Wednesday, 2 August 2000

Kim Stanley Robinson: Green Mars (1993)

Edition: HarperCollins
Review number: 560

The second of Robinson's trilogy continues the story of the colonisation of Mars where the first left off. The series fits very snugly into an established science fiction tradition; colonisation of other planets has long been a favourite theme in the genre. As the years pass, we have come to know more about the other planets in the solar system. Conditions on Mars, for example, have gradually become understood to be harsher and harsher, so that Edgar Rice Burroughs could write about a dry and warm Mars with a breathable atmosphere, while Robert Heinlein could still write of a planet on which a human could walk unaided by insulation and breathing apparatus for a few hundred yards. Both of them envisaged a planet inhabited by ancient civilizations. It was really the Viking and Mariner probes which showed that this was not the case, and that Mars was far colder, more barren and had less water than had previously been supposed.

At the same time, the technology which could be used to colonise a planet has advanced, as well as our idea of what could be done. This has meant that there is space for a new vision of Martian colonisation every few years, each with greater detail and less vagueness compared to its predecessors. Robinson may well stand at the end of this line; the beginning of the process as he describes it is generally close to current technology. Most of the extrapolations are small and obvious enough, at least in the first two books (which take the story up to 2127). The possible exception to this may be the gerentological treatments, drastically increasing the span of human life (at least, for the rich and important). Since the main uses of this are not germane to the colonisation process (it's major purpose is structural, to make it possible to have a group of characters who span the entire trilogy), it is not a particularly important issue.

The importance of the trilogy as a whole is clear, but the stature of the second part is distinctly (and inevitably) lower than that of the first. In Red Mars, the scene is set, the major characters introduced and the terraforming process set off; the challenges to be faced and overcome are in many ways greater. The main issues here are political, as those living (and, indeed, born) on Mars become more and more bitterly opposed to the rapacious exploitation of Martian resources by the ruthless metanational corporations of Earth. Robinson hands the character based political interaction far less well than the astronomy and engineering of Red Mars - a traditional failing of science fiction writers.

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