When I went down to Xindian last month, I picked up a copy of Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Since I was in the middle of The Diamond Age at the time, I didn’t get started until a couple of weeks ago. I read the first chapter pretty quickly, and then kind of got bogged down a bit. After making it a couple of hundred pages in, it really picked up and I finished the whole book last night. There won’t be any big spoilers in this review- it will all either be obvious things, or things that are established in the first few chapters of the book.
Red Mars is a story about the colonization of Mars. The meat of the book, though, is about the people, not the planet. The most important people in the story are the 100 chosen to be the first wave of colonists, mostly Americans Russians and Japanese. The leaders of that colonization wave are the main characters.
Frank Chalmers is the leader of the American contingent of colonists. His political skills are second to none. He is a realist, and his use of power is absolutely Machiavellian. He manipulated events to ensure that he missed being chosen as the first man to go to Mars… since that person would be disqualified from hazarding the radiation exposure of second trip to Mars as a colonist.
Maya Toitovna is the head of the Russian contingency. Like Frank, she’s a master manipulator and politician. She’s also one of the most attractive women in the group of colonists, which gives her even more power. However, she’s emotionally volatile and often brings about her own suffering.
John Boone is an American astronaut. He was the first man on Mars, and became a national hero as a result. By using his considerable fame and good-natured charm, he managed to become one of the first wave of colonists, despite medical regulations forbidding two trips to Mars. Despite never having any real political status, John is a defacto leader of the colonists.
“Sax” Russell is a brilliant and socially inept scientist. He arrived on Mars as a physicist and then, against all odds, trained himself to become a top biological engineer. He is the lead proponent of terraforming Mars.
Ann Clayborne is geologist, and an environmentalist. She is the leader of the “red” movement, which seeks to keep Mars in its natural state. Ann is prone to depression.
Arkady Bogdano is a Russian engineer, descended from futurist Alexander Bogdanov. Perhaps influenced by his ancestor’s views, Arkady has strong Marxist and Anarchist leanings. He wants to see a Mars free of Terran control.
Hiroko is the leader of the farm team. Before even reaching Mars, she already has a group of followers. After the colony is settled and has enough farming to survive, she and her followers mysteriously leave.
Phyllis Boyle is a geologist. Unlike many of the other colonists, she feels that Mars should remain under the control of Earth, and exploited fully. She becomes increasingly wealthy and powerful as a result of her connections with Terran commercial interests.
The central conflicts at the beginning of Red Mars are personal. The largest is the love triangle between Frank, Maya and John. Frank and John’s long standing rivalry only makes things worse. Frank did all the political work and took the sacrifices necessary to become leader of the colonization expedition. John on the other hand, used the weight of his accomplishments and fame to break the rules to get picked for the group, and then started to usurp Frank’s position as colonization leader by the same means. Frank, a born political animal, brought every resource he had to bear in order to maintain his dominance. As the years went by, and as more colonists came to Mars, Frank consolidated his power.
Maya, who had been alternately encouraging each man (while helping her own interests), eventually decided that she wanted to be with John. Perhaps as a result of the way she had manipulated lovers for so many decades, she was extremely unstable in her relations with him. The two of them stayed in a constant cycle of fighting, breaking up, and getting back together.
During one such reunion during which Frank was present, John flaunted the conquest to wound his old friend and prove who was the alpha male. Frank ended it for all by giving a religious fundamentalist both the desire and the means to kill John.
Another central conflict in Red Mars, is that between the “reds”, who want to protect the Martian environment, and the “greens” who want to terraform it as quickly as possible. At the beginning, the argument is largely between Ann, and Sax. Later, as more colonists come, it becomes a larger and larger dispute. In the end, though, the point is moot. There just isn’t any way to control the situation.
The final, and fiercest conflict is that between the transnational corporations who want to control and exploit Mars to its fullest, and the semi-anarchist colonists who want to live independent and free.
One interesting thing about Red Mars, is the language used. For the first time in a while, I’m finding myself regularly running into English words that I don’t fully understand- words like haecceity, choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic, among others. At times, I felt like I might as well be reading a biography of Paracelsus. I suppose that’s to be expected, though; those in the colonization party are supposed to be the best and the brightest, and it’s only natural that they’re a bit eccentric and have huge vocabularies.
If my estimates are correct, you could survive a jump off of a 100 foot cliff on Mars. That would be cool.