Red Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson
Red Mars is, quite simply, a perfect novel. It combines the thrilling driving intensity of a compelling plot with the capability for insight and introspection and revealing observation. Its descriptions of the fourth planet, Earth’s neighbor Mars, are stunning and beautiful, a combination of the author’s great labors in research and his astounding imagination.
This same skill in description applies to his treatment of the cabinet full of characters, charming and attractive and unpleasant and fascinating and throbbing full of life as they are.
It starts on the ship Ares, hurtling away from a Terran bubbling with trouble and strife, with a crew of 100 scientists and engineers at the top of their fields, chosen through a rigorous psychological examination and testing period itself led by the psychologist accompanying them, a Frenchman named Michel. Of course they have all lied and hidden their true selves to get there, the psychologist included.
They’re not the first people to set foot on Mars; a previous American crew of 4 had done so six years before, in 2020. One member of that crew, and the first man ever to step upon the red planet, John Boone is with them. This mission is led by, on the American side, Frank Chalmers, and acidulous, cynical, and brilliant, leader. The Russian half is led by the longtime cosmonaut Maya Toitovna, a Russian archetype of a woman: beautiful, passionate, clever.
There is also Arkady Bogdanov, fiery haired and Russian himself, and a left wing political radical with a different view of the future of Mars than the straightforward science mission, to be followed by transnational exploitation, envisioned by the United Nations Office of Martian Affairs. And then Sax, with ambitious dreams for the grand terraforming of the planet, and Ann Chalmers, who wants nothing on the planet to change because even before she the opportunity ever arose of heading to the planet she fell in love with it and wants to study every inch of it. Then also Nadia, short, sturdy, in contrast to her friend Maya of no great looks, but dependable and industrious, and a genius in the construction of the habitats and stations they set up upon landing.
Maya is variously in love with John Boone and Frank Chalmers, starting in the weightlessness of the Ares and continuing stormily on the Martian surface. All sorts of romances and dalliances spring up on board the ship, and Robinson doesn’t shy away from them. Hiroko Ai, the brilliant botanist who will be in charge of conjuring crops enough to make the colonists self-sufficient is whispered to be leading mystic orgies with the rest of the botanists.
At one point Maya thinks she sees a stowaway.
Down on the planet at the first settlement, Underhill, the rudiments of civilization spring up with the aid of robot builders and the industry of the settlers. Chief among these is Nadia, who is very sympathetic in her firm commitment to working, improving, fixing building. Her single minded purpose in doing all the work she can do, helping whoever she can, her detachment from the wider struggles and thought around her in the pursuit of the task at hand, sets her out from the other characters Robinson sets his focus on throughout the novel.
John and Frank and Maya play politics and squabble among each other in their triangle, John Boone determined to use his status as the First Man on Mars to forge a new Martian Society, all while Frank cynically manages things. Arkady has radical, anarchistic goals for the new world they will build, Sax throws himself into his own radical terraforming project, and meanwhile Ann, disgruntled and upset by the changes she sees being foisted upon her beloved red planet, focuses her attention on studying the it, finding answers to the questions about it she wants answered before the landscape and geology is changed irrevocably.
Robinson’s descriptions of the Martian landscape are breathtaking; a trip to the Northern polar ice cap affords a sunset scene that moves Nadia deeply and opens her eyes to the singularity of the planet she’s on.
Arkady and Nadia take a blimp to drop off small nuclear windmills all across the face of the planet as part of Sax’s plan to raise the temperature in the quest to construct an atmosphere capable of sustaining life. While the windmills actually turn out to be an unauthorized lichen seeding project, the trip with the laughing, passionate Arkady and the more introverted Nadia takes an expected turn that’s nevertheless genuinely thrilling, exciting and pleasant. They make love and fall in love and this turn of events is so appealing and perfect, and made me very happy. Happy for Nadia mostly, that Arkady could make her so happy, and that she could be so happy. The descriptions of the turn from unspoken intimacy to intimacy expressed and maintained left me grinning like a fool; recalling it now I’m doing so again.
Not long after the second batch of settlers arrive, and with it rapid change. A group of the First One Hundred, led by Hiroko and including the psychologist Michel, who’s dreadfully, terribly homesick, steals away from the settlement and melt into the Martian landscape to construct their own unique society away from the strictures of the UNOMA.
Time passes fast from here. We join John Boone again around a decade after Hiroko’s disappearance, with settlements speckling out over the planet, mushrooming up from all parts of the world. There is a campaign of sabotage throughout the nascent mining communities and expanding towns. John has a similar view of what Mars needs to Arkady, though not quite as radical or concrete. Where Arkady spurns Nadia’s practical minded liberalism by telling her that “Earth is a perfectly liberal world. But half of it is starving, and always has been and always will be…very liberally,” John’s prognosis is less certain. Still, he knows that the Martian society will have to be different. Ruminating, he observes that “societies without a plan, that was history so far; but history so far had been a nightmare, a huge compendium of examples to be avoided.”
His investigation has him traverse the globe in his rover, on and off again with Maya, meeting with myriad groups of new settlers, and being caught up in familiar and old aspects of human society: espionage, subterfuge, the unceasing battle between capitalism and democracy, the interests of profit asserting themselves in deadly and near deadly ways.
Part and parcel with these wanderings is a sort of spiritual and political journey for John. The Swiss he meets inspire him with their adaptability and his study of their constitution. He meets and travels with a Sufi caravan, a group he greatly admires. Before either of them he observes, in the vivid scientific referential language Robinson wields so well, that “consciousness was just a thin lithosphere over a big hot core, after all.” The core comes to the fore when John dances with the Sufis on a fervent night, chanting the names of Mars in different tongues, and spinning with them until he becomes disoriented and sick.
An old Sufi woman, helping him after he throws up, comforts him with a short evocative sort of aphorism: “The King asked his wise men for some single thing that would make him happy when he was sad, but sad when he was happy. They consulted and came back with a ring engraved with the message ‘This Too Will Pass…”
John’s investigation bumps into the ascendant presence of the transnationals and the reach of ever expanding government power. He’s targeted, assaulted, he’s almost framed for murder. Frank Chalmers eventually participates in the assassination of John, though not before the construction of a mighty space elevator and the tentative temporary return into the fray of the First One Hundred of Hiroko.
And so, This Too Will Pass. The murder of John Boone takes the book into a darker place, more time passes and the world, both worlds even, are thrown into malign chaos. Gerontological treatment extending lives indeterminately longer (perhaps more accurately: that reverse and arrest aging) radically overhauls the social fabric of the red and blue planets. Immigration soars to Mars, the old problems are exported, the transnationals look only to profit from it all.
Arkady is leading a movement, as are groups all over the planet. Settlers slip away and disappear, joining Hiroko perhaps, escaping the proscriptions of old commerce and government. But UNOMA, along with the transnationals, start preventing this. Anger from crime, extortion by the neglectful protection companies, as well as the romance of disappearance lead to the nascent idea of revolt. Frank Chalmers, old and acidulous as ever, tries to mediate this, defuse it, direct it. In the renegotiation of the Mars treaty he had tried to limit immigration to take pressure off the mounting cooker.
“They were so ignorant!” he thinks after addressing a crowd of striking American workers. “Young men and women, educated very carefully to be apolitical, to be technicians who thought they disliked politics, making them putty in the hands of their rulers, just like always.”
But even as he tries to tamp down the coming revolt he encounters those who already compare their current situations to the rebellions of the past.
“I suppose the real question…” one says, “[is] will we have a Lincoln?”
“‘Lincoln is dead,’ Frank snapped. ‘And historical analogy is the last refuge of people who can’t grasp the current situation.’”
When the revolution comes, it’s catastrophic, a huge compendium of examples to be avoided. The fighting is brutal, the “tents” that enclose human settlements are cracked open like balloons by missiles from above, hundreds, thousands asphyxiated, frozen to death, burned in explosions. Arkady is one of these, bursting into flame just moments after cheerily dictating to himself the happy similarities between his current revolutionary situation and that of Catalonia’s in the Civil War.
Aquifers are cracked open in explosions, sending absolutely massive flows of water coursing across the Martian terrain, filling Hellas Planitia, smashing settlements in their paths. The rebels bring down the space elevator, and the 37,000 kilometer wire smashes down into the planet two times over, a glowing diamond whip, slicing into the earth, killing, devastating the landscape and changing it forever.
Reading it brings to mind a sensation described earlier in a different context by Robinson: “his blood burned in his throat.”
Nadia and some of her confederates hop around the wracked world in planes, avoiding the strikes of the authorities, rebuilding and repairing wherever they go. What’s left of The One Hundred come to realize that they’re being targeted by the authorities who believe it’s them who are behind the uprising. Meanwhile on Earth desperate war itself rages.
Cornered by an invasion force at Cairo in the East, Nadia uses an old rigged system of Arkday’s to bring down Phobos itself, resulting in still further marsshaking transformation of the planet. A band of the original One Hundred escape with the help of Michel, come from Hiroko’s group to help them get out just as the troops break through.
A grasping devastating voyage dodging the destruction left by the flooding being caused by the impact of Phobos follows. At first the dust thrown up by that impact means they can travel in the special stealth rovers designed by Hiroko’s group during the day, but when the dust recedes and they encounter debris and disorder on the journey to possible safety with Hiroko near the Southern ice cap, the going get slow, and dangerous, and near interminable. During this epic voyage Frank Chalmers is killed, but Ann, depressed in the thought that her son Peter died in the collapse of the space elevator also has a revelation while the survivors eat dinner in the rover.
“It came to her that the pleasure and stability of dining rooms had always occurred against such a backdrop, against the catastrophic background of universal chaos; such moments of calm were things as fragile and transitory as soap bubbles, destined to burst almost as soon as they blew into existence. Groups of friends, rooms, streets, years, none of them would last. The illusion of stability was created by a concerted effort to ignore the chaos they were embedded in. And so they ate, and talked, and enjoyed each other’s company; this was the way it had been in the caves, on the Savannah, in the tenements and the trenches and the cities huddling under bombardment.”
They make it to Hiroko’s after near disaster for them all. Peter is there. The face of Mars has been transformed astoundingly since they arrived, further than Sax’s wildest dreams. At the end of this world bending chronicle, they are poised to once again rebuild their lives in an alien environment. There are two more books to come.