*Red Mars* by Kim Stanley Robinson, a review (modest general spoilers)

by on November 2, 2017 at 2:14 am in Books | Permalink

What if you had a closed, isolated society of 100 people, half male, half female?  Russian and American.  Politics depends on the family and on sexual relations, and since you can’t predict how the sex will evolve, you can’t predict the politics either.  That lowers stability, but terraforming will bring you some dynamic TFP, introducing additional chaos.  Put it all on Mars.  Then let the plot meander but remain interesting, and introduce a transformational religious cult figure.

I look forward to reading the sequel.

1 Ponyman November 2, 2017 at 2:28 am


2 mkt42 November 2, 2017 at 4:16 am

I haven’t read the trilogy but long ago a friend recommended them. If I ever get around to reading science fiction again, they’d be among the first books I’d read. And maybe that Chinese author, and some cyberpunk.

I’ve read about three SF novels in the past 20 years: Weir’s “The Martian”, Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, and Scalzi’s “Red Shirts”. “The Martian” was good old-fashioned SF but the most interesting SF-themed book that I’ve read over those years was a biography: “James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice P. Sheldon”. Tiptree’s SF writing was extraordinary; Tiptree’s strange and tragic life was equally so; and the book does them both justice with it’s own insight and balanced judgements.

3 Artimus November 2, 2017 at 5:33 am

I quite enjoyed the trilogy, for what its worth.

4 Cyrus November 2, 2017 at 7:22 am

As is often the case, the first book of the trilogy is the standout. I spent the latter two volumes wistfully agreeing with characters when they occasionally wished that certain characters who appear only in volume one were still here

5 Tom T. November 2, 2017 at 7:34 am

Way too plodding for me.

6 Adam November 2, 2017 at 8:24 am

No body wants that one happen to anyone. If you loo around what is occurring to people, they are treated like animals. Communities are being divided and citizens are not tolerating each other. This would be good experience to watch it.

7 A Truth Seeker November 2, 2017 at 8:41 am

So that is it. America has already sold out Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine to the riussian regime. Jow, it is Mars’ turn. I wonder what Presidents Madison, Monroe and Theodore Roosevelt would have said about it.

8 dearieme November 2, 2017 at 9:03 am

“I look forward to reading the sequel.” Which pages did you read? Did you find the even-numbered tended to be better than the odd-numbered?

9 B.B. November 2, 2017 at 9:57 am

He added a fourth volume, so it is now a tetralogy.

I find him strong on geology and ecology. But weak on sociology and very weak on economics.

As for the technology he describes, I think he is at least two hundred years premature.

There are echoes of “Dune” in his description of how the cold dry planet of Mars is turned into an Earth-like planet with oceans and breathable air. Alas, Mars has too little gravity to maintain an atmosphere, so terraforming would not be sustainable.

I do enjoy the tensions he describes between the techno-optimists who want to terraform Mars into a human world and the radical environmentalists who want to keep Mars unchanged. There is a delicious irony in that the “Reds” who want to keep Mars natural are radicals who want nothing to change. Radical and reactionary at the same time.

He has the “star trek” attitude of a future in which there is no economics. Production just happens with advanced technology. It is the USSR Gosplan with phasers. I find the same thing in the novels of Arthur Clark. It is Heinlein who seems to get that our basic economic issues won’t change in the future.

10 VTProf November 2, 2017 at 10:38 am


11 Kyle Rose November 2, 2017 at 12:24 pm

AIUI, it’s not actually the lack of gravity: it’s rather the lack of a magnetic field that causes the solar wind to tear the atmosphere away.

12 JonFraz November 2, 2017 at 1:42 pm

Venus has no magnetic field and it’s much closer to the sun– yet its atmosphere persists.

13 Hazel Meade November 2, 2017 at 1:41 pm

It has an atmosphere for about a billion years or so. I think humans can work with those time scales. There could also be some long term atmosphere replenishment scheme. Burn up a few asteroids every few hundred years or something

14 Hazel Meade November 2, 2017 at 1:42 pm

Had not has

15 JWatts November 2, 2017 at 7:26 pm

I suspect that Hazel has it right, the timescale’s for atmospheric depletion would be measured in centuries.

