Red Mars  - Kim Stanley Robinson image
Christmas 2010: I realised that I had got stuck in a rut. I was re-reading old favourites again and again, waiting for a few trusted authors to release new works. Something had to be done.

On the spur of the moment I set myself a challenge, to read every book to have won the Locus Sci-Fi award. That’s 35 books, 6 of which I’d previously read, leaving 29 titles by 14 authors who were new to me.

While working through this reading list I got married, went on my honeymoon, switched career and became a father. As such these stories became imprinted on my memory as the soundtrack to the happiest period in my life (so far).

Strictly speaking, Red Mars wasn’t part of my reading list as it didn’t win the Locus Sci-Fi award (Bujold’s Barrayar beat it to the 1992 award). But it’s the first book in Robinson's Mars Trilogy, and as the second (Green) and third (Blue) books both were on the list for winning the award, I felt I needed to read Red Mars to properly appreciate its sequels.

If I’m being completely honest, that should say ‘re-read’ because I had read Red Mars once before, back in my early teens. First time around I didn’t really get it. I remembered it being too slow, too dry and too serious to enjoy. As such, when I began my Locus mission I was apprehensive about coming back to pick-up the series.

Aside from the Mars trilogy, Robinson had one other book on my list – The Years of Rice and Salt. I plumped for that one first as it had less negative associations and took it on my honeymoon as holiday reading. I loved it! (and have given it a 5 star review). Rice and Salt convinced me to disregard my teenage impressions and approach the Mars Trilogy from a blank slate, with an open mind.

The cover boldly declares Red Mars to be ‘the ultimate in future history’. It’s a phrase I found myself returning to repeatedly when describing the book to friends.

Let me start by stating that this book is good. It’s very good. It covers a broad spectrum of sci-fi themes in a carefully considered, extremely believable way. The science, politics, sociology and philosophy all mesh together in a troubled terraforming tale of the first hundred scientists to settle on Mars.

The characters aren’t always likeable, but they are always utterly convincing. The plot isn’t quite a page-turner, but I frequently found myself pondering it whenever I put the book down. I wasn’t exactly amazed by the author’s vivid imagination, but I was truly and deeply impressed with the depth of knowledge and scientific understanding that underpin every sentence.

The phrase ‘future history’ seems so apt, because Red Mars has the same devoutly researched feel of a historical novel. We go through the story with a handful of characters, feeling the twists and turns from their perspective, but there’s always an objective distance, as if describing respected historical events. There’s very little levity or humour to be found – it’s inarguably a very dry book.

Two of the characters introduced in this book, Nadia Chernyshevski and Sax Russell have secured their own little corner of my heart. I feel as if I know them well, like a dependable Aunt and eccentric Uncle. Likewise, I feel that if I climbed one of the salt pyramids outside Underhill and looked out over the Alchemists’ Quarter I’d feel a wash of nostalgia for a much-loved old stomping ground.

It’s a world you can get lost in, if you let yourself, with people who will stay with you for a long time. I definitely “really liked it”, so I had to give it at least 4 stars. But I found myself reluctant to go the whole hog and give it 5 stars.

Despite my best efforts I never completely shook my original, teenager impression that this book is just too slow and too serious. Opening the book with the flash-forward to Boone’s death puts a cloud over the rest of the tale, dampening the mood throughout. There’s no joy taken in the telling and very little in the way of a playful spirit among the cast. Some of the more interesting plot threads (mostly revolving around Hiroko) – the stowaway, the secret settlement, the details of the Mars/viridatis worship, etc – are all covered from a distance by Robinson, as if shying away to leave an air of mystery is somehow more powerful than fully embracing their complexities.

I just couldn’t bring myself to like Frank Chalmers or Michel Duval very much, and although Maya Toitovna grew on me in the finale of the trilogy, her constant melodrama grated in this first instalment. John Boone is loveable, but it’s hard to get particularly attached when you know he’s due to be axed.

For all these reasons, I liked Red Mars very, very much – but I couldn’t bring myself to love it. I am, however, very glad that I’ve read the whole series.

PS. This is the first review I ever wrote for GR!

After this I read: Green Mars