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The Mars Trilogy

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

At the time the first novel in this series was published it may have seemed a realistic account of how humanity could colonize and terraform the red planet. The space shuttle program had weathered the setback of the Challenger disaster and was back on track, and plans were in place for the construction of the International Space Station. This was during Clinton's first administration, which saw a reversal of the country's budget shortfall, but as we all know now that was short-lived. Most of the science fiction written today is either of the space opera type, or military-centric, or alternate history/Steampunk. Other than Ben Bova's "Grand Tour of the Solar System" and what Charles Sheffield was doing before he died in '02, I'm hard pressed to think of any other scientifically realistic, forward-looking near future scenarios from the past decade or so. Robinson's Mars Trilogy harks back to early Arthur C. Clarke or Robert Heinlein tales of the exploration of our solar system, but it trumps them in spades because not only did Robinson have more information about Mars to deal with, he obviously did his research and included so much detail on the process. This is the type of story that helped me fall in love with the genre, sparking my imagination for the glories of which man is capable, but even I have to admit it's highly unlikely to occur in my lifetime, if even the lifetime of my great-grandchildren. Or at all, for that matter.

Red Mars was published in the U.S. in January 1993, and won that year's Nebula award. It must have been released earlier in the U.K. since it was named best novel by the British Science Fiction Association for 1992, or else the information I've been able to find is in error. In addition, it was nominated for Hugo, Locus and Arthur C. Clarke awards. It would be easy for the reader to assume that Robinson is a scientist, but his degrees are in English and literature instead. It is evident he is a thorough researcher, as well as having a keen interest in the space program himself. All of the scientific specialites that would be involved in such an undertaking are convincingly interwoven through the books, from physics, geology (or rather aerology), biology and physiology, as well as engineering and the soft sciences of psychology, sociology, economics and political theory. There is an assumption that the author makes that was necessary for his tale, but is likely an exaggeration of actual conditions. He depicts a Mars that has large aquifers of water/ice under the surface which are tapped to aid in the terraforming efforts. As I type this, the Mars Science Laboratory with the Curiosity Rover has just launched, scheduled to touchdown on Mars in August 2012. It will look for signs of water and possible microbial life. I doubt it will discover water (or water ice) in anywhere near the quantity that Robinson postulated, but time will tell.

As detailed as the science is, the author did not overlook the most important thing in fiction, the characters. The First Hundred, the crew of the Ares which lands on Mars in 2027, is comprised of a wide range of character types, as one would expect to find in any group of that size. They include scientists from all the disciplines and from many countries, but primarily the U.S. and Russia, with a few from Japan and at least one, the psychologist Michel Duval, from France. The most prominent characters are: John Boone, the first human to set foot on Mars (on a previous mission in 2020); Frank Chalmers, former head of NASA and at one time Boone's best friend, but also his rival, both professionally and personally; Maya Toitovna, Russian cosmonaut and the woman who comes between them; Hiroko Ai, Japanese expert on biology, botany and agriculture systems; Arkady Bogdanov, Russian engineer with anarchist leanings; Sax Russell, American physicist in charge of the terraforming efforts; Ann Clayborne, geologist who opposes terraforming, at least until Mars can be fully studied in its natural state; and Nadia Chernyshevski, Russian engineer, good friend to Maya, and perhaps my favorite character from this group. There are others of course, but more on that later, as I will mention a few as I discuss various elements of the story.

Of course I don't want to go into too much detail so as not to spoil anything for those who haven't read it, but I feel the need to touch on a few points so you can understand why I like it so much and recommend it. Let's start with the realism. This applies not only to the science but the characters and plot as well. During the long flight of the Ares there is a solar flare storm, and the crew has to take shelter in an inner, well-shielded compartment to avoid over-exposure to radiation. During this time in cramped quarters there is much conversation, and most discover they are not the only ones who lied on their applications and in interviews during the selection process. I suppose a lot of us have personality quirks or political thought that we try to conceal in certain situations and around different people, and such is the case with these brilliant scientists. The psychologist Duval says he was fully aware of this happening, and admits that even he falsified some information in order to make the cut. I believe this scene also featured the first mention of Bogdanov's proposal that they ignore directives from Earth and establish their own priorities, and even a new social order based on their unique situation. This is most vocally opposed by Phyllis Boyle, another geologist who favors sticking to the letter of their contract with UNOMA, the United Nations Office for Mars Affairs. She must have already had strong ties to UNOMA, as well as some of the transnational corporations footing the bill, since she later attains a high position of authority.