16 Hazel Meade November 2, 2017 at 8:40 pm

At least. More likely millions of years, or tens of millions.

17 JonFraz November 2, 2017 at 1:42 pm

Re: Alas, Mars has too little gravity to maintain an atmosphere, so terraforming would not be sustainable.

It would mean we would have to be continually doing things to terraform the planet– though much of that effort would eventually be done via basic life forms, and perhaps nanobots. The former are basically what has terraformed Earth (our planet did not start out anything remotely like what is is today).

18 Alistair November 3, 2017 at 7:51 am


His economics is laughable, and it totally wrecks the politics he tries to build. TSR has no idea how human societies actually work; what you get is a sense of how human societies would work in an engineer had built them.

19 celestus November 2, 2017 at 9:58 am

“Politics depends on the family and on sexual relations…”

It’s a trilogy, male author…so is it by the end of book 2, or the middle of book 3, that everyone realizes that the poly lifestyle actually *reduces* sexual jealousy and *improves* psychological health and human welfare, and why didn’t anyone on 21st century Earth ever realize that? Just too brainwashed by societal mores, I guess.

20 psmith November 2, 2017 at 12:14 pm

STRONG guesswork.

also, via Kontextmaschine on tumblr:
“Like, Kim Stanley Robinson will write these great epic sagas about politics and ecology and postcapitalism and the role of scientists in society, all sorts of settings, and good money says there’s gonna be intergenerational sex in a public bath.”

21 Hazel Meade November 2, 2017 at 1:45 pm

Yeah. We don’t get to that pointment until book 3 but by then it’s just one giant polyamorous sex party.

22 Alistair November 3, 2017 at 7:53 am

Theres an alarming amount of evidence in their works that Sci-Fi authors are geeks that just don’t get enough action.

“I am so turned on by you enlarged parietal lobes” she whispered huskily, “explain to me the technical features of the design again?”

23 Ryan T November 2, 2017 at 10:01 am

I’m glad this book has made an appearance on MR. You’re really doing the homework in preparation for Andy Weir CWT.

24 Yancey Ward November 2, 2017 at 10:19 am

Like Cyrus wrote above, the first novel is the good one. I would chuck the other two of the original trilogy into the garbage can.

25 Hazel Meade November 2, 2017 at 10:37 am

Highly overrated books.
The characters are not really engaging, and the plot is very derivative. It’s mostly just a scaffolding for setting up a bunch of archetypal ideological positions and doing a bunch of thought experiments in how they would approach colonizing Mars. Sort of like a book version of Sid Meier’s ‘Alpha Centauri’. You get your radical environmentalist, a capitalist, you pure scientist types.

26 Chip November 2, 2017 at 10:46 am

Agree. I tried one of his books – can’t remmeber which – but the combination of flaky economics and out-there environmentalism was tiring. A good writer and story can get me past that, but that wasn’t happening either.

Iain Banks has the same themes but I can read the stories over and over again.

27 Richter November 2, 2017 at 10:46 am

Your description makes me more interested in the book, not less. Plot and characterization are great, but they’re not the only reason I read fiction.

Also, Alpha Centauri relied on Red Mars for inspiration, not the other way around.

28 Hazel Meade November 2, 2017 at 10:53 am

Not surprising. I really enjoyed Alpha Centauri. It’s responsible for getting me to read ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’. But it’s still just a video game. I’m not saying the Mars Trilogy is valueless. It’s interesting in certain way, but it’s just not an example of great fiction. You won’t want to read it over and over because you love the story.

29 Alistair November 3, 2017 at 7:56 am

Agreed. It’s a dramatization of an ecology/geology textbook.

Compare unfavourably with Dune, which actually GOT the nexus of environment / economy / culture right.

30 CM November 2, 2017 at 11:01 am

His other books are like this as well. Elaborate, interesting thought experiments that can be interesting but are coupled with bad characterization, weak plotting and occasional howling conceptual mistakes. He gets rapturous reviews in the sci-fi press that used to suck me in but now I resist.

