The Mars Trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam Spectra, 1992-1996, ???? pages, C$???.?? hc, ISBN Various

Red Mars: Bantam Spectra, 1993, 519 pages, ISBN 0-553-09204-9
Green Mars: Bantam Spectra, 1994, 535 pages, ISBN 0-553-09640-0
Blue Mars: Bantam Spectra, 1996, 609 pages, ISBN 0-553-10144-7

In the early nineties, a spate of books about Mars began to appear on the market. After being relatively ignored by SF writers since the first half of the century (when Edgar Rice Burrough’s romantic fantasy “Mars” series and Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles first appeared), the fourth planet was once again a ripe ground for extrapolation. Building on the initially-disappointing discoveries of the Viking missions, a new spate of Martian books began to appear, minus the little green men, canals or crystalline cities.

This new breed of books was mostly realistic, and either concerned with the first expeditions to Mars or the use of Mars as a background to realistic adventures. Thus, we had Mars (Ben Bova), Moving Mars (Greg Bear), Climbing Olympus (Kevin J. Anderson), Beachhead (Jack Williamson), Martian Rainbow (Robert L. Forward)…

But the “biggest” entry in this field was made by Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. From the beginning, the trilogy prefaced by RM was destined to be a classic. One should only read the pages of lavish praise contained at the front of the paperback copy of RM to be convinced.

What was surprising, however, was the author’s name. A trilogy about the terraformation of Mars had a natural feel to it, almost an obligatory part of the genre… but to have Kim Stanley Robinson write it?

I would have expected Benford to write such a trilogy. Clarke, in his good days. Brin, perhaps. But Kim Stanley Robinson? My previous experiences with his short story collection The Planet on the Table had been underwhelming at best… While the Mars trilogy was getting good reviews all around, I was prepared to be bored.

I acquired RM in 1994, when I bought the CD-ROM “Hugo and Nebula Anthology 1993” This superlative CD, published by Clarinet Inc. (, contained all 1993 Hugo-nominated fiction, plus all of the 1993 Nebula-nominated short fiction… It’s an incredible CD: Buy it. I had the intention of reading everything on it, but with my growing stack of (physical) books, and lack of time, and reluctance to read a 500-pages on a computer screen… I stumbled upon a mint trade paperback of GM in May 1995 for a ridiculous price. (Bought it and laughed all the way home.) So there I was, with the two books, and not about to make the same mistake as when I started to read Stephen R. Donaldson’s ‘Gap’ cycle three years before the last volume was published. So I waited. And when BM came out in hardcover, I took a deep breath, went to a trusty library in Orleans that has a permanent 10%-off policy on new hardcovers and plunked down the 32,04$Can. Therein ends the story of how I got the trilogy.

Now, for the wrongness: There, I admit it: I was wrong. The Mars trilogy is one of the best thing I’ve read this year.

A lot of SF books usually deal with a new planet/gadget/concept in two ways: The first, common with “sense of wonder”-type of stories, is about the discovery, the initial rush of ideas that occur to a competent scientist or the adventures of a team of explorers setting foot on a planet for the first time. The second attitude is to use the said gadget as a part of the background. Think of hyperspace: There are stories where the intrepid scientists first stumble upon the hyperdrive, and countless other tales in which characters take a hyperspace liner like we would take the bus. But few stories deal about the various problems a hyperdrive company would have in perfecting its product from prototype to unspectacular piece of machinery. In Martian terms, Bova’s Mars is the discovery story while Bear’s Moving Mars is the backgrounder-type of novel. (Which isn’t true, actually, but let’s not quibble with my piece of reasoning, okay?)

If the reader retains only one thing of the massive 1,700+ pages saga that is contained in these three books, it’s the absolutely stunning display of subject range from Robinson. The Mars trilogy is a masterful virtuoso performance from one of the most talented authors in the English language. (How’s that for a blurb quote?) Robinson tackles on geology, history, environmental sciences, personal dynamics, politics, physics, rigorous scientific extrapolation, sociology… The reader is surprised, delighted and astonished at the sheer amount of meticulously researched detail.

In fact, one is so impressed that it seems almost too restrictive to call the trilogy mere “science-fiction”. At the same time, one also takes comfort in the fact that this sort of grandiose intellectual accomplishment wouldn’t be possible in any other field than SF. (Except, perhaps, classified Pentagon work… ahem.)

