Green Mars: Revenge of the lab rats

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It took me about 200 pages to get into Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Mars (1994), the first sequel to Red Mars, and even after I connected with it I found myself working through slow patches. Although the inside cover of the edition I read describes KSR’s novels as “thrilling,” I would describe this novel as dense, philosophical, purposeful, detailed… Well, a lot of words come to mind before I’d mention a fast pace.

When Green Mars begins, the surviving members of the First Hundred live in hiding on Mars. Earth, meanwhile, suffers from overpopulation, inequality, political instability, and many ecological problems. The transnats have taken over most of the Terran countries, and they are now expanding their control over Mars to prevent further revolutionary activity. They rebuild the space elevator and begin using satellites to ensure control and to accelerate terraforming. Their terraforming methods are speedy, but they are not designed to accommodate life. For the transnats, Mars is a collection of resources to be extracted by a transient workforce. The First Hundred, however, have a different vision for Mars, as do Nirgal and Jackie, two of many children born on the still mostly red planet.

THE MARS TRILOGY

To be perfectly honest, though I like these characters and am intrigued by these conflicts, I initially questioned whether Green Mars was necessary. Red Mars seemed to imply that Mars was a new start and yet also that there is no such thing as a new start for humanity so long as inequality and ecological imbalances remain. In fact, many of Robinson’s novels suggest that true change is only possible if everyone rises together. We can see this idea especially in The Years of Rice and Salt, where the jati rises and falls together. Robinson uses the jati as a metaphor for our own society: individuals may rise, but until the jati rises together, the entire group returns to this life. In Red Mars, the Martians attempt to start over, but they are forced to acknowledge that Earth remains a member of their jati. The primary antagonist of Robinson’s novels may be a sort of eternal recurrence, and, if so, his heroes encourage us as a society and as individuals to escape it. Regardless, if a statement was needed to ground Robinson’s Martian epic, Red Mars seemed to express it. Why bother with a sequel?

Thankfully, I soon found reasons to give Green Mars my time and consideration. For one thing, the characters interest me. Sax is reinvented as a lover, much to his surprise, and as a military genius. Michel, though still introspective, is no longer depressed and seems in charge of what he wants out of life. (He is even given a viewpoint chapter during a prison raid.) Many of Arkady’s thoughts in Red Mars return here, particularly his views on the impact longevity will have on revolution. More than anything else, I enjoyed that the First Hundred are ancient, their memories are spotty at best, and somehow they indisputably remain badass-action-hero-scientists trying to bring about the revolution. More importantly, Red Mars can be interpreted as undermining the possibility of true change. A vaguely optimistic message about the future is not enough for Robinson, who I suspect wants to explore how to make the revolution. So, in Green Mars, he gives his heroes another chance to get things right.

Some readers will therefore argue that Green Mars is too didactic. On every page, characters seem to be asking how we can save ourselves from entrenched power structures that promote inequality and ecological imbalance. Perhaps the best evidence that could be presented for this critique is that none of the viewpoint characters come from transnats or support the system as it is (excepting, perhaps, Frank Chalmers). This novel’s sceptics might argue that it transparently serves as an inspirational allegory, as the words of one Japanese Martian illustrate:

… we are the true Japanese. What you see in Tokyo today is transnational. There is another Japan. We can never go back to that, of course. It was a feudal culture in any case, and had features we cannot accept. But what we do here has its roots in that culture. We are trying to find a new way, a way which rediscovers the old one, or reinvents it, for this new place … but not just for Mars! For Japan also. As a model for them, you see? An example of what they can be become.

Martian settlers from Japan are trying to create/recreate an ideal Japan to serve as a model for their counterparts on Earth. Green Mars is not just a work of science fiction; it is intended as a model of what Earth can become. So, yes, the novel will strike some readers as too didactic.

And yet, I found myself wondering whether this was really so bad. Science fiction seems especially well suited for imagining how people might live differently. I don’t often enjoy science fiction when the technology and action are more important than what people want to do with it (in other words, the ideals of the Federation are more important than the phasers). I’d further point out that the characters and writing here are sophisticated, achievements that SF’s other didactic allegories sometimes fail to even bother with. Last but not least, Green Mars was written in 1994, but it never struck me, reading it in 2016, as dated.

In the end, Green Mars is a good book, though I would not recommend it without warning or qualification. There are lengthy descriptions of Martian terrain that, although significant considering this is a novel about ecological balance and terraforming Mars, I nevertheless plodded through. I did feel that the themes expressed here could be found in other KSR novels, and perhaps more powerfully in The Years of Rice and Salt. Nevertheless, there are some readers who will go to distant places reading Green Mars. I found it thoughtful, I admire that it searches, and I was impressed by its epic scope. So, having said that, recommended.

Green Mars won the 1994 Hugo and Locus Awards. It was also nominated for the Nebula and BSFA Awards.

Published in 1994. Kim Stanley Robinson’s classic trilogy depicting the colonization of Mars continues in a thrilling and timeless novel that pits the settlers against their greatest foes: themselves. Nearly a generation has passed since the first pioneers landed on Mars, and its transformation to an Earthlike planet is under way. But not everyone wants to see the process through. The methods are opposed by those who are determined to preserve their home planet’s hostile, barren beauty. Led by the first generation of children born on Mars, these rebels are soon joined by a handful of the original settlers. Against this cosmic backdrop, passions, partnerships, and rivalries explode in a story as spectacular as the planet itself.

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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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7 comments

  1. Despite its minor flaws, I love this entire trilogy.

  2. I think you might have pulled me in completely with “badass action hero scientists.”

  3. I definitely want to give the Mars trilogy a try, but already I can foresee that audiobooks are probably not the best approach (unless you’ve read the books first). Still, as I only have time for audio these days, that will have to do for now.

    • Ryan T /

      I’m not sure how audio would work on this. There are extended passages describing natural imagery, and I don’t really love how they’re read in KSR’s other books. There are also a lot of accents, which can be a risk on audio, too. On the other hand, sometimes you can just work your way through a few dozen pages while commuting, which never hurts.

  4. I have read Red Mars at least three times. But I do not think I have ever gotten through Green Mars the second time. I just get bored with it.

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