Green Mars

Kim Stanley Robinson
Green Mars Cover

Green Mars


Green Mars is the sequel to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars which won the Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo, Clarke, and Locus in 1993.  Red Mars was an amazing bit of speculative hard SF, with a large cast of characters and some very interesting socio-political themes woven into the narrative.  Like many books on my shelf, Green Mars is one of those that I’m almost certain has been staring at me accusingly, eyes silently crying “why haven’t you read me.”  I tried to meet it halfway by purchasing it on Audible, but at the time I wasn’t quite ready to listen to a book that was 20+ hours long, so it peered at me accusingly from my Audible queue for over a year now as well.

Well, having cowboy-ed up and taken the plunge, I’m happy to report that, after somewhat of a slow start and the usual long stretches of social/political/scientific/philosophical speculation that Robinson is wont to splurge on, the book picks up and has a positively thrilling second half.  The book opens 60+ earth years after the First Hundred set foot on Mars, and 40+ years after the first failed attempt at a Martian uprising against the trans-national megacorporations that controlled and exploited the planet.  Remnants of the First Hundred (who are spry for their age thanks to the geriatric treatments that make them functionally immortal) have been deemed dangerous, seditious terrorists, and they have been either on the run or in hiding ever since.  The book opens on a hidden colony (more like a commune) run by Hiroko, Maya, Nadia, Sax, Anne, Peter, and a group of the first generation of native martians that Hiroko spliced together from the DNA of the First Hundred.  The story follows the terraforming developments on the planet in the past few decades and shows characters debating the future of Mars and falling even deeper into divided camps over the subject,  which really builds up an obstacle for our protagonists who either have to unite a lot of disparate factions to overcome the transnationals.   While it took a while for me to really get into the book, I found Green Mars to be a rewarding experience that follows up nicely on Red Mars’ themes of ecological responsibility and colonial rights vs. exploitation.  It’s a contemplative novel, not an actioner, following the fights and foibles of scientists who have been there since the beginning of human development of Mars and are still trying to figure out how to care for it responsibly.

A New Era: What Green Mars Does Well

One of the best aspects of Green Mars is how Robinson presents the competing ideas about how Mars should be treated.   What’s more is that he makes us aware of just how ideologically problematic the colonization of another planet can be!  The transnational corporations want to exploit it for resources and to hurry up the terraforming so that they can use it like a second Earth.  Members of the First Hundred, like Sax, also want terraforming just to make it less onerous for humans to live on the planet  These are called the “Greens.”  The “Reds” are those who want Mars to stay as it is, and it’s not until later in the novel when this position becomes something more than an aesthetic or archaeological one: if the surface was livable, Mars would become a second Earth with an untenable mass immigration and a direct importation of all the problems that is making Earth a terrible place to live (the logos of which trumps the pathos of the “but it wooks pwetty” argument of the aesthetic Reds).  These groups are only general labels and are not monolithic: some of the Reds favor partial terraforming as some of the Greens do, some favor violence while other’s don’t, some want to establish an anarchy state while others recognize the need for a new ordered system, something new and definitely Martian, while yet more want to import and revive old-Earth cultures that have fallen by the wayside.  It’s a messy configuration with no clear right or wrong, just like real life.  Using multiple characters with varying beliefs and underlying ideologies, Robinson is able to conduct the debate on how to treat Mars without any one particular character becoming his mouthpiece, which is quite refreshing.

The characters debate each other in meaningful ways, a debate that I find myself conducting in my head and which, were this part of a book club, could be vigorously conducted between readers of Robinson’s trilogy.  Robinson effectively presents the plethora of problems and opportunities created by Mars, and in Green Mars the difficulties of trying to unite people with different philosophical, scientific, or religious ideologies under a common cause is made believably complex.  The Martians can agree that they want the transnationals who just want to exploit the planet as a resource out, but they bicker and feud over how they should run the planet after.  In one particular section, entitled “What Is To Be Done?”, the debate really heats up in a convention of members of all the disparate groups.  This is one of the best sections of the book in that all of the different viewpoints are heard and, once again, Robinson presents each of their concerns seriously: there are no straw man arguments.

