Blue Mars: A must-read work of science fiction

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBlue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Earth is powerful but overpopulated, and its many billions of people now look at the Martian frontier with desperate envy and resentment. Is war inevitable? Peace in the short term will require a delegation to co-opt the “feudal capitalist” Earth’s selfish politics, it will require history’s most ambitious Model United Nations committee to create a Martian government, and it might also require Mars First’s intelligence community to build an extra-terrestrial alliance against the home world. If that plot summary sounds sprawling, I’m afraid it doesn’t even approach a comprehensive list of what Kim Stanley Robinson explores in Blue Mars, the concluding entry of his Martian trilogy.

Blue Mars is a philosophical work of science fiction and it is sometimes criticized as excessively abstract. These critics have a point. Blue Mars is about a long-term equilibrium that might follow colonizing and terraforming Mars, and it’s long enough that multiple historical theories are presented to explain what happens in the plot. Few novels inspire a recommendation that goes, “if you read Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists and thought you want more details on the 200 year context, read this,” or, “if you read Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and thought ‘yeah but what about on Mars?’ then read this,” or, “if you read Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang and wondered at what margin such acts are counterproductive to establishing a cooperative global community, read this.” Robinson explores our relationship with the planet, the political nature of science, future waves of feminism, the American Revolution, and intergenerational conflict. Yes, that list is wide ranging and it can be abstract, but I still found it more readable than Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. Besides, Blue Mars can also be read as time spent with cherished characters doing their best to make a better world, and their struggle invoked many emotional responses in me, ranging from sadness to joy to revulsion to wonder. Ultimately, I finished the novel in less than a week and regretted putting it off because some readers found it abstract.

Further, in spite of the grand sweep of history these books capture, Robinson’s characters live full lives. That accomplishment is noteworthy. Arthur C. Clarke, for example, captures a grand historical thread in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Dave Bowman is not an especially rich character — nothing against him, but how rich can he be if Hal is more interesting? Robinson’s long-lived Martians, however, fall in love, experience loss, and they feel deep regret. I was especially struck by a scene in which Sax Russell recalls witnessing John Boone’s murder. The scene is clever. First, it brings the trilogy full circle for the reader. Because I read this scene in Red Mars, suddenly I too was back there in that mucky time before the Martian revolution against Earth. Second, like Sax, I was watching helplessly as John was dragged down an alley and I also felt frustration that I couldn’t go back and correct the error. Finally, the sudden recurrence of this long-buried memory captures what I increasingly find one of the most salient experiences of aging. Speaking personally, the older I get, the more past regrets and failures resurface and take over my mind. Sax relives that regret, after having achieved so much in his long life, but the failure remains paralyzing for him. Because we cannot cancel out these failures on Anubis’s scales, our memory seems to bury (or rewrite) them so we can do other things with our lives. While many admirable sci-fi thought experiments (e.g. Joe Haldeman‘s The Forever War) read almost like essays, Robinson’s characters are so convincing that their pursuits, though part of larger allegories, remain convincing.

As I approached the end of Blue Mars, I struggled with Robinson’s depiction of culture, though perhaps in a productive way. These characters are committed to global politics but they are intensely local in their cultural pursuits, which recalls glocalization (sometimes understood as “think global act local”). The Martians participate in local theatre productions that explore politically charged global conflicts; they engage with the land through long meditative excursions that sometimes circumnavigate the planet; they view terraforming as combining science and poetry; they work and study and debate and work — and yet they also always have energy to sing and dance away the evening. All of these things are wonderful, but I’m not sure a Kim Stanley Robinson character would watch Star Trek, go to a Bob Dylan concert, or waste an afternoon playing Civilization. The economy is organized around local co-ops that are loosely regulated within a global governing system, and they hold because there is open land to poetically develop and because culture operates on a local scale that reinforces that level of group identity. The novel seems designed to suggest that the long supply chains and massive networks that allow for our mass market artworks rob the culture of its local power while draining the planet of its resources. I was reminded of Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel Ecotopia, which Kim Stanley Robinson has discussed in a few forums (a possible online starting point is HERE), but what part of America went on en masse to embrace Callenbach’s vision? I came up with crossfit and locovores, but the former now seems like big business and the latter seems to have become Whole Foods as much as it has become farmers’ markets. I interpret the global perspective and local engagement as Robinson’s vision of a fulfilling, meaningful, and responsible society that is also ecologically sustainable. And his treatment of these ideas seems to survive in more recent works such as Bill McKibbon’s Eaarth, Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, or Johan Rockström’s “Planetary Boundaries.” Although I find it an admirable and influential vision, I worry about it given how inadequate and exhausted I feel relative to these utopian astronauts.

Ultimately, I found it fascinating to consider these ideas within the context of an epic novel, which is one reason Kim Stanley Robinson’s MARTIAN trilogy is outstanding. In fact, it is one of the greatest achievements I’ve encountered in science fiction or outside of it. Blue Mars won the Hugo Prize, as did Green Mars, and frankly I’m disappointed that Red Mars did not also win. The trilogy’s ending is affecting and warm in a way that recalled for me Gandalf’s farewell in the Grey Havens. If you’re reading this review to decide whether you should try this trilogy, I say go for it. In fact, I finished it thinking I’d like to go back and read it again.

Published in 1996. Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel • One of the most enthralling science fiction sagas ever written, Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic trilogy concludes with Blue Mars—a triumph of prodigious research and visionary storytelling. The red planet is no more. Now green and verdant, Mars has been dramatically altered from a desolate world into one where humans can flourish. The First Hundred settlers are being pulled into a fierce new struggle between the Reds, a group devoted to preserving Mars in its desert state, and the Green “terraformers.” Meanwhile, Earth is in peril. A great flood threatens an already overcrowded and polluted planet. With Mars the last hope for the human race, the inhabitants of the red planet are heading toward a population explosion—or interplanetary war.

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RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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