Red Mars: a very belated appreciation

I'm pretty well-read in the modern sf canon, but there are some gaps in there that are almost embarrassing in scope. Take Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars. This doorstopper, clocking in at nearly 800 pages, is the first volume in a trilogy of comparably-sized companion volumes, each of which depicts a different vision of the [dis|u]topiian establishment of a permanent human settlement on Mars. When Red Mars first came out, I was working at Bakka Books, the science fiction bookstore in Toronto, and there was something else in my queue that month, and one of my co-workers had already dived into it and was writing the shelf review, and it seemed like such a commitment that, well, I just never got around to it. With the publication of Green Mars and Blue Mars, it just got worse: if I couldn't clear enough schedule to read volume one, volumes two and three were impossible.

It wasn't that I didn't like Robinson's books. Quite the contrary, I adore them. Pacific Edge — a gripping, rollicking utopian novel whose plot hinges on a zoning debate over the placement of a baseball diamond — is one of my all-time favorite books. When Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom came out and the reviewers compared it to John Varley for the technology stuff, I was honoured, but the few reviews that compared it to Pacific Edge sent me over the moon: if Robinson could disrupt his utopia with a zoning fight and make it into a gripping tale, could I do the same with a fight over the politics of Disney ride fandom and design?

Like Red Mars, Pacific Edge is one volume in a trilogy that approaches utopia from three different angles. I haven't read the other two books in the trilogy, and that's a keen regret that I intend to do something about post-haste.

Because now I've finally read Red Mars, and I am agog at what may be the finest sf novel I've ever read. Red Mars has all the hard-sf window-dressing that many of us imagine when we think of sf: great and accessible tours through speculative cog sci, geology, astronomy, rocketry, physics, biology, genetics, and so on, until the head swims with the sheer scope of the research task Robinson set himself in this book.

But the hard science is just the skin, and the meat of this book — as with Pacific Edge — is the "soft" science: the complex play of the community of his vast cast of characters as they set out to advance their competing agendas, writing the future of Mars.

Robinson doesn't just shine here: he glows. There is this hard question at the core of every story of violent social upheaval, which is, how does collective action materialize? How is it steered? How does it go off the rails? How, in short, does stuff get done? Can a speech change the world? Can a bomb? Who gets to construct the consensus reality, and how do you disrupt it?

This is the stuff of Robinson's books: big, social questions answered through skilful point-of-view switches, fantastic characterization and fearless exposition.

In the beginning, a lot of sf was just technocrat fantasy: here's a cool new technology I've thought of, with a minimal narrative around it as a kind of turntable so that it can be rotated 360' and you, the reader, can appreciate its cleverness from all sides.

Later, sf writers took on the more ambitious challenge of predicting the social upheaval that tech could create, an approach embodied in the cliche that "the job of the sf writer is to consider the car and the movie-palace and invent the drive-in."

But Robinson goes many steps beyond this: he extrapolates the drive-in, then the sexual revolution, then the Boomers' nostalgia for the drive-in where they lost their virginity, and finally, their grown childrens' disdain for that nostalgia. There's an eerie prescience to these books that tells you that what's being written here is a deep and broad tale of social reconstruction on the micro, macro, nano and mezzoscales.

I just finished Red Mars on a BA flight from Vienna, and I was bitterly disappointed not to find Blue and Green Marses on sale at Heathrow, but I'll have them in my possession by dusk. I can't wait to read them.