Saturday, October 17, 2009

Book Review: Red Mars

Red Mars (Mars Trilogy)Kim Stanley Robinson
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★


Red Mars is super-great, hardest-of-the-hard science fiction. It is the first book in Robinson’s Mars trilogy and it follows the experiences of the first hundred colonists on Mars through their first few decades of settlement.

The “First Hundred” settlers were all carefully selected for their technical expertise, diversity of skills, and psychological profiles. They trained together for years in Antarctica in preparation for setting up the first permanent Martian colony. After landing on Mars, they begin setting up living quarters, transportation systems, greenhouses, and power plants.

Every detail is totally realistic – the heated pressure suits they have to wear on the surface; the different types of structures they build as homes; the machines that extract ores and elements from the air and rock; the lichens that some of them develop to start oxygenating the atmosphere.

The colonists’ inevitable arguments and power struggles are equally believable. The longer the First Hundred stay on Mars, the more they separate into the “greens” who want to terraform Mars to make it livable for humans, and the “reds” who want to keep Mars as it is.

Meanwhile, as each colonist is trying to create their own version of utopia on Mars, Earth is dangerously overpopulated and in serious economic trouble. The multinational corporations on Earth who funded the original colonization effort now naturally want to exploit Mars’s resources for Earth’s benefit and start sending up more people to do so. Many of the residents of Mars need the corporations’ support to do their work but even many of the more Earth-friendly are resistant to this complete exploitation.

Corporate representatives eventually build a space elevator to make it easier on ships making the trip between Earth and Mars. The elevator consists of a giant cable stretching from Mars’ equator to the hollowed-out shell of an asteroid which has been captured and moved into geosynchronous orbit above the surface station. Passengers and cargo use elevator cars to go up and down the cable between the moon and the surface; ships only have to dock at the moon and don’t have to burn fuel to get in and out of the atmosphere.

The elevator is great for commerce and immigration. But to many of the Martians, it symbolizes all that is bad about the direction Mars is going. Eventually, the anti-corporate resistance organizes a revolution, which is unsuccessful and leads to the corporations taking over Mars, but during which they are able to bring down the space elevator. The collapse of the elevator is beautiful – tremendous slow-motion destruction on a gigantic scale.

To complicate the Earth-Mars conflict, a group of doctors on Mars develops treatments which can prolong life by hundreds of years and they start giving the treatments to their fellow colonists. They keep this secret as long as they can, but eventually Earth finds out. This causes chaos on Earth; some want to keep the treatments exclusive, knowing that giving them to everyone would only worsen the population problems, while others say that the treatments are a human right and should be available to everyone, paid for by their governments.

Regardless of what happens to the Earthlings, the age treatments were great for me, because they mean that some of the original First Hundred colonists can live long enough to see the fruits of their labors in Robinson’s fantastic later books, Green Mars and Blue Mars.

UPDATE 2/13/10: Added paragraphs about the tension between Earth and Mars, the space elevator, and the age treatments.

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