31 JonFraz November 2, 2017 at 1:48 pm

He can write beautiful descriptions too– I loved the description of sunrise on Mercury with which “2312” opens. But at the risk of sounding like a prude, his books are oversexed. I’ve seen less outré stuff in gay pornos.

32 VTProf November 2, 2017 at 10:43 am

I hated Red Mars when I read it in undergrad. Hated it when I read it again last year. Yes the social dynamics are interesting, as is the science. But the author reveals himself as one of those colossally annoying scientists who think their expertise in one area makes them experts in economics and politics. The swipes at [his dim conception of] contemporary economics that he puts in his characters’ mouths would be childish even coming from an arrogant freshman poli-sci major.

33 Hazel Meade November 2, 2017 at 10:54 am

Yes. I should point out it is tiresome the way he portrays the “capitalist” leader as an abrasive corporate stooge.

34 Viking November 2, 2017 at 12:59 pm

There is some dialogue where the one of the Russian protagonists patiently explains the fallacy of the conventional view that capital hires labor, it is the other way around!

In the later Kim Robinson book 2140, it is assumed New York is still a place to park illicit gains in real estate 125 years in the future, and the current meme that empty condos should be confiscated is enacted in his book.

35 Alistair November 3, 2017 at 7:59 am

Yeah. That really grates. The characters are merely cyphers for TSRs juvenile, and I do mean laughably juvenile, politics and economics.

Far too many scientists are worse than ignorant when they step out of their field. Their local dominance fools them in thinking they are competent at everything.

36 JC November 2, 2017 at 10:44 am

“Inbred” is the answer we were looking for, but thank you all for playing.

37 Tanturn November 2, 2017 at 11:36 am

Social mores will evolve in a more conservative direction because:

1. The colonists will be made up of scientists and engineers and their descendants, who have low divorce rates even when compared to people in similarly high-earning professions.

2. There will be no reserve army of single people to leave one’s spouse for.

3. With a population in the hundreds there will be less on an incentive to delay marriage to climb the corporate/credentialist ladder.

4. Everyone will know one another so there will be no point in delaying marriage to find the perfect person.

5. The purpose of the mission is to colonize a planet, so people will be expected to have more than two children.

Knowing nothing about the book but its genre, I doubt that will be what happens. Probably some free love nonsense with children rarely mentioned. And maybe communism too, that doesn’t work on earth either.

38 Hazel Meade November 2, 2017 at 1:52 pm

Iirc, a bunch of the colonists impregnate themselves via ivf by mixing ova and sperm stored from all the other colonists. Or maybe it was cloning, don’t remember. The point was they were going to increase genetic diversity by making sure they mix up as many genetic combinations as possible

39 A Truth Seeker November 2, 2017 at 3:28 pm

Except of course by the fact nothing like that will ever happen. To colonize Mars is a chimera, a pipe dream, if you will.

40 Wrong again, Thiago November 2, 2017 at 4:54 pm

I’m sure Brazil could colonize Mars if they wanted to.

41 Marcin November 2, 2017 at 11:37 am

I love this series. The timespan (I think the third book finishes two centuries after the first), the geology, the actual discussion of economics and governance (as opposed to hand-waving by the author), the revolution, the exploration of extended lifespans. It’s all great.

B.B.’s comment about a fourth book refers to 2312, which is only unofficially a sequel, since it only references Mars briefly and doesn’t explicitly cite the trilogy’s characters.

42 jibberjabber November 2, 2017 at 12:03 pm

Keep on trolling…

43 Viking November 2, 2017 at 1:08 pm

One interesting theme raised in the Mars trilogy is the concept of humans receiving tradeable procreation rights, if I remember right 1 1/2 for a couple, which would not sustain a colony.

Another thing I found interesting, was a scene where the ex wife (who left him?) of the facilitator who came up with the tradeable birth rights concept freaked out about him leaving earth.