The majority of this novel deals with the mechanical process of adapting to the Martian environment, including details of several construction and research projects, and while it naturally includes many scientific terms and situations, they don't overwhelm the narrative. It is there just to illuminate the process and it is easy to identify with the characters and what they are doing, to visualize the terrain and the weather they encounter. The best part of the characterizations is that everyone is unique and distinguishable from their colleagues, their actions are consistent, and while not all are sympathetic, they are believable and identifiable. If I had to criticize anything it would be not enough detail on certain aspects. This first novel encompasses nearly thirty-five years, and quite a few of those years, several of their projects and the communities they build, are skimmed over in just a few paragraphs, or at most one chapter. But more detail would have lengthened the books, or forced more than a trilogy, and they're already almost two thousand pages in paperback. Mars is a smaller planet than Earth but actually has at least as much, if not more, land area to explore, even if you don't include the polar ice caps. Each of the main characters are followed in separate chapters, sometimes with their stories overlapping, and since the novel covers such a long time period other characters are introduced along the way. It does not take UNOMA long to authorize further expeditions, and the First Hundred are joined by scientists from several other countries, all of whom have their own priorities and unique ways of adapting to the Martian environment. Both of these groups are referred to as issei, the first generation.

Terraforming begins because several things need to change for Mars to become more habitable. Number one on that list is the thickening of the atmosphere to block more of the sun's radiation. In order to do that the planet's temperature has to be raised and more water vapor and oxygen added. Raising the carbon dioxide level would aid in raising the temperature, but that would also make the atmosphere more poisonous to humans, and thus counter-productive, so a balance has to be found. And in the midst of this there is Ann Clayborne, who vehemently opposes all terraforming efforts, even if it means man would not be able to remain on the planet for long. She takes the purely scientific viewpoint of the geologist who wants to study the planet as it is, knowing full well that terraforming will destroy the natural elements that have remained relatively unchanged for billions of years. Thus she becomes the first Red, and later others join her cause, with a few of them even more radical in temperment. Those who want to reshape Mars for human habitation are knows as Greens, but there are many different factions within both groups as well as various viewpoints that fall in between the two extremes.

A few things may be hard to accept about the plot, mostly the scope of the undertaking and how quickly some things happen, as well as exactly how huge some of their projects are. If it was up to just the U.N. or its main member countries the expense would be too great. But the majority of the funding comes from transnational corporations, some of whom actually control several Earth governments. Add to that the fact that most of the projects are built by self-replicating robotic construction crews, utilizing minerals they have just mined from the planet, or in some cases asteroids. Those robots in turn are controlled by AI computer systems. In a section of Blue Mars Sax Russell mentions that it had gotten to the point that all one needed to do was formulate the proper template of facts to feed into the AI, and the computer would do all the work. In that context, it's a little easier to accept. One of the biggest feats is a space elevator, anchored near the volcanic crater Pavonis Mons on the equator, and tethered to a captured asteroid (renamed "Clarke") which is placed in a synchronous orbit around Mars. Ann Clayborne is not the only one who argues against this project, but most of the other First Hundred support it, because without it to circumvent the planet's gravity well they fear the corporations will bypass Mars and go directly to the asteroids to mine for the minerals they need.

Unfortunately, once the elevator is complete, the transnationals implement increased emigration for all mining projects, which leads to crowded conditions and a work force that feels disenfranchised and exploited. By 2057, the human population of Mars has increased to over a million. Frank Chalmers tries desperately to negotiate with several groups who have gone on strike, as well as organizing a committee to update the original UNOMA treaty to alleviate the situation. Things settle down for a few years, but the transnationals circumvent several points of the new treaty, and eventually several Mars factions independently strike out against them in a bid for independence. This action fails. In addition to all the scientific intelligence concentrated on Mars, other human traits were brought along, among them self-serving arrogance, greed and jealousy. I won't name names, but several of the First Hundred do not survive to the end of the first book. Some die from accidents, others from acts of war, and at least one from murder. Red Mars ends with the rest of the First Hundred on the run or already in hiding, since they are aware UNOMA and the transnationals' individual security forces have targeted them as criminal revolutionaries.

There is a slight shift of focus and style in Green Mars. The 1994 Hugo winner is not devoid of scientific inquiry and action, most especially in its second half, but at least in the beginning it has a different feel, still one of process, but now more organic than mechanical. The author seems to be more concerned here with the why rather than the how. Each chapter or section still follows an individual's work over a long period, but now we get more of what they are thinking about the process rather than the process itself. This is where we also meet Nirgal, who is a nisei, a native born Martian of the second generation. Subsequent generations are called sansei and yonsei. Nirgal is the son of Hiroko Ai and Desmond Hawkins. I skipped over the exploits of Hiroko in the first book. She was the colony's foremost expert on agriculture, most especially enclosed systems like the hydroponic farms aboard the Ares, later the greenhouse farms around Underhill, the first city on Mars. She and her associates kept to themselves and their plants, rarely interacting with the other explorers. Desmond is someone we didn't even know by his real name until the second book. He was an old friend of Hiroko's, a stowaway on Ares, hidden in the farms there and also on Mars. During the first book, whenever he was mentioned it was as if he was a myth, a phantom creature known only as Coyote. Even after everyone learned his name they still preferred to call him by his nickname. He was an adventurous sort, taking many solitary walks around the Marscape, learning little by little how to survive on his own in the harsh conditions. He was another Red like Ann Clayborne, deeply in love with the desolate planet.

