Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Book Review: Red Mars

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson 
1993 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel

Hold on for a second while I catch my breath.


Okay, thanks. Well, I finally arrived at the end of Red Mars and has it ever been a journey. I can't even remember when I started the book, but I know I've been reading it for a long time. Reading Red Mars has been, really, quite an exhausting effort. The book is long, heavy and slow, but also rich with character, sociology and science (real science). Usually, when I actually picked up the book and read it I thoroughly enjoyed myself, but I never felt like reading it when I wasn't. Because of this, I spent a great deal of time reading other books while I crawled through this one.

Robinson's work has been called "literary science fiction" and it's easy to see why, he deals well with the issue.  In many ways, modern science fiction has a lot of similarities to Victorian literature, and Robinson embodies this to the fullest in its obsession with detail, its desire to portray a whole society, and its interest in the effect of environment on the individual and vice versa. Indeed, Robinson's long and detailed descriptions of the Martian landscape reminded me very much of George Elliot's description of the English countryside in The Mill on the Floss.

There was a long stretch of time where I wasn't sure if I liked this book. The pace is plodding and most of the characters are not very likable. Also, this piece is hard science fiction in the truest sense of the term and can get bogged down in technical details (there's even a section where Robinson has a chart showing the Martian calendar). Still, on the whole his portrayal of the science is effective and not boring, and it helps to ground the story. Also, the above-mentioned descriptions of Mars really help to make the setting come alive, and really portray the wonder and the alien nature of the planet. While Robinson takes a long time to get things moving, this allow him to make a convincing portrait of a human society developing on Mars, and the ultimate payoff is worth it (unlike, for example, the payoff in Dune). 

Still, the book is not perfect and I really wish there were more characters I liked. Perhaps it's a weakness of mine, but I really have trouble with fiction that lacks people I can admire (this was the problem I had with the new Battlestar Galactica). I'm also not a fan of the fact that the only Christian character in the book is a particularly nasty person, and it is too some extent stated that this is because of her beliefs. Of course, bad Christian beliefs can lead to nasty people, and the belief that this is the cause of her nastiness is in the mind of someone with a bias, so the writer is not necessarily portraying this as cold hard fact. Particularly painful was the discussion early on in which the Christian character and an atheist have an argument about the merits of faith and the Christian's retort is a pathetic straw man. I also have a distaste for the sexual morality of the characters. Of course, many people have this kind of morality, but, as I've said before, I tire of it being the norm in all of the fiction I like.

Ultimately, Red Mars is a very solid book and a worthwhile read for those who like science and sociology, and who have an unusual amount of patience.


  1. I just looked this up on Amazon and realized I've seen this book before (but never read). I take it you won't be reading the two sequels???? This sounds like James Michener's Alaska but on Mars.

    Anyways, I am going book shopping tonight and checked this book out first because I liked your review. I am going to be reading science-fiction literature for the first time in about a decade (and my first foray into actual fiction since I burned out on my literature degree in college in about five years). I take it this is a pseudo-recommendation. What else do you think I should try?

    PS: I started slow and have been reading media-tie ins (Mass Effect books) and am shifting to Foundation with Asimov but any recommendations are appreciated.

  2. I'll read the sequels eventually. For one thing they're both award winners and I've got a goal to read all of the hugo and nebula winners.

    Anyway, as long as you can take the slow pacing it's recomended.

    As for other recomendations, I'd suggest David Brin's Uplift War and Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark. Anathem is another good but slow science fiction novel. I've got a review of both up.

    Ringworld is interesting for the aliens, though the story is uninspiring.

    You've probably read Fahrenheit 451, Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead and Dune before, but if not you should read those.

    If you want to read more tie-in novels, there's a series of Deep Space Nine books acting as an eigth season for the show. As far as I've read those are pretty interesting. They start with a duology named Avatar.

    If you want an wasy but enjoyable read, K.A. Applegate has a young adult series called Remnants. It's batty and far from literary, but it's fun nonetheless.

    C.S. Lewis has a really cool science fiction trilogy, though it's outdated science wise and of course very Christian. There's also Lweis's unfortunate mysogony in the third book.

    On the fantasy side of thing I'd recomend Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Anansi Boys, American Gods and Stephen Lawheads Pendragon Trilogy.

    Enough recommendations for you?

  3. Plenty! I read the first six or seven DS9 'season 8' books and loved them though I stopped buying after that Gateways malarchy tried to swindle my cash. I would be so lost if I started picking back up where I left off (can you believe the series has been over for 10 years!).

    I'll give Uplift War a shot, I think. Is that part 1 of a saga or stand alone?
    I am actually going to re-read Dune so I'll check that off the list. I haven't read any Orson Scott Card yet. . .I'd like to, personal views of the author aside. I've read a bit of Brin and liked it. I was thinking of trying some Greg Bear. I heard that is some hard sci-fi as well. Especially the book Eon.

  4. Uplift is part of a trilogy of sorts, but not dependent on the others. You can read it as a stand alone (which is what I did)

    I haven't read Greg Bear yet, though I do have a book of his.

    As for Card, I still strongly recommend those two books(though not the two that come after). The offending opinions don't come up in them, and you could always get it from a library or second hand bookstore so as not to support said opinions financially.