Wednesday, 3 May 2000

Kim Stanley Robinson: Red Mars (1992)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1992
Review number: 488

Stories about the colonisation of the other planets in the solar system have long been among the staples of the science fiction genre. Robinson has created a compelling update of this theme, which has been comparatively unfashionable in recent years - as it has become more apparent just how hostile to Earth's lifeforms the other planets will be. Robinson's Mars is the lifeless, frozen desert revealed by space probes; the problems faced by the initial colonists (the "First Hundred") are those of survival in an environment far more dangerous than Antarctica, rather than relations with natives (as has frequently been the theme of earlier novels of Martian and Venusian colonisation).

Earlier writers used their colonisation stories to highlight concerns about social issues important to them which seemed relevant to their theme - imperialism, revolution in former colonies, civil rights. Robinson does much the same, with a different set of issues: environmental over-exploitation, the power of multinational corporations and over-greedy capitalism, the way that developed countries act as predators on the third world (the word is used by Robinson).

The story of the first colonists, from their training session in Antarctica to the space flight itself to conflicts between different ideologies among the First Hundred and back on Earth leading to sabotage and unrest, is told as a series of quite lengthy independent episodes which concentrate on about ten of the Hundred. These characters, obviously created to represent different political and social viewpoints, are well drawn, all of them imperfect, most sympathetic.

Robinson benefits both from today's greater knowledge about Mars - even in the seventies, stories were still being written in which human beings could survive unprotected on the surface for periods of several minutes - and from more detailed ideas about how terraforming could be carried out. This provides a background which is convincing though pessimistic (particularly in its Malthusian analysis of Earth's society). Red Mars has deservedly become one of the best known science fiction novels of the nineties.

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