Characterization follows off of this multiplicity of viewpoints.  The varying perspectives of the surviving members of the First Hundred, as well as new perspectives from native Martians like Nirgal, provide a suitably large cast of characters for Robinson’s very ambitious project.  The narrative can feel disembodied at times, which can hurt the characterization especially if you haven’t read (or don’t remember much of) Red Mars, but once the book starts juxtaposing different perspectives and ideas the characters start to feel more distinct and even vibrant.  Most of the character’s viewpoints feel distinct and believable, as though they are real individuals

There is a ton of hard science in this book.  As a layman, I couldn’t tell you how much of it is accurate, but I think  Robinson is a master of weaving hard science with the speculative stuff in a way that it all feels believable. This is some of the hardest science in any SF I have read, particularly in terms of the composition and geography of the planet.  There are no (from what I can tell) ridiculous leaps of science or technology, aside from the gerontological treatments that allow for perfect cell division and enable people to stop physically aging in their 50s or 60s.  Robinson’s speculation on the social and ideological implications of such a treatment is pretty stellar as well.  Offering functional immortality to those who can afford it creates an uproar on Robinson’s Earth and adds an entirely new layer of complexity to the politics of the story.  Some more reality is injected into the treatment by showing the long-term effects on the First Hundred, namely some fuzzy memories of their time on Earth and their early years on Mars.  As a thematic device, the gerontological treatments work wonders for the book.  They mean that Robinson can continue using characters from the first books as witnesses to the long process of Mars’ change; in essence they are accountable for the ecological change, unlike the average idiot who drives an H2 for no reason thinking “screw the future, I’m going to enjoy my gas guzzler now.”  On a more pragmatic level, the treatments seem like a better choice for Robinson’s ambitious project than introducing an almost entirely new cast of characters in each book.

Robinson’s speculation on how culture, language, customs, and even entertainment would be different on a colonized Mars.  People use the planet as either a new start for old traditions and religions or an opportunity to create something totally new.  You have representatives of various religions (Christianity and Muslim to name two prominent ones in the narrative), philosophies (from avowed anarchists to agricultural communes) .  The result is a melange of people and beliefs from all over Earth, which shows how a variety of people would create a variety of communities given the space and a large degree of freedom.

Hard science fiction can age pretty damn quickly, but Green Mars has the fresh feel of something that might have been written only a few years ago, not almost two decades ago.  Still, it’s not without it’s flaws, as I will discuss in the next section.

Little Green Problems: Where Green Mars Could Have Been Better

I had a problem with Hiroko, and it is this:  Hiroko is effing crazy, like pants on head crazy, but she is never adequately challenged in the way that every other character is challenged on his or her views.  Robinson posits here as a kind of fertility goddess, a sort of spiritual mystic who, along with her Gaia theories of one-ness with Mars, keeps the mystery of life and the reality of our animal nature as a check against the disembodied intellectualism of hard science that threatens to define Mars.  Well, that seems to be the thematic intent, but she’s pants-on-head crazy, and arrogant. She used genetic material from the First Hundred (with or without consent) to populate the first full generation of  native Martians, some of which she carried in her own womb.  I’d have a problem with anyone, man or woman, who declares they have the right to populate their own species of human, especially when they are as distant from both characters and me as the reader as Hiroko is.  She is mother to many but close to none, and her deity-like aloofness is a major problem for me in this series.  As mentioned in the previous section, one of the key strengths of Robinson’s series thus far is to present distinct and competing ideas about how Mars should be handled by humans.  Even though Hiroko’s Areophany, a respectful stance towards the planet that entails living with it not exploiting it, is something I can get behind, it’s so tied up with her fertility goddess schtick that seems to be all about her (whether or not that is her intent) that I cant’ sympathize with the position much.  It’s like she decided she just wants to be worshiped as an avatar of the planet.

I can live with disagreeing with Hiroko’s position, but what I can’t get past is the fact that we never see Hiroko’s side from her perspective, nor does anyone debate it with her.  Of the surviving First Hundred, she is one of the most pivotal in this book, and yet she is also the most inscrutable.  She is one of the few of the First Hundred in Green Mars who never becomes a viewpoint character in Robinson’s third-person omniscient narration.  As I’ve already said, debating the planet’s future through characters with competing ideologies and motivations is where the book really comes alive, but Hiroko’s goddess thing is never adequately contested, never debated openly a la Anne and Sax’s debate on terraforming, even though all of the characters agree that she is pants-on-head crazy.  In the end, they just kind of go along with it and peck at each others’ ideologies instead.  It’s as though Hiroko won he immunity token at Antarctic Survival camp before the mission to Mars, so she is exempt from criticism.   She is an enormously important character in the book, particularly in one section where there is basically a dues-ex Hiroko moment that makes the whole revolution bit work, but despite this she is never given  in-depth scrutiny of morals and character that almost all other central characters endure at some point.  This really irritated me.  I read this as Robinson saying either she is as aloof or inscrutable as a goddess, or her position is simply not up for serious discussion, which, either way, seemed ridiculously inconsistent on Robinson’s part.

