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The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson (1992)

The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson

If ever you wondered what it would be like to colonise a new planet, then read this extraordinary trilogy and wonder no more. Robinson has set out and largely succeeded in crafting the most complex and scientifically rational story of mankind's expansion into space that has ever been committed to the page, or in this case, several thousand pages, for these are the sort of novels that can cause back injury.

Rather than attempt to review each in turn as separate articles, the scope and continuity of the tale best suits a single broad overview. The story begins in 2026, with the departure from earth of the so-called "first hundred" colonists to the Red Planet. Robinson wastes no time in introducing us to his microcosm of our human society, making great play of the fact that no matter how hard the mission planners prodded, probed and psychoanalysed their subjects, the fact remains that a lot of unfit people made it onto the mission. Of course on paper they are all near super humans, the cream of the crop, blessed with great intelligence and a dizzying variety of skills, all sorely needed if this tiny group are to survive on the red planet, but there are a lot of rotten (or at the very least pretty seriously fermented) apples in this barrel.

Foremost in the crew are the Americans John Boone and Frank Chalmers, heroes of the first manned landing on Mars in 2010, but both consumed by jealousies both professional, political and otherwise. Adding to the mix are a wide variety of other personalities, nationalities and factions, all adding to the tensions of the flight. Leading the Russian members of the crew is the emotional Maya Toitovana, who becomes involved to her cost with both men. Sax Russel champions the terraforming of mars, while equally vocal in her opposition is Ann Clayborne who wants nothing more than to leave Mars untouched as a scientific reserve. Hiroko Ai leads the "garden team", concerned on the surface of things with creating self-sustaining eco-systems but plotting a new social experiment in the crucible of Mars.

These are just a few of the characters and situations that comprise the "human" elements of the story, but then we have Mars itself, which certainly rates as a character in it's own right. Best when reading these books to have some really good maps of Mars handy, because Robinson delights in delving into every nook and cranny of the planet. People don't go from A to B in this story, they traverse ravines and mountains, soaking up the detail, lingering over escarpments and plateaus. It can be awe inspiring, but like the characters, ultimately draining as the massively complex detail, both human and geological, weighs the story down at inopportune moments. This is in fact the prime problem with the first novel. Things move pretty slowly and in a reverse of the old adage, a thousand words tell a picture. Equally so, the dialogue is actually a little unbelievable and pretentious, because Robinson puts some seriously complex words into the mouths of his characters, forcing conversations that strain credulity: could people really be this smart, and would they really talk like this without tying themselves up in philosophical knots so tight they'd garrotte themselves?

By the end of Red Mars, the first hundred have become many thousands as the colonisation of the planet gets seriously underway, but with more people come greater tensions and potential for trouble, and as the novel ends in 2062, a revolution breaks out to split Mars from the controlling influence of the mother planet. In itself of course, revolution between a colony and mother country is an old story that has been transplanted to the future many times, but this is an incredible reworking of the idea, powered by a heady brew of politics and science. The terraforming of Mars is accelerating and the methods to bring about a breathable atmosphere becoming ever more extreme. Factions on Mars are fighting each other for control of the vision and while Robinson gets to continue his dense plotting and dialogue, the big science leads to some equally big and exciting bangs.

By the beginning of Green Mars, the revolution is over and essentially failed, though both Mars and Earth are in pretty bad shape. The mother world is now in the grip of the successors to our multinationals, now known as metanationals. The first hundred are largely lying low, hunted by the earth forces but still maintaining their fierce ideologies. But if Mars is to ever gain freedom from Earth, then a consensus will be needed between the often violently antagonistic splinter groups, most notably the Reds (those who want to keep Mars as it is) and the Greens, proponents of the terraforming program. Hence in one of the most important sections of the novel, a conference is called of all the groups and thus is forged the beginning of a Martian state and a way it is hoped to avoid another disastrous revolution.

If you've got through the first novel and survived Robinsons unabashed scientific, political and sociological musings, then you'll want to keep reading, and though it is once again a little heavy going at times, the whole issue of the terraforming of Mars is presented in such an enthusiastic and clear manner that you will quickly get swept up in the grand scope of the vision. Given that the terraforming of Mars is likely to be a project of great duration, Robinson has also pulled a neat trick to avoid introducing a whole new set of characters each volume, having created a longevity treatment that can theoretically extend the useful lifespan of a human to well over a century. Hence Sax, Maya, Frank and most of the first hundred continue to be pivotal characters in this and the final volume.

Blue Mars is perhaps the weakest in the trilogy at least in terms of big events, but you've come this far, so it would be silly to give up now. The transformation of the planet is nearing completion and water is flowing on the surface. At lower altitudes it is even almost possible to breath on the surface unaided. The now much diminished first hundred are struggling both to cope with a Mars that is in effect leaving them behind and the early signs that the longevity treatment is losing its potency for people of their age. This is very much a novel to tie up loose ends. The pace slows considerably and while we are still treated to fantastic descriptions of the changing surface, the relentless drive to explain and sermonise on the state of the human condition is not so easily ignored or forgiven. I suppose like the characters we have come to know and love, we too are feeling our age by this point in the story, so its almost a relief when it ends, but just like growing old, it's all a little bitter sweet.

Robinson has written a forth Mars book of short stories and background material including the entire Martian Constitution, which I have not yet read.

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See also

Books

1950
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

The Matian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. A bitter sweet history of Mars as seen and experienced by both Human and Martians.

1961
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. A human raised by Martians returns to Earth.

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