Thirty years have passed since Red Mars was published. Considering that in 1993 the internet was in its infancy, and cell phones were nonexistent, Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel holds up well. His chronicle of the countless problems involved in colonizing a hostile planet is what makes this book compelling.
Just surviving the trip to Mars is a daunting challenge. The international crew of scientists must deal with a deadly solar flare, endless emergency drills, boredom, and personality conflicts during their six-month journey. Upon arrival they set about creating a habitat using sophisticated construction equipment sent ahead of them by unmanned landing craft.
The scientists are brilliant, yet prone to pursuing their own agendas in deciding what Mars will become. One faction wants to terraform the planet to create safe living conditions, while another is concerned with preserving its natural integrity. This creates conflicts among the various leaders, especially John Boone and Frank Chalmers, both romantically involved with the same woman.
Much of this book is about geology and weather. Robinson has obviously done an enormous amount of research. He takes us on detailed tours of Mars, describing its characteristics and dangers, such as an enormous dust storm lasting several years. I found myself referring repeatedly to a map of the planet at the front of the book as the narrative leaped from one site to another.
What I enjoyed most were the innovations the scientists used to perform their tasks, such as giant roving machines, and small windmills scattered about the planet to heat the atmosphere. Robinson has imagined everything in great detail and speaks with an authoritative voice.
Inevitably, the Mars colony comes under threat from the same force that has plagued humanity since Creation: the beast within. New generations of immigrants create enormous social problems that echo the persistent chaos back on Earth. Robinson suggests that no matter where we go in this vast universe, our flaws will pursue us.
Red Mars can be difficult to follow at times, as the author records the progression of events in broad strokes. I was disappointed in the foul language pervading the book. Still, it is expertly crafted, and probably the most pragmatic novel yet written about the future of space travel.