Once again it is my reading challenge list time. This time we’re discussing #95, The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. The first volume, Red Mars, was published in 1993. The subsequent two novels, Green Mars and Blue Mars were published in 1994 and 1996 respectively. This time we get two firsts for my book challenge. This is the first time I’m revisiting a book I’ve already read, and the first time I enjoyed a series entry enough to read more than the first book. I had read Red Mars a few years ago and remembered liking it, but I never read the other two. This time around I decided to give them a shot, which is why there’s been so much time since my last book post!
Since this is a series I wanted to comment on the books independently before I give my final verdict, so let’s walk through each book.
Red Mars: This is the story of the colonization of Mars. The novel actually starts off in the middle of the story with a point of crisis, then goes back to show the journey of the “first 100” colonists from their voyage from Earth through several decades of life on Mars. This is definitely a hard science fiction novel, and if you don’t recognize words like thermokarst or polyna you might be spending some quality time with a dictionary as you read. However, this novel also looks at the social interactions between the first 100 and the larger political landscape with just as much interest and detail, and that’s why the book is so engaging to me.
We get to see the landscape of this alien world, and how human activity changes it for better or worse. Some characters want to preserve Mars as much as possible, others want to terraform it completely, with various factions at different positions between these extremes. All of these intentions also get clouded by normal human things, romantic entanglements, pettiness, greed, and jealousy. In the end Mars becomes a very different place, and most of the original 100 colonists have died, but you are still left on an optimistic note because there are some groups still standing and there is still work to be done.
I remembered enjoying this book a lot when I first read it, and I enjoyed it again this time so I decided to keep reading the next in the series. Considered on its own I’d be tempted to give this one a rating of 4.5 or even 5 out of 5.
Green Mars: This one picks up a bit after Red Mars left off, starting with the hidden colony under the polar ice cap. At this point at least 2 generations have been born on Mars, and initially it seemed like the story was going to follow mainly their stories but in fact like the first book it bounces around between lots of characters. The points of view include the grandchildren of the original 100, new immigrants from Earth, and several of the first 100 who are still around.
Like the first book, there’s a lot of the science of Mars here, along with other disciplines like economics and sociology. I’ve got a firm grounding in a lot of the science so I was fascinated by it, but if for example you don’t know or care why the percentage of nitrogen in the atmosphere is important then there will probably be big chunks of this book that don’t appeal.
The story here isn’t too different from the later half of Red Mars. There’s fascinating worldbuilding (both in the literary sense and the actual terraforming of Mars sense), but it is also extremely slow paced. I’m invested in the surviving members of the first 100 but it is strange seeing them live to unnatural ages, still driving the destiny of Mars when they should be part of its history. By the time I finished I was satisfied with the story but also unsure whether I wanted to invest the time reading the last book in the series. Taken on its own I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as Red Mars, more like a 3.5 out of 5 rating.
Blue Mars: This book is even more of the same. There’s a lot of long descriptions of martian scenery punctuated by the politics of Mars and the little vignettes that make up the long lives of the novel’s characters. There were a couple of moments in this one that fell flat for various reasons ranging from changes in the characters to lack of obvious narrative direction. The one that broke my suspension of disbelief the most was seeing Sax, the quintessential scientist, be amazed at the existence of a woman math genius. It felt weirdly inconsistent not just with my hope for progress, but with the novel itself, a world hundreds of years in the future where we’ve colonized Mars, where people of different genders and races seem to share life and work and politics and everything else fairly equally.
The few times where I got jolted out of the story in this book also made me think hard about what the narrative was about, and whose story it really is. There’s not much of a coherent journey in Blue Mars for any one character. Instead I suppose this book and the series as a whole are really the story of Mars itself as it gets infected with life and evolves over a few hundred years, or perhaps the story of humanity as it leaves the Earth behind. Taken on its own this was my least favorite of the three books. I would rate it 3/5.
TL;DR: Red Mars is pretty great and I’d recommend it. The other two books in the series have some interesting ideas but get bogged down by slow pacing and lots of descriptive text.
The Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) by Kim Stanley Robinson
Rating: 4/5 stars
Verdict: Thought-provoking hard sci-fi about colonizing another planet, and about social and political power. It is a very long, slow read but full of interesting ideas that make the journey worth it. Would especially recommend the first book of the trilogy.
Next up: The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov.