This month’s Feature Article will take a look at Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, specifically book one, Red Mars. This will not be so much a review or a critique of Robinson’s work as it will focus on how well this work has stood the test of time during the interval that has passed since its release. Specifically, I will examine how Robinson’s vision of colonizing Mars has fared during the interval, and how I feel that the intervening years between readings has altered the tone and impression of the work. Sadly, I will conclude that since the impetus to that colonization has not moved demonstrably forward, the trilogy reads much differently than it did after its initial release. The theme of this article had already been outlined prior to the rumors that the budget for the Constellation Program was going to be cancelled, and in many ways, that announcement only confirmed what I had felt while reading Red Mars.
Before I dive into that discussion, however, I would like to take a moment to offer some specifics on Red Mars itself. I once would have labeled this work brilliant and visionary. Unfortunately from my point of view, the times have negated the visionary aspect of the trilogy, and even more unfortunate, I’m not sure the brilliant label stands once it gets decoupled from the visionary label. At times I felt like I was left with nothing more than endless pages of Martian geological description and history, so much so that it sometimes became overly tedious and textbook like. I will admit, however, that I am not fond of lengthy terrain descriptions as it is difficult for me to imagine perspective and distance to the degree that Robinson takes it. I have always liked the way Robinson structured his work with lengthy sections from a single character’s point of view, however, and while Robinson can sometimes lose the reader in the obscure details of subject matter, his depth of knowledge and ability to weave it all together is astounding.
I was very happy that during my second reading my two favorite characters in the Mars Trilogy, Saxifrage Russell and Ann Clayborne, still lived up to my original experience, which means that not all of Robinson’s themes have fallen victim to the years. Thinking about the times we now live in, this should not come as any surprise since many of the environmental debates between Russell and Clayborne are mirrored in the current debates regarding global warming. Just as we see ideology and science collide in today’s discussions, we see the same rigid perspectives harden the beliefs of the Reds and Greens in the Mars Trilogy. In many ways, this storyline overshadows the more basic space exploration storyline anyway, and it just moves the debate between preservationists and conservationists from earth to mars.
However, for me, the Mars Trilogy had always been about humans finally freeing themselves from our one world existence and finally taking that first step toward a permanent off-world presence. This was the original power of the trilogy. It let us imagine what was possible, even amid all the political and economic obstacles Robinson erects along the way. Despite Robinson’s expounding of nearly all of mankind’s faults, faults that are exaggerated and exposed in Red Mars and placed as barriers to the colonization by a people free of terrain governments and corporations, Robinson allows the optimism of positive inertia carry the series to its logical conclusion – mankind’s innate thirst for knowledge and freedom will carry them outward to colonize other worlds. This was the optimistic vision that I held during my original reading.
Today, however, the optimism that I had experienced during my original reading was gone, an optimism that had left me believing that one day we would expand beyond our one world and colonize the most logical first choice: Mars. Much of this had to do with the “big science” vision thing that I feel has been eroding ever since the end of the Apollo Program and the cancellation of the Super Collider in 1993, and yet I still had some sense that we were still moving in the right direction, albeit much more slowly than I would have liked. The space shuttle program filled the gap and intervening years nicely, but after thirty years, it almost became a symbol of stagnation as it pertained to manned space flight and a permanent presence in space. Let me note that I don’t consider the three people living in the International Space Station a sign of progress when we are still limited to just those three people after all these years. And I will defer commenting on the United State’s lack of a heavy lift vehicle for another day, although my opinions on the matter should be clear.
So to summarize, during my reread of Red Mars, I no longer could envision any of the future presented by Robinson. It wasn’t the science that I could no longer imagine, but the will. The work which had once been very enjoyable because of the possibilities it presented no longer had that imaginative visionary quality. Robinson’s work no longer seemed to fit with the times, and thus I conclude that it hasn’t aged well. Now another few decades could very well prove Robinson prophetic, and this may be nothing more than a cycle of real world priorities altering our short term actions, but for now, one of the greatest aspects of the Mars Trilogy has been diminished by our lack of will, producing a read that lacks the optimism of the possible. Removing the will to seize this future from the Mars Trilogy thus produces a read that shifts from the optimistically believable to the pessimistically unbelievable.