44 Frederic Bush November 2, 2017 at 1:53 pm

He is a Marxist, which comes through in varying degrees in his books. He was also at one point a student of Fredric Jameson, the literary theorist, and Jameson’s ideas of utopia are important to the Mars Trilogy. (Jameson also has written a critique of the Mars books somewhere.)

When I spoke to him once, he said the element he was proudest of was the theories of the psychologist character and he was upset no one had engaged those ideas seriously.

Finally, Stan’s ideas about terraforming have changed –Aurora is basically a manifesto against terraforming.

45 Zach November 2, 2017 at 5:11 pm

Red Mars is the best of the series.

Flaky ideas about economics and politics are not necessarily a weakness in a science fiction writer — boldly outlining flawed ideas can make for a better book than timidly following up on sound premises. That said, getting the correct ratio between boldness and flakiness is important, and he does it better in this book than later in the series.

What does piss me off (again, more in later books) is how he uses Science (capital ‘s’ intended) as a mouthpiece for the flaky ideas. He has this idea of Science as a sort of primitive communism — the Marxist idea of an early society that shares everything by default, because they haven’t progressed enough for exploitation to develop. So then these poor innocents are shocked to encounter the rest of the world.

46 Alistair November 3, 2017 at 8:04 am

Yup. TSR is basically a poster boy for the “I LOVE ******* SCIENCE” crowd who thinks they are way more widely educated than they actually are.

It’s almost embarrassing the extent to which they are sat in their own little echo chamber and haven’t read any economics or sociology since 1870.

47 MTC November 2, 2017 at 9:12 pm

Thinking back on Red Mars reminds me of Tyler’s review of The Martian: Mar’s itself is the main character, and a wonderfully rendered character at that. As insane as the Red’s anti-terraforming position seems at first, KSR does enough to illustrate the stark beauty of Mar’s exaggerated scale (low surface gravity FTW!) to make the Red movement strangely plausible. Yes the economics are trash (I think the whole Gift Economy comes up in the second book-can’t wait for TCs take on that) and given the apparent level of technological advancement at the start, it’s wildly implausible the initial colony would have survived. But the trilogy is an absolute classic of the genre. It’s sci-fi world building at it’s best–because over three books, KSR literally builds a World out of an empty planet. The characters

48 Radford Neal November 2, 2017 at 11:09 pm

I tried reading it quite a few years ago. I gave up after maybe 80 pages. It was just too stupid.

The first few colonists almost immediately start terraforming (even though that’s not their stated mission), devoting resources to, if I recall correctly, building windmills that run electric generators that heat up the planet. This is nonsense from a physics viewpoint – just letting the wind dissipate naturally has the same (non-)effect. But even if it did what they thought it did, it’s nonsense from an economic viewpoint. Far better to build up their capital stock for many years rather than diverting production to immediate terraforming efforts that won’t have any noticeable effect for even more years.

And the social/ideological aspects were equally ridiculous.

49 Alistair November 3, 2017 at 8:06 am


Exactly, TSRs expertise even in “core” areas of physics and ecology is questionable.

50 Alex November 3, 2017 at 4:53 pm

I believe it was the strongest of the series but I liked Red Mars.

51 Seva November 4, 2017 at 1:36 pm

A surprising source of influence: Robinson was inspired by the Bolshevik novel Red Star (1908), which tells the story of a communist society on Mars. Bogdanov was a rival of Lenin and was expelled from the party the year after the novel came out.

52 Neil November 17, 2017 at 1:08 pm

I look forward to seeing your reaction when you get to the bit in the third book when the obvious author-self-insert character explicitly equates libertarianism with slavery.

But to be honest the whole series falls down because characters behave not as actual human beings would, but as some Marxist fantasy of how they should. Case in point: the leaders of a successful armed rebellion against an oppressive government apparently vote UNANIMOUSLY for a total ban on private handguns in their new society. Whether or not you agree that it was a good decision, it strains credibility past breaking point that there wouldn’t be even ONE guy saying “hell no, I just needed this gun to fight off the last lot; I’m not giving it up until I’m sure you’re not just as bad.”

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: