Literary War on the Incarnadine World

Yes, there are a lot of books about Mars littered around under these pink skies today: Ben Bova's eponymous effort, Jack Williamson's Beachhead, Paul McCauley's Red Dust, with Arthur C. Clarke's Snows of Olympus and Greg Bear's Moving Mars to come later this year. But the first of the current batch on the bookshop shelves was Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars.

John Clute liked the book and so did Arthur C. Clarke. Clute said it 'may simply be the best novel that has ever been written about Mars.'. A large claim for a large book. But at 501 pages is the novel worth the effort or is it just another attempt to manufacture a bestseller?

Kim Stanley Robinson's fascinations with Mars and History are delineated in earlier works, from the explorations of memory in Icehenge to the climb of Olympus Mons that forms the heart of his novella Green Mars and through the stories that form the collections The Planet on the Table and Remaking History (aka Down and Out in the Year 2000). During interviews Robinson returns time and again to his love of wild places like Death Valley and the Grand Canyon, those places that are Mars on Earth.

So many of the critics liked the book and KSR had been working on it for years, discussing his ideas with the scientists of The Mars Underground- a dedicated cabal secretly plotting humanity's future on the crimson planet- and then finally formulating what is to be a trilogy. The first volume outlines the initial terraforming and colonisation of Mars, from the founding of the first permanant settlement. Green Mars, which may encompass the earlier novella of the same name, though not contain it, will follow, the trilogy peaking with Blue Mars.

I have to admit to being a fan of the authors' works, having bought The Wild Shore when it was first published and waiting impatiently for the rest of the Orange County Trilogy. As a climber and felllow lover of wild places I also devoured Escape From Katmandhu and the epic moves of Green Mars.

So how do I see Red Mars?

A Roseate Spectacle

Red Mars is a Political Novel. Red Mars is ecological Sf writ large. Red Mars is our world today.

The book is political in the sense that Robinson is writing about the motivations of a society, ecological as it is a tale of a planet being transformed, contemporary in that it is metaphor for our greenhouse home, full of little conflicts that obscure the real issues.

The driving engine of the novel is the conflict between two philosophies- the 'Reds' are conservationists who wish to keep Mars pristine while the 'Greens' just want to make the planet into a new Earth. Yet beneath this basic clash of values, Robinson is writing an Utopian novel that shows the growing pains of a new society. Not unfamiliar with this Nowhere Mode, Robinson succeeded with The Pacific Edge, a novel that avoided the pitfalls of the tract-like nature of many of its subgenre predecessors. Whether the Martian Trilogy will also steer clear of the typical Utopian fiction failings we will have to wait and see, but on the balance of the first volume Robinson may well be falling into the manifesto snare, with polemical characters in the shape of Green protagonist John Boone and rival Red Anne Clayborne.

Red Mars does have flaws, its didactic nature and sprawling story occassionally conspiring to disguise Robinson's love of place, camouflaging the power of his descriptive prose. After a slow start as the colonists drift to Mars, the novel comes to life as we follow Boone around his adopted world, but we see the pace flag as Robinson attempts to detail the societies in conflict, only to come to life in a final orgy of deconstruction. But despite these weaknesses, there is a powerful story here, with the remainder of the trilogy worth waiting for - Green Mars will come along and take up the baton later this year. When picking up Red Mars, we are taking in our hands five years of a writers' life, years of dreams and fascinations that have resulted in this book. I for one am sure those years are worth it. It will be almost as interesting to see how the rest of the current crop of Martian novels compare when all are available and we have time to harvest them.