For eons, sandstorms have swept the barren, desolate landscape of the red planet. For centuries, Mars has beckoned to mankind to come and conquer its hostile climate. Now, in the year 2026, a group of one hundred colonists is about to fulfill that destiny.
I first picked up this book two and a half years ago, when I was still trying to read a novel a week. I’ve got to be honest; this was the book that made me break that new years resolution. It is freaking huge, and some points are more interesting than others.
That said, this is an awesome piece of hard science fiction. Lots of people have written about Mars, but very few have done it believably. Kim Stanley Robinson does an job here–you can tell that he put in a ton of research, both into Martian geography (areology?) and feasible technology.
When I read science fiction, however, that’s not what I generally read for. I’m more interested in characters, conflict, and thematic elements–in other words, the stuff that makes for a good story. As far as that stuff goes, my opinion of Red Mars is somewhat mixed.
For example, the first chapter starts out with a murder, as seen from the point of view of the murderer. Right away, I’ve got a reason not to sympathize with the main viewpoint character. When we get into his mind and I see his motivations for killing the character, I like him even less–and he’s one of the main, driving characters.
Some of the characters are more sympathetic, and I enjoyed the sections in their point of view. Others, however, were just plain boring–I neither loved them nor despised them. Because of this, a lot of the character drama early in the novel didn’t engage me much; stuff was happening, but I didn’t really care.
When it comes to setting, Red Mars is also somewhat mixed. Robinson goes to great depths to describe the Martian landscape, and several of his setting descriptions were quite interesting and wonderful. At the same time, he explains everything in a very clinical, scientific way–his imagery is never as poetic and captivating as Ray Bradbury’s, or Ursula K. Le Guin’s, or George R. R. Martin’s. I came away with a lot more knowledge about Mars, but not quite as much of a sense of wonder.
Things did get interesting once the political tensions started to come into play. Robinson’s portrayal of the colonization of Mars raises a lot of interesting questions about the political relationship between Earth and Mars once those colonies start to become self-sufficient. He follows things through right to the war for independence, and the implications of the conflict are quite interesting. I finished the last hundred pages or so at a sprint.
All in all, I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you’re already a fan of hard science fiction. Like most hard sf, character and conflict plays second string to scientific plausibility. Within its sub-genre, however, Red Mars is awesome. Let’s just put it this way: even though I got bored with it the first time, I knew I would one day pick it up and finish it. I don’t regret that I did.