Friday, August 20, 2010

Book Review: Blue Mars

Kim Stanley Robinson
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

SPOILER ALERT (For Red Mars and Green Mars)

This is the third book in Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy about the colonization of Mars. It is, on the whole, not quite as awesome as the first two books in the set, but it has its own strengths.

After the more than one hundred years of construction, terraformation, feuds, sabotage, and war that were described in Red Mars and Green Mars, Blue Mars rewards the colonists’ perseverance (and yours) with a Mars that is now warm enough that its ice is melting and forming oceans. Plants and animals are rapidly adapting to the Martian environment. And, at sea level, humans can breathe the air without special equipment.

The people of Mars have turned the planet into a habitable world and have created a unique system of government with which to manage themselves. They actually are now doing much better than the people of Earth, who are dealing with environmental catastrophes and political chaos.

Robinson is an absolute master of the super-hard science fiction that makes up his Mars trilogy. He describes in minute, realistic detail what the colonization and terraforming of Mars could be like, and at the same time understands the emotional reactions the colonists might have to their situation. There are two themes in Blue Mars that particularly show how wise Robinson is about what people would feel at this point in their progress.

One is the colonists’ need to have some ritual way of looking back and celebrating what they have accomplished.

All three of Robinson’s Mars books explore the complicated tensions between “greens,” who want to change Mars to make it habitable for humans, and “reds,” who want to keep Mars as it originally was. Obviously, by the time of Blue Mars, the greens have won. But the reds get a victory of a sort when everyone agrees on a set altitude on Olympus Mons above which nothing will be grown or built and the atmosphere will be preserved in its original state. Greens and reds (and everyone in between) begin to use this zone as a remembrance space; once a Martian year, they hike up and build a city of temporary tents like those used by the first colonists and they spend a while there remembering what it was like in the beginning and thinking about the friends who have died along the way.

The other theme I really liked was the effect of super-long lifespans on the minds of the First Hundred colonists.

In Blue Mars, fewer than 35 members of the First Hundred survive; the rest have been killed in accidents, murder, and battle. Those remaining have all taken the life-extending treatments invented in Red Mars and are now over two hundred years old.

There are a number of side effects of living this long. For example, as time passes, the original colonists find they have more and more in common with each other and less and less in common with either the newer colonists or the native-born Martians. This makes them tend to draw together, even if they are on opposite sides of the political spectrum or if they originally hated each other.

Another side effect is that even though their brains are perfectly functional, so many things have happened to them that they start to forget or misremember the details of events from a hundred and fifty years ago when they first arrived. Sometimes they say they feel like their early experiences happened to someone else, not themselves. And some of them are unable to keep up with the constant changes that surround them and retreat emotionally, living only in the past.

In general, Blue Mars is a good conclusion to Robinson’s Mars trilogy. There are a couple down sides to it, however. For one thing, it is extremely long, even compared to the first two books. And also much of the last part of the book deals with the expansion of human space colonization into the rest of our solar system, which I found more abstract and less interesting than the original colonization of Mars.

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