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red mars


Kim Stanley Robinson spent a lot of time learning about Mars. He used that knowledge, in part, to write Red Mars (1993) and he won a Nebula award for the novel. Certainly, his research seems exhaustive and he wants you to know it. There are pages of description of the apparently massive Martian landscape. Canyons there make the Grand Canyon a tea cup. Martian mountains dwarf the Himalayas. Pretty much everything there is bigger than here. The way he talks about it, Mars would be a paradise—except that it’s cold, dry, and has almost no atmosphere. To colonize it, you’d need to send a lot of very well prepared people, mostly scientists and engineers, who could turn it into a place where regular people could live. The first 100 people would be stuck together in a harsh place for a long time, figuring out how to survive and thrive, building the infrastructure and social and political systems for a brand new world. Such a world, full of natural resources, would be a boon to an overcrowded, resource-depleted Earth. That idea would work fine (assuming you really can get people there) as long as all the people on Mars cooperate with it and cooperate with each other. But, once they’re on their way to Mars, and certainly once they’re there, those people would be a long way from Earth and have very little reason to do what they’re told.

It’s a good premise and if Robinson could get over showing off his research, it might have even been a pretty great book. As it is, he does pause now and then for long enough to explore his characters’ motivations and thoughts, but the book doesn’t really get going till it’s three-quarters over.

As I read Robinson’s novel, impressed, but bored, I kept thinking of Ender’s Game, also written by a three-named author (Orson Scott Card, 1985), also a Nebula winner, and also the first book in a trilogy. Card has said that he wrote Ender’s Game as a set up for the next book in the trilogy and I suspect the same about Robinson and Red Mars. The difference is that Ender’s Game is a good book all by itself. Maybe Nebula’s are awarded for research, but for me award-winning novels need to have it all, including a great story, written in prose that fits the content. Robinson’s prose gets the job done, but it’s nothing special and certainly his story needs some help. Just putting Mars on the screen doesn’t raise the tension or move the story.

So, now I’m left wondering what Robinson is going to do in Green Mars, the second book of the trilogy, and I’m afraid to commit to starting the book. Will he keep on demonstrating his technical and research prowess or really write a story we can dig into?


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