Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review: Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Red Mars (Mars Trilogy, #1)Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read this for a book club, but I ended up missing the book club, and finishing it more than a week after the meeting. It took me forever to slog through, and I nearly nodded off more than once during my reading.

In a near-future setting, 100 scientists are sent to colonize Mars. Once they get there, they find out that they're not all in agreement about how to accomplish that. The story takes place over a long span of time, during which thousands of people from Earth emigrate, a "space elevator" is built, people are murdered, projects are sabotaged, and the planet is forever changed by the arrival of people.

Part of the problem with the narrative is that it's incredibly scattered. I don't know why the scientists aren't sent with an agreed-upon agenda, but it would've saved a couple hundred pages. The bickering over whether to terraform and how to do it soon becomes tedious. If they weren't meant to change the planet, why send them at all? As we all know, remotely controlled rovers can study the planet without changing it or endangering the lives of the finest minds of their generation.

In addition to the above problem, we have a political treaty with the governments on Earth that takes up a good chunk of the narrative, descriptions of the Martian landscape I found hard to follow, a love triangle that never really goes anywhere, different factions undermining one another, an anti-aging treatment being developed and its repercussions touched on, and the science behind their terraforming efforts explained in excruciating detail.

The science is good. Robinson extrapolates a number of theories we've since found to be true, and gets across the alien nature of the landscape and its unique challenges. And yet, I never felt like I was really there. One of the characters, Maya, remarks that it feels like they're in a simulation, and that's how the entire book felt. Like none of this was really happening, and that we were dispassionate observers of things that didn't matter. I waited for the book to reveal that they were really in a virtual reality to test their readiness for colonization. Not that I would've liked that ending, but it would've explained so much.

The book is told through a few different perspectives: the aforementioned Maya Toitovna, Nadia Chernyshevski, Frank Chalmers, John Boone, and Ann Clayborne. Maya is described by all of the other characters in gender-stereotyped and unflattering terms, but she was the only character I connected with at all. A few of the other one hundred scientists are discussed, but not enough of them that I felt there were a hundred. The book could've benefited from trimming that number down to the twenty or so it actually discusses, and leaving the background work to automated machinery.

Other reviewers have said they hated the characters. I would've, too, if I ever cared enough. I never felt like they were real, though. They do terrible things for apparently no reason other than that they can. It's not that they're unsympathetic; it's that they're cartoon cutouts moving through a plot on rails. When characters died, I felt nothing but relief I wouldn't have to try to keep track of them in this scattered narrative anymore.

And the book really failed to impress me when it repeatedly referred to a group of nomadic people as "gypsies."

Overall, reading this book felt like watching an ant farm for hours and hours and hours. The ants are busy at work shaping their world, while you sit outside the glass, completely unaffected by whether they succeed or fail. I think it was supposed to be a metaphor about colonization or how we've hurt the Earth, or something, but it was too scattered to say for sure. It felt like I'd wasted my time reading this book, and I was mad at myself for bothering to finish it.

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