Even before the conflicts with UNOMA and the transnationals, Hiroko and her followers had disappeared without a trace from Underhill, not to be seen again for many years until a reunion organized by John Boone on the occasion of the first ice asteroid brought to Mars to increase the water vapor in the atmosphere. By the time of the failed revolution of 2061 she had fashioned a home underneath the south polar ice cap, and that is where Nirgal was born. Several others of the First Hundred found them later after escaping from UNOMA troops, and Nirgal received an eclectic education from the likes of Maya, Nadia, Sax, Michel and Ann, as well as learning survival techniques from his father. The first section of this novel details a long period of Nirgal's life, culminating with a trip he takes with his father to other underground communities of the "disappeared," as well as to cities still controlled by UNOMA and the transnats, although by this time the agency has been renamed UNTA, the United Nations Transitional Authority. It is a strong belief that UNTA is now directly controlled by the corporations, by this time referred to as metanationals.

In our time the term multinational corporation is common, describing companies than have offices, factories and employees in several different nations. At the beginning of this series, Earth year 2027, those have morphed into the transnationals, many of which have direct control over some of the smaller countries. Metanationals are essentially several different transnationals that have merged, and their control over governments has grown even stronger. Even the U.N. is just a figurehead organization controlled by the metanats, with only the World Court desperately trying to protect individual rights from these giant corporations. Emigration has continued unabated, and the terraforming and mining projects have proceeded unchecked. Several large mirrors are now in orbit of the red planet, increasing both the sunlight and the amount of heat that reaches the surface. It is surprising that amidst all of this activity and metanat control there is also a growing number of communities that are practicing "underground" activities in the open. They are referred to as the demimonde, and while I'm not sure why Robinson chose that term I suppose it implies that UNTA and the metanats tolerate these activities as a necessary evil, and of course there is a high probability that many of these groups have been infiltrated by spies.

One thing the underground has been good at is forming a chain of information between the various groups, and Nirgal is already well known for his intelligence and social magnetism, so everywhere he goes he is greeted warmly, and in the case of quite a few girls, passionately. It's almost as if he was John Boone's son rather than Desmond's, since the First Martian was a very charismatic figure. It is possible that he did inherit some of Boone's DNA. Nirgal and others from his generation in Hiroko's camp are known as the "ectogenes," since their gestation was in vitro, and it is also quite possible Hiroko was not the only female to contribute to his chromosomal makeup. We also learn that with the aid of Swiss diplomats several of the First Hundred and other issei have received new identities, new passports, and in some cases new faces. Sax Russell is one of these, and he goes to work for a company called Biotique, which is genetically designing new species of plants to thrive in the terraformed environment. There were a couple of things about this book that I felt was not quite realistic. As the underground becomes more organized a large number of them meet in a remote location to hammer out their differences and attempt to fashion a document of principles, a blueprint for a free Mars. This conference goes on for a long time, several weeks at least, and quite a few of the participants are those who had been openly working in UNTA controlled cities. I would think their disappearance from the cities would have been noticed. Another thing, both Sax and Maya are working in the cities, and while Sax had some cosmetic surgery, Maya did not. There were a couple of times when aquaintances called them by their real name and not their aliases, in public amongst quite a few other people. So much for their new identities, but nothing really came of that so I had to shrug it off as something Robinson did unawares.

Again, I don't want to go into too much detail, so I'll just skip to the fact that this seeming stalemate doesn't last. As more and more people emigrate to Mars, as the number of humans born on Mars increases, there is more unrest as people begin to realize just how little control they have over their lives. The Reds have increased in number, many of whom are radically inclined to kill all UNTA and metanat officials, or at least throw them off the planet, as well as destroy the elevator. The underground becomes more organized, but the leaders feel they need to wait for a trigger event that will make it easier for them to win this time. That event happens on Earth and comes unexpectedly, but they are ready, and the second book ends with a (somewhat) successful revolution. There are casualties of course, and UNTA still controls the space elevator, but otherwise the cities are free of enemy troops. Now comes the hardest part, fashioning a new government for Mars which is home to so many divergent ethnic groups and ideologies.

The process in Blue Mars (Hugo winner for 1997) is that of social order. After the revolution all of the Martian settlers must come to grips with the various factions and nationalities to form a united front against Earth and UNTA, something that is never fully realized until many years later at the very end of the trilogy. The Reds still want to keep Mars in as much a natural state as they can, even though that is impossible considering the terraforming already accomplished. The Greens want to make a deal with Earth to allow immigration which will help the mother planet in a very perilous time in its history, and yet there are some in that group that later come to regret that decision. A constitution is written and a government is formed, with as many checks and balances and as many political factions represented as possible. Then they are able to get back to the job of the many scientific research projects that had been started, along with new ones, or just living the life that a free Mars now afforded them. Most towns become cooperatives, the land, farms, buildings and services owned by the people at large. Small buisness capitalism is allowed and encouraged, and for the first time in their lives most people are able to choose what they want to do without worries of financial burden.

That is not to say there is no conflict, far from it. The most radical Reds engage in systematic "ecotage," destroying aqueducts and other water facilites, along with plants that continue to add greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Ann Clayborne does not condone, nor does she denounce, such activities. Instead she withdraws to the most remote region she can find, that of the caldera of Olympus Mons, content to explore an area at the highest altitude on the planet, and thus one least touched by terraforming. On several occasions Sax Russell attempts to appease Ann in the hope she can finally accept Mars as it is, not as it was. Earlier in this review I had mentioned that Nadia was my favorite character, but toward the end I was leaning more toward Sax. Nadia was the most level-headed of the First Hundred, content to do the work they were sent to do, able to focus on that and interact well with all of the others. She was as apolitical as any of them, which is ironic considering her eventual fate. Sax was the typical absent-minded "mad" scientist, intent on the terraforming process and always buried in thought, rarely interacting with anyone else, alienating Ann in the process. But in the final book he comes to realize how much he has hurt Ann, tries to right his wrongs and prove he is worthy of being her friend.

One thing I have yet to mention is that Vladimir Taneev, along with his co-workers (and co-wives) Ursula and Marina, have developed a series of gerontological treatments which helps repair damages to DNA strands due to aging. Almost everyone takes these treatments periodically throughout their lives, increasing their life span considerably. News of the treatments reaches Earth, and at first is reserved for the Haves of the developed nations, later given to almost everyone, prompting worries of over-population and increased pressure on Mars to receive more immigrants. Thus we have the surviving members of the First Hundred still active and involved in Martian affairs at the end of the trilogy, even though the entire saga encompasses nearly two hundred years. At the end of Blue Mars it is the year 2215 and Maya Toitovna is 230 years old.

Robinson's prose is very fluid and exciting, and even the more technical aspects of the science is captivating to read. His characters are fully realized and believable, and even when they change over the long course of the story that is believable and realistic too. He delves into the psychological effects of long life, which lends itself to several explorations of human nature. Just as the scientific advances that got them to Mars in the first place, and that continued apace all the years after, enabled so many fantastic accomplishments all across the face of the red (then green, then blue) planet, their increased life spans enabled the people to explore so much of their own capacity for thought and personal growth. Not only freed of financial worries but also the dibilitating effects of aging and disease, they tackle scientific theories and engineering problems with such vigor that they are able to transform not only Mars, but many asteroids and outer solar system moons into habitable places as well. There is even brief mention of new propulsion systems that have sparked several expeditions to other stars that host terraformable planets.

As I stated earlier, the only negative thing I can say about these books has nothing to do with what Robinson gives us, only what is lacking. That brief mention of the extra-solar expeditions is much like so many other places throughout the three books that screams out for more detail. The full stories of several characters was also lacking, or at least were not developed in the way I had expected, Nirgal particularly. What we did get is some of the best written, most realistic and thought provoking situations and characters I can recall from nearly forty-five years of SF reading, I just wish he had given us more. At least one more complete novel, if not two, would have been about right to encompass all the details hinted at. There was a follow-up story collection that I have yet to read. The Martians reportedly contains alternate stories for several of the characters from the novels, or in some cases new characters, and if I'm not mistaken some things might contradict events in the trilogy. Perhaps some of them were deleted from the books when Robinson decided to take the character in a different direction. If and when I read it I'll know for sure.

In conclusion, if you haven't read this trilogy I think you should as soon as you can, at least if realistic hard SF with great characters appeals to you. If you have read it I feel confident you would agree it is one of the best series the genre has ever seen.


Related Links:
Kim Stanley Robinson's website

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Kim Stanley Robinson


Red Mars - Nebula, BSFA
Green Mars - Hugo, Locus
Blue Mars - Hugo, Locus

All in print and available from Click links above.