Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars

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I can’t believe I read the whole thing.

One of Kim Stanley Robinson’s characters put it best:

And then Russell had had even more spectacular damage inflicted later on, as she recalled; hard to remember; all the First Hundred’s stories tended to blur together for her, the Great Storm, the lost colony, Maya’s betrayals–all the arguments, affairs, murders, rebellions, and so on–such sordid stuff, with scarcely a moment of joy in the whole thing, as far she could tell. (Blue Mars, page 518, Bantam paperback)

The two thousand pages of the Mars trilogy left me agreeing with Zo. This is not, as it is advertised to be, the ultimate in Mars fiction. Moving Mars by Greg Bear covered the political and social issues just as well and had a plot to boot. Bova’s Mars gave a more convincingly hazardous first landing scenario. Edgar Rice Burroughs (A Princess of Mars and ten sequels) is more fun to read. Even obscure samples of the art, such as Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars and Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time Slip, at least possess the virtue of being novels.

Robinson’s erratic, fragmentary tomes most resemble the previous classic in the field, The Martian Chronicles, although he hasn’t Bradbury’s excuse of having written them as short stories beforehand. Even his flood of language, in which many passages feel more like a thesaurus than a prose work, can be traced back to an earlier Mars:

The Men of Earth came to Mars. They came because they were afraid or unafraid, because they were happy or unhappy, because they felt like Pilgrims or did not feel like Pilgrims. There was a reason for each man. They were leaving bad wives or bad towns; they were coming to find something or leave something or get something, to dig up something or bury something or leave something alone. They were coming with small dreams or large dreams or none at all.. (The Martian Chronicles)

Robinson seems to have broken every rule in the book, and gotten two Hugos and a Nebula award for it. He’s set “show, don’t tell” back thirty years. He’s neglected the basics of plot in favor of a fragmentary overview of centuries of future history. His characters, while well-crafted, are largely unsympathetic.

His approach to scientific ideas is sometimes magical, as in the case of robots who build the Martian infrastructure almost unsupervised. Usually, however, it’s exhaustingly exhaustive, as if saying all the right words (and all their synonyms) about a laundry list of scientific theories were a substitute for a plot. And sometimes his ideas seem to be at odds with one another–did he make the colonists immortal just to give them enough time to watch the terraforming? And then mortal again to provide an ending for the trilogy?

None of this is to say that the trilogy was not well-written. It may even be an excellent example of a modern literary work which happens to be about scientists and Mars. What it was not was a science-fiction novel. I used to think that everything in the genre–whatever its weakness in character, science, or scene–had to have a plot. Perhaps no one has tried before to pass a series of character vignettes, scientific lectures and flights of description off as a novel before because no one has had those and only those talents. But I think it’s something else.

Realism is antithetical to science fiction–in the real world, we’re sitting on our duffs here on Earth rather than reaching for the stars. Early on in the trilogy, the characters gave me the feeling that if Man was like this, I didn’t want us to spread to other worlds. That’s not the feeling one expects when one picks up a science-fiction novel. Sci-fi is an epic genre, and epics ought to have heroes. Give me John Carter any day.

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