Speaking of missing viewpoint characters, I really wanted more from Art’s individual perspective.  Art is an Earth-born businessman and diplomat-of-sorts who is sent by a corporation to make contact with the Martian underground.  As an Earth-born human seeing and experiencing Mars for the first time, he provides a nice counterpoint to Nirgal’s perspective, which is one of a Martian-born who knows nothing else.  But Art’s perspective is cut short when he makes contact with two of the First Hundred and his individual perspective becomes swept up in the torrent that is Robinson’s third-person omniscient narrative style.  There is so much about his first-hand experience of Robinson’s Earth and about Art’s perception of the strangeness of Mars that is just kind of lost once his perspective is integrated with the rest.  Art would have provided a wonderful opportunity to let us in on how dire things are on Earth, which directly affects the corporations in control of Mars.

Even though it is mentioned several times in the book, I never got a good idea of how bad things were on Earth.  Presumably this is something that Art should have brought to the table, just as Nirgal provided a Martian native’s perspective.  Alas, neither Art nor other characters give us a good idea of what is going on back on the home world.  There are resource problems due to a barely-restricted application of the gerontological treatments, so people in the first world (the prime energy and resource users) are living indefinitely longer while the third-world is dying off….and that’s about all I could figure out.  That said, this is a book about Mars and the Martians who are trying to define themselves in contrast to Earth, and maybe trying to shoe horn in all the Earth stuff and describing two worlds in detail would have been too much for Robinson.  From what I’ve seen so far, however, he certainly has the chops to pull it off.  The general situation on Earth is alluded to so often and delved into so minimally that it feels like a cop out or a deliberate attempt to keep the focus on Mars.  I’m undecided on this point.

All of the hard science research and speculation that went into this book is staggering, but if you are a layman like me your best reaction may be “oh, that’s cool.”  It’s almost oppressive at times, the way it is thrown out there.  I feel that, to adequately appreciate this book, I would have to read it next to my laptop with Wikipedia open.  For example, if you like geography and geology, you will love this trilogy.  If you don’t, you are going to have to find a way to endure long rover trips across the martian plains and mountains with lots and lots and lots of description of land formations and rock/soil/regolith composition.  I felt that some of these sections might have been shortened.  Yes, they emphasize just how, even though Mars is smaller than Earth, it is still a big and empty planet that is strange to our eyes and minds, but unless you want to look back and forth between a map and look up some geographical/geological terms on Wikipedia as you read, then these sections will be frustrating.  The political/ideological discussions about what to do with Mars are, by contrast, much easier to wrap one’s head around.

As mentioned earlier, there are some good action scenes to spice things up, but there are also others that are frustratingly anticlimatic.  Sax does some undercover work (well, sort of) and after a tense moment he worries that he may have been discovered.  I was all a-twitter with tension, and then the next line is  something like “several weeks later,” which completely broke the excitement of the moment.  When the tension finally broke and he was discovered, his actions afterwards felt kind of truncated and anticlimactic compared to the build up  before it.  This happened a few times, much to my dismay.

Concluding Thoughts

After a slow start, I warmed up to Green Mars (pun intended).  It’s a highly contemplative book, and you have to get used to Robinson’ s patterns of hard-science speculation, philosophical debate, and, at times, wild shifting of viewpoint perspectives, but once you do and once the conflicts get a’ boilin’, it’s easy to see  how and why this book snagged the ’94 Hugo award.  I’d thought that some of the most interesting among the First Hundred died in the first book and that this one wouldn’t be as interesting, but Robinson has shown some considerable care here in following up on Red MarsGreen Mars has a lot of the best stuff of Red Mars, but uses enough new elements to keep it feeling new and vibrant.  I definitely plan to read Blue Mars and finish the trilogy, but I will definitely need a breather after working through the text and the big ideas of Green Mars.