The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson

I’ve finished it! I’ve been reading this trilogy on and off for the past year and today I reached the end of Blue Mars, and I’m genuinely sad to be leaving those characters and that world behind. Through the three books, Robinson has created not just a exhaustively and emotively detailed Mars, but, surprisingly, a cast of well fleshed out characters whose stories work to create human realities in and around what could have been a fairly dry future history. The characters are not always sympathetically drawn, and in fact many of them spend a lot of the time being jerks, but that’s part of their strength. As is observed in either Green Mars or Blue Mars, heroics are not the matter of a lifestyle, they’re defined by a few single acts which intersperse a regular life.

Part of what struck me is how patient Robinson is throughout this grand story in his description of events, intermingling motivations and agendas, even the descriptions of the changing planet. He shows great understanding of the motivating power of personal flaws, and the human predisposition toward focusing on the wrong parts of themselves. He manages to merge this into sweeping political narrative, with historic decisions echoing the neuroses of the people behind them in a very honest way. Nothing seems inevitable. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars is not a world of destiny; it is a product of willpower and the law of unintended consequence.

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A view of Valles Marineris, from Nasa’s website

The characterisation throughout is complex and very thoughtful; surprisingly fluid in approach to how good a light in which people are shown. Some characters who initially come across as cold or unfeeling turn out to be lucid and sympathetic, some who initially seem sympathetic, fun and worth chasing turn out to essentially be rotten, and some who should be heroes are riven with flaws that actually accentuate or cause their heroic acts. There is a feeling that those who try to live as heroes are destined to fail by comparison to those who tried to live well and occasionally acted heroically. People who are convinced of destiny are weaker than those who shape it.

And the descriptions of Mars: Often wonderful, sometimes a little tedious, always utterly convincing. Such is the power of KSR’s descriptions here, it sometimes comes as a fun sort of a shock when you put the book down and remember that none of it is like that in reality. Doubtless, the landscape of Mars will bear strong resemblances to what is written here; KSR clearly does his homework. But it is someone frustrating that Mars doesn’t exist as it does by the end of Blue Mars, with its integrating biosphere and beautiful locales that I will most likely never see. Through his characters, Robinson takes us on huge, sweeping journeys throughout Mars (and at points, various other parts of the solar system), to the extent you really feel you know the place. To my amusement, I was reading an article on some new discovery on Mars recently, only to find that I recognised the name of one of the places described. It had been turned into a small sea across which two of the characters had recently sailed in Blue Mars! Such was the clarity of the image Robinson created, the first thing I thought of was a coastal bay, rather than the bone-dry world-desert of reality.

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The cover of Green Mars, painted by Peter Elson

One of the truly inspired touches across these three books is the way in which the planet reflects, and is reflected by, characters. The passion of life through Hiroko, the relentless scientific charge and its consequent universal transformation (perhaps transcendence) through Sax, the stark beauty of the world without Man in Ann and the inexorable productions of humankind in Nadia. Michel brings with him all the yearning and pain of home, Nirgal the spirit of Mars, wandering from event to event across the planet’s surface, lost in the infinite. The most arresting of these contrasts, however, is between Sax and Ann, a world apart, walking the same Martian earth, or Terran Mars, depending on whose perspective you are shown. They possess rival visions of paradise; one untouched, one perfected, and their conflict throughout the three books is often almost musical in its symmetry. Sure, Ann becomes a little tiresome in Green Mars, but overall, these two characters as voice-pieces for the two directions in time, both stemming from John Boone’s first steps on Mars, are fascinating to observe.

The environment also extends into the politics and psychology of the characters and the new Martian society (and later the greater civilisation throughout the solar system), as does a longevity treatment capable of letting people live well into their third century. I won’t get into all that here, as I found it very rewarding exploring these themes personally, and much of it was treated in surprising, and surprisingly intricate and innovative ways.

Overall, I came away extremely impressed by the Mars trilogy. As I’ve said, parts of it did get a little frustrating; out of the whole thing (around 2200 pages I suspect), I reckon a couple of hundred are a little aimless, but even then, this is by design. The parts that feel aimless are in fact due to the character the story is focusing on being aimless at that time. These characters are human. There is no hero’s journey here; at least not a traditional one. They falter. They get lost. They get confused. They get things wrong. They get themselves wