Monday, July 28, 2008

Review - Red Mars

Red Mars
by Kim Stanley Robinson
1993 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

This was the beginning of my Bataan Death March of science fiction. When I read this by page one hundred I was in horror that I still had over fifteen hundred pages to go. Somehow it actually managed to get worse as I went along and considering I hated Red Mars that's saying something.

Red Mars tells of the join US/Russian mission that lands on Mars to create a permanent colony. What follows is a set of linked novellas where they fool around, argue about terraforming, and develop immortality. Earth starts shipping up anybody they can shove in a rocket building the population and the first people on Mars wander around and deal with them. Eventually the fact that some of these people don't like Earth's policies drive the government to try to publicly assassinate them and murder hundreds of thousands of civilians in the process.

Unlike some books that I hate I know exactly why Robinson's Mars trilogy managed to rack up awards. In spite of the paper thin plot and characters Robinson put in a lot of detail on "practical" terraforming. The majority of it wouldn't work nearly as well as he said, there's several things that violate the laws of physics, and even with the Phoenix lander's findings the massive underground seas theory that was popular in the early nineties has fallen out of favor. Despite that it is a very solid effort in describing how terraforming could proceed.

And if Robinson had put that into a book then my opinion might have improved a bit. Instead he dragged out enough plot for one four hundred page book to three six hundred page books. I'm not joking when I say I could cut seventy-five percent of the books, cram it into one volume, and lose nothing of significance.

Part of the reason for this is that Red Mars starts Robinson's love affair with geology textbooks. This is where the pages long descriptions of dead landscapes begin as Robinson attempts to squeeze in ever land formation in the glossary into his book. Sadly that's not an exaggeration; I would do a direct comparison using some of my geology books but since I realized what was occurring after I started reading the Mars trilogy I would have to reread them in order to demonstrate this. There's no way I'm doing that even at gunpoint.

As you might have guessed from the plot description not a whole lot happens in the book. There are events but they're so spaced out between the landscape descriptions and character moments that it doesn't matter.

The characters are the real problem here. Robinson builds his book on the characters since there is not much of a plot for them to work with. So obviously they have to be interesting, dynamic individuals whose interactions are capable of carry a massive tome on their own. They're not.

Robinson tells the reader constantly how brilliant the characters are. He tells us that they are the best of the best. The average age of the team going to permanently colonize Mars is late forties and there's no one younger than their mid-thirties. In their actions, however, they act like junior high school students on a field trip. On the whole they're whiny, passive aggressive, losers. We're told they're great but we never see it and the examples of their "brilliance" aren't really that smart. I hated every single one of the characters and I was quickly reduced to the eight deadly words: I don't care what happens to these people.

I didn't care about their tangled love lives that a mature adult could deal with in seconds. I didn't care about their infighting which should be resolved by having an effective command structure. I didn't care about their petty schemes which seemed more like kids plotting to make someone look bad than a real plot. This book quickly drove me to just not caring and yet it went on and on with nothing happening.

The best thing I can say about Red Mars is that it is simply a bad book. The Mars trilogy doesn't hit those really aggressive levels of awfulness until the next book where Robinson really adds in his sociology and economics ideas into the mix while somehow making the books even slower.