There is something in these 1,700+ pages for everyone. Hard-SF readers like me will foam at the mouth reading all the polysyllabic exposition terms. So-called literary aficionados will make small cooing sounds over Robinson’s careful prose. Readers who like a good story will skip the big words and be swept along with the onrushing tide of this epic.

The Mars trilogy begins where Mars left off: The first historical mission is over, but now we’re going back, this time to stay. Red Mars takes the reader from this point to the first Martian revolution. The other books take the story forward.

Red Mars is the best volume of the three. Mostly self-contained (you could stop reading after the first book, but who would want to?) it is the most pyrotechnical volume, and perhaps the most fascinating: SF often postulates that once mankind gets off Earth, it will suddenly become gentler and kinder… Not quite what happens in RM. People fight over power, money, rights, (in)equality. In fact, RM should be read for the simple statement that No, things are not going to be easy if we want to colonize Mars.

I was fascinated by the chapter in RM where the original colonists build the Underwood base. Seen through an engineer’s viewpoint, it’s suitably nuts-and-bolt to satisfy even the most unbelieving reader. Other highlights include the catastrophic effects of the first Martian revolution, again seen through the coolly calculating eyes of Nadia, the Siberian engineer.

Which brings us (clumsily) to the characters. While RM build most on the setting and the initial story, the two subsequent books really kick some dimensions in the characters. I have rarely felt an attachment to fictional constructs as I did at the end of Blue Mars, when I was almost moved to tears over the reconciliation of t
wo major characters. Not every character is as powerfully evocative. Some will be annoying to many readers, but that’s quite intentional. (Since you asked, my favorite characters were Sax (The Scientist), Nadia (The Engineer) and Art (The… er… corporate spy.)

The setting is also exquisitely realized, Mars taking on an almost-real texture. The changes in the planet’s atmosphere are sharply drawn, and also completely convincing. While Robinson takes a few risky assumptions regarding the composition of Mars’ crust, it makes for good fictional material.

The sweep of the events described in the trilogy is impressive, covering more that a hundred years of history. The solar system at the end of the trilogy is completely different from the beginning. This is an epic to relegate mere grandiose stories to a lesser status.

The three books are unequal. The first one is the most readable, as well as being the most exciting. The two others may contain less action, but fully develop the story. The conclusion is a bit disappointing, lacking a sense of grand finale that the series deserve, but at this point, any reader will feel disappointed at the close of such a rewarding trilogy.

As stated before, the scope of Robinson’s intent is impressive. He delivers as entertainment a series of thoughtful reflections on our common future. His extrapolations on the consequences of widespread longevity are -as far as I know- unequaled anywhere else in SF.

Facing such an ambitious intellectual achievement, it would be too easy to trivialize it on the basis of the few errors that Robinson made: One get the feeling that despite the fancy new words and political parties, things haven’t changed much in 100+ years. (This criticism is mostly invalidated by the last volume) Also, Mars seems a bit much like a really big park, where one can get from point A to point B effortlessly. The characters, at times, are like well-developed stereotypes (The Cynic Politician, the Mad Psychologist, the Nutty Scientist, the Unemotional Engineer…) Finally, the advances in robotics depicted are a bit… optimistic, shall I say?

Nevertheless, these are small inevitable imperfections in the magnificent Persian rug that is the Mars trilogy. It is easily one of the most important SF work of the nineties. So powerful, that I fear the terraforming field of SF may live for a looooong time under this series’ shadow.

Only the genuinely patient and inquisitive reader will retain the most from the Mars trilogy. For those with the time, however, it is a series not to be missed.

[June 1998: The Memory of Whiteness (Kim Stanley Robinson, 1985) could have been so much better, especially given what Robinson was able to do with his latter (1992-1996) Mars trilogy. This particular novel describes a far-future solar system tour of a classical orchestra, mixing music and physics. It’s not all bad or boring, but it’s incredibly long in spots: Robinson hadn’t quite mastered the narrative verve he later exhibited in his other works, and the result is an intermittently interesting novel. The Memory of Whiteness is all about music, so readers not familiar with classical composers will feel slightly lost. But the remainder of Robinson’s imagination is good enough that even when you think you’re lost-you’re not. (Especially laudable is the noteworthy effort of describing coherently some very-advanced physics.) Interesting, but imperfect.]

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