Blue Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson

blue-mars-by-kim-stanley-robinsonGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Bantam Doubleday
Published: 1996
Reviewer Rating: four star rating
Book Review by Richard R. Horton

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One of the most impressive ongoing hard science fiction epics of recent years has been Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. Red Mars won the Nebula award, Green Mars won the Hugo, and Blue Mars is the eagerly-awaited third volume. [Blue Mars later won another Hugo.]

Robinson has tried to portray, in considerable detail, the story of the colonization and terraforming of Mars, beginning in 2027 and continuing for some 200 years. He has worked hard to get the science right, and to this reader, it is very real-seeming, impressive and interesting. (There is some debate among people who know their science really well about some of Robinson’s details. Robinson himself has admitted to fudging the time scale of terraformation (compressing maybe 1000 years of likely effort to 200 years) in order to keep the story at a human scale. The only serious issues I have with the rest of the science (keeping in mind that I am not nearly as knowledgeable as many people) are his large reliance on nearly autonomous machines (in part, this is a personal dislike); and the somewhat hand-waving and near-miraculous introduction of radical life-extension technology (this last being in part another strategy to keep the story “human-scale”, as it allows him to have some characters survive the entire trilogy).)

Red Mars told the story of the initial colonization of Mars, first by the “First Hundred”, a joint Russian-American expedition, then by Earth-dominated, mostly corporate-controlled colonists who followed to build on the efforts of the “First Hundred”. It ended with an unsuccessful revolution against Earth’s domination of Mars. The Red in its title referred to the pristine, unmodified, planet. Green Mars advanced the story of Mars’ colonization, introducing many second- and third-generation characters, and ended in a generally successful revolution which established Martian independence. The Green of the title refers to the greening effects of terraformation.

Blue Mars, then, continues the story of independent Mars. A significant conflict, continuing from the first two books, is that between the hardline “Reds” (who wish Mars restored to as Mars-like a condition as possible), and nearly everybody else, who are to one degree or another “Green”, wishing to maintain Mars as a comfortably human-habitable planet. It is a little harder to decide exactly what the Blue of the title means: one reviewer suggests water, which is plausible, as much of the book is set on water. Alternately, it could be regarded as simply an extension on the visual spectrum: what is after Red and Green: Blue. Another view would be that, since Blue Mars is to some considerable extent about rapprochement between the Reds and the Greens, and also between Mars and Earth, that Blue is to be read as a compromise color between Red and Green. For me, however, the key to the meaning of this title is in a moving passage in the middle of the book; where one of the main characters, having formed the habit of “cataloguing” the changing Martian sunsets, and analyzing their color, sees one sunset which is a perfect blue, color of Earth’s sky. Thematically, this would suggest both the rapprochement between Earth and Mars, and a “Sky’s the Limit” theme to the future, in Robinson’s utopian view.

The action of the book, like that of the first two, is presented in a series of novella-length parts, each somewhat independent, each from the viewpoint of a different character. Many of the First Hundred return in this book as viewpoint characters of sections, as well as some of the later generation members introduced in Green Mars, and at least one new, significant, character for this book. To me, Robinson’s best work has always been at novella length, so this plays to his strengths. (Indeed, his previous “novels” Icehenge and Escape from Kathmandu are both assemblages of novellas; in addition, he has written such outstanding novellas (or novelets) as “The Blind Geometer”, “Black Air”, “The Lucky Strike”, “A Short, Sharp, Shock”, and my favorite Mars story, not part of the official Mars trilogy, “Green Mars”.) The linked-novella form also allows significant jumps in time, important in a story which takes place over such a long time (about a century for Blue Mars, I believe). A negative effect of this structure is a certain slackening in the overall story: as I have said, Blue Mars seems mainly to be about the rapprochement of Red and Green (quite movingly symbolized on a personal level by several segments which deal with the personal rapprochement of long-time “enemies” Ann Clayborne, the leading Red, and Sax Russell, the first terraformer); but in addition it is concerned with rounding out the overall story of the colonization of Mars, and for Robinson this means considering the future of the rest of the solar system as well. Thus Blue Mars has sections set on Earth, on Mercury, and in the moons of Uranus, as well as visits to Venus, the asteroids, and the others of the Outer Planets. These sections are quite interesting, but also seem to result in a certain dilution of the overall effect.

Besides his interest in the “hard” sciences as played out in the gut-level details of the exploration and terraforming of Mars, Robinson is very interested in “softer” sciences, and much of the trilogy is concerned with politics. I found the discussions of politics quite interesting, though a bit biased (but generally a pretty fair attempt is made to show most sides of the various issues). There is not one but two extended descriptions of “constitutional conventions”. Robinson also takes on the sociological effects of life-extension: and here he seems a little less sound. He tries to depict the effects of great age on people, and makes some good points, but is not quite convincing. More tellingly, I think he severely underplays the negative population effects of life-extension. Robinson is, it seems to me, a Utopian at heart, and he is a little too sanguine about people almost automatically adopting (solar-system-wide) policies such as one child per couple.

Blue Mars, by itself, is a pretty successful trilogy closer, but not quite successful as a novel. I still rank Red Mars as the best novel of the series: it had a more coherent structure, was set over a shorter time-period, and featured my favorite writing of the series: the ecstatic novella “Falling into History”, its central section. Still, it is only fair, I think, to consider the Mars trilogy as a unit, and as such it is very successful, very worthwhile. Almost inevitably, there are longeurs, and the multiple viewpoint character approach sometimes blurs the impact, sometimes results in tedious chapters. (I, for one, could have done without every one of Michel Duval’s sections over the three novels.) Robinson’s writing is clear throughout: for the most part he seems to have purposely trimmed his prose: at times the writing becomes a bit clipped or telegraphic, and only rarely does he wax lyrical, or ecstatic.

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