002
Red Mars is a very long fictional history, with some characters thrown in to try to bring the story to life. Unfortunately, there just wasn't enough plot to make the story interesting. Don't get me wrong, the descriptions of the colonization of Mars was fascinating, with some really interesting ideas about terraforming, construction, space-elevator, etc. And the overall story of Mars and the political forces shaping its development was pretty good. But beyond the big picture of what was happening on Mars, there was little in terms of character plot to make me want to keep reading. It seemed a lot of set-up for the rest of the series. There were a few interesting episodes for the characters, but mostly a large history told through the eyes of a variety of people. Some characters I grew to sort of like, but none did I really get attached to.
I wanted to quit after about halfway through, but forced myself to continue. I will say that the last hundred pages or so were pretty exciting, but I don't think I'll read the remaining series.
If Leo Tolstoy was alive and writing science fiction, this is the kind of book he would write. More than just an adventure in space, this novel presents complex, imperfect characters wrestling with questions of philosphy, politics, morality and conflicting personal ambitions against the backdrop of setteling a new world. The scope of the story, the level of detail, the number of characters and the ever shifting focus adds up to a War And Peace in the 21st century.
This is not an easy book or a quick read. It requires attention and a willingness to let the author unfold the story in his own way. But it is a richly rewarding experience. While I liked it more than the following two books in the series, I think the entire trilogy represents a monumental achievement. As a shear feat of imagination based on the known possibilities, it is like no other science fiction that I have read. Those readers that fault Robinson for not writing something like Young Christian Republicans Go to Mars are overlooking the obvious - that a fresh start will necessarily mean a lot of conflict (social, political and economic) until some compromise between conflicting priorities can be established. Robinson does not offer any easy solutions to these problems, and the socialistic elements that are introduced into the Martian system have little to do with old terran forms of central planning and control.
This is a thoughtful book full of action. Much of the action is mundane; people moving from place to place or building things. Yet it is always fascinating, because the trips are through unfamiliar landscapes and the building is constrained by the hostile atmosphere and limited gravity. Reading these books is almost like a physical experience. I even found myself dreaming the landscape.
Like War and Peace, I suspect this is a book I will have to revisit in order to discover what I missed the first time. It's worth it.
on October 29, 1998
First of all, the parts some people found tedious I rather enjoyed: the description of the planet, the science, although I doubt the latter is all that realistic (an eternal youth treatment???). My problem is with the economics and politics, and which seem to be taken straight out of Marxist theory, and are hardly subtle. They dominate the book to the extend that it almost makes it look like a political treatise rather than a novel, and there's nothing I dislike as much as an editorial piece disguised as science fiction.
What irritated me even more is the author's obvious pride in his "cultural sensitivity." He goes to great trouble to show how Maya's Russianness affects her behavior, and to describe various groups from different countries (Arab, Swiss). And it's mostly hogwash. I know his ideas of Russian culture come from silly American stereotypes and not any deep knowledge. He even gets such a detail as having patronymics instead of middle names wrong. Worse, he invents non-existent Russian concepts and misuses the few Russian words he knows ("babushka" and "baba-yaga" come to mind). He presents Maya as an impossible stereotype of a fiery Russian woman. All this makes me think that the details about the Arabs and the Swiss are just as unreliable. How dare he make things up about a culture and basically sell it to the reader as the truth, give the reader the impression that he's learning something! It's the same disrespect for the truth as comes out in his Marxism, and the worst kind of self-congratulation and cultural INsensitivity.
on July 16, 1999
For starters, I didn't like any of the characters (they were NOT "crazy to begin with", just irritating jerks mostly). I want to read about mars exploration and colonization, not people's psychological problems. In fact, i think this book almost turned me off mars colonization. I so strongly disliked the characters that I cringed at the thought of more people like THAT populating the planets. The sacred ground of mars. (i guess that makes me a red eh? =)
HOWEVER. It get's 2 stars for these 2 things (possible spoilers ahead)
1: The initial landing: Backhoes, Bulldozers, collapsed landers, frozen doors, jazz music in headphones etc.. Wow. That was the one moment in the book where i felt i was there. They really were there to conquer a world and they had the equipment to do it. Go figure.
2:The Skyhook and it's Destruction: There's something about a diamond fiber cable thousands of miles long that is just plain neato. Gee wouldn't that be something? Then the thing gets trashed, and wasn't that spectacular! I love the guy who bails out in orbit while the thing crashes. Great scene.
Plus there are a few other pretty neat surprises...
If you feel you can wade through hundreds of pages of soap opera-ish character interaction to get to a few golden nuggets of good cool stuff, go for it. I did, and I don't regret it or anything.
on January 15, 2007
This is a complex, thoughtful and thought-provoking book. The science (what I can judge of it) is relatively plausible, and, in multiple fields, well researched and presented. But beyond the science, the human drama that unfolds is absolutely riveting.
Robinson develops a large number of characters without ever losing the narrative thread of his story. The plots and sub-plots all intertwine and interact beautifully. And the story he unfolds, showing the growth of different philosophical groups, the financial and political struggles, and the human level of impact, is absolutely riveting.
Big and complex as the book admittedly is, I could barely put it down. I will necessarily be finishing the entire trilogy, and will definitely look at anything this author has written...