Posted by: holdenlee | April 17, 2013

Red Mars

I read Red Mars back in February. It’s one of my favorite science fiction books. I started writing a review/analysis of it when I finished, but didn’t get around to posting it until now. (Thus I gloss over some parts, but I don’t want to give everything away, do I?)

Red Mars is a tour-de-force of scientific imagination.

In short, Red Mars is an epic tale chronicling the colonization of Mars from the first hundred settlers to the millions who immigrate from an overcrowded earth; the slow but irreversible process of terraforming, from the windmills that increase the temperature by a fraction of a degree to ice dams breaking into new seas; and the political forces —business interests, government agenda, the colonists’ desire for independence—that culminate in a senseless war; leaving the reader with a sense that both Mars and the colonists have been changed forever. The characters feel like giants, but they seem like nothing next to the primal forces of Mars. Robinson captures the beauty of the way they persist or break down.

“We terraform the planet, but the planet areoforms us (253).”

As a writer, Robinson is unique in the level of scientific detail—not only in his theories of terraforming, in the harsh realities of Mars that he doesn’t try to simplify—but also in the way that the scientists perceive the world. Having been fascinated with Mars and researched it his entire life, Robinson is uniquely qualified to write this epic.

Below the fold I will describe my reactions to the novel, why it is extraordinary from both a scientific and literary standpoint. (Warning: spoilers)

A tour-de-force of scientific imagination

When I say “scientific” I mean that everything is grounded in science:

  • astronomy
  • bio-engineering (developing bacteria)
  • geology (to study the history of Mars)
  • robotics
  • materials science (how to use local Mars materials to build their cities)
  • economics (money drives their society in the same way it does on Earth)
  • even psychology (everyone is slightly crazy).

This is a necessity as the first one hundred settlers are the top scientists from all over the world, and Robinson shows us how science colors the world behind their eyes: their fascination with each of their subjects (so you can’t help but be interested in these various fields), the scientific analogies they make when thinking about their daily lives.

Hiroko: everything is different in a closed system (46).

You learn about Mars: for instance, why the difference between summers and winters are much greater (the orbit is more elliptical).

In the first part (2-3) of the novel, we follow several out of those hundred as they build up habitable cities, start to dream about a future Mars and release the agents that will transform it. And they have disagreements: some of them (Sax, Arkady, Nadia) let themselves be guided by the dream of Mars as a new Earth done right;  others, led by Ann the geologist, believe in preserving the Mars as a stark symbol of nature.

In the second part (4-6), the illusion that the first 100 control Mars’s destiny is swept away. Larger forces are at play here: the “transnationals,” unrest on Earth putting pressure of immigration to Mars. And despite their best efforts, they can’t keep the society they’ve built up from collapsing.

Robinson does not romanticize. His science is hard, but there is beauty in how his characters respond to the unfeeling hand of scientific reality. In the voyage out they encounter a solar flare and have to all hide in a chamber behind 4 huge tanks of water and metal to avoid a lethal dose of radiation (how many sci-fi books tell you that traveling in space is not at all as simple as it sounds?).

With the extent of the danger precisely charted on screens and graphs, they were beginning to feel less helpless. This was illogical, but naming was the power that made every human a scientist of sorts (58).

Sax’s best terraforming efforts have unpredictable results such as the increased frequency of dust storms.


Robinson makes each one of the characters unique. Everyone has some reason for coming to Mars, and Mars transforms each of them in a unique way. The characters change each other. By shifting between characters, Robinson develops them deeper, by showing through the others what each character is blind to about him or herself.

  • Chronologically (Part 2), we are first introduced to Maya Toitovna, the leader of the Russian team. Her attentiveness to the goings-on of other people—and her tendency to dramatize those goings-on—helps the reader take a pulse on the entire team. However, her extraversion seems to be her flaw: her emotions roller-coaster as she gets in relationships she can’t extricate herself from, destabilizing those around her as she is torn between John and Frank. She is manipulative, taken by charisma and power, and always finds ways to justify her actions. She admires John’s heroism and Frank’s politicking skills.
  • Nadia (Part 3) is Maya’s foil. She is the engineer, the practical one, and she seeks fulfillment through her work. She thrives on thinking of the day-to-day problems of life on Mars, letting them fill the gaps in her day; through her eyes the reader appreciates the depth of the scientific undertaking. To Nadia’s annoyance, Maya relies on Nadia as a source for stability, asking her to mediate her fights with John and Frank.

    Nadia: “It was infinitely more interesting to talk to Hiroko–real conversations, about real problems in the real world… Mutual professional respect, a great maker of friendships (115).”

  • Ann the geologist, came because she “fell in love” with Mars. While the others are focused on building the base, she wants to explore; she is quiet, preferring the company of the landscape to that of other people; she fights to preserve it.Ann says to Nadia:

    “There’s two kinds of activities here, there’s the exploration of Mars and then there’s the life support for that exploration. And here you’ve been completely immersed in the life support, without paying the slightest attention to the reason we came in the first place [exploration] (133)!”

    And she changes her in this way(141).

  • Arkady is the rebel. He wants to make Mars their own: make their own government, break away from ties to Earth. He is bold, and doesn’t fear retaliation.

    “I for one have no intention of repeating all of Earth’s mistakes… We are the first Martian colonists! We are scientists! It is our job to think things new, not to make things new (61)!”

    “You all lied [on the Revised Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a psychological test used to screen candidates], you know you did!… I lied in answer to every single question!”

    He loves Nadia for her practicality and intelligence (“the conventional men get Maya (188)”), but his rebellious side shows through at the end, and he becomes a rally point for all the rebels. Actions taken on his behalf are more drastic than he intended, and in this way he brought upon his own destruction, when the fall of the space elevator killed him.

  • Sax is the leader behind terraforming,  fascinated with his models of Mars.
  • John Boone (Part 4) has hero status as the “first man on Mars” on an earlier expedition. He revels in adventure and excitement, and enjoys talking to people, so we see how people of different cultures view Mars.

    “When he asked questions, people leaped to answer like salmon in the stream.”

    As a hero who defies chance, John fosters an eternal  optimism in creating a new, unified Mars. He is the mission’s symbolic leader. Quick on his feet, he takes on the role of detective and narrowly escapes assassination attempts several times.

    “He had been operating under the unarticulated theory that if he only saw more of the planet, visited one more settlement, talked to one more person, that he would somehow get it–and that his holistic understanding would then flow back from him to everyone else, spreading out through all the new settlers and changing things (284).”

    And then, just as you are caught up in his vision, his voice comes to an abrupt end. “The day John Boone was assassinated… (384)”

  • Frank Chalmers is interested in politics. Politics is the reason that he murders John. And the pointlessness of politics and his guilt lead to his depression, even though he gains back Maya from John. He disdains those who don’t understand politics as not caring about the world.

    Ann, to Frank: remember what thinking is.

  • Michel is the psychologist in charge of the hundred’s well being. From his insight into personality in Part 4, we better understand all the other characters, with his labile/stabile, introvert/extrovert dichotomies and his rationalization of their relationships (220-221). Maya and Frank are choleric (labile and extroverted), John is sanguine (stabile and extroverted), Nadia, Sax and Hiroko are phlegmatic (introverted and stabile), and Ann and himself are melancholic (introverted and labile). Yet Michel himself is plagued by hallucinations.(I like stories which analyze themselves on some level.)
  • Hiroko is the biological life-support system expert, and her vision is to make a completely self-sustaining environment (65). She heads the farming group on the spaceship, and they become very withdrawn from the rest of the 100. She starts a nature-worship cult and disappears with them to build a separate society.

    “Someone has to show what you mean when you talk about a different life, John Boone. Someone has to live the life (374).”

Set each of these people in motion, and what happens? They, as part of the 100, represent forces larger than they are—and they change the world, literally.

Change: How Mars breaks them, and how they persist

“They were just as likely to end up resembling an undergraduate dorm at a technical university, occupied by bizarre pranks and lurid affairs (31).”

Though this is not quite how it happens. Many withdraw inside themselves, in a way, or form subcommunities within the 100 where they are more comfortable.

  • John Boone realizes he is not in control.

    “history was like some vast thing that was always over the tight horizon, invisible except in its effects. It was what happened when you weren’t looking–an unknowable infinity of events… He had been the beginning… to think that the whole thing was accelerating not only beyond his control, but even beyond his ability to comprehend…(283)”

  • Frank realizes the meaninglessness of his politicking, the “high” he got from bending others to his will was meaningless:

    “The tiny imaginary audience inside his head did not exist; no one watches our life movies (409).”

    He continues politicking, automatically, disgusted at everyone else’s naïveté: “historical analogy is the last refuge of people who can’t grasp the current situation.”

  • Michel becomes disillusioned. Why did I come here?

    “[Michel] could not remember why he had fought so passionately to go to Mars… [When he was eight years old he would seek Mars out, the stead, faint, red star]  Nothing explained that… as well explain why they had painted in Lascaux, why they had built stone cathedrals into the sky. Why coral polyps built reefs. (222).” “Living in the most beautiful place on Earth, and he had walked about in a fog of desire for Mars!”

  • Sax retreats into his models, and Ann withdraws as well.


Martian life is different. It’s the accumulation of little details that hit you:  a day on Mars is 24 hours and 39.5 minutes, and at midnight, all the clocks stop moving for 39.5 minutes. The Russians compare Mars to their homes on the tundra, the Arabs compare it to their home in the desert. The dust is everywhere.

“There’s parts of Martian reality that don’t make it across the vacuum [to Earth].”

Politics rears its ugly head, and we see sabotage and espionage, then rebellion, revolution, and finally destruction.


The scenes of destruction at the end are some of the most powerful I’ve read.

The space elevator falls,

fantasy DNA from a macroworld of pure light, plowing into our universe to germinate a barren planet (509).

Ann feels the destruction of Mars almost viscerally:

The landscape itself was now speaking a kind of glossolalia. The inchoate roar smashed at the air, and quivered their stomachs like some bass tearing of the world’s fabric (546).

At the end the they have nothing but their vehicle, trying to outrun the waters now flooding the canyons.

But they survive. And it’s a new beginning.

This is home. This is where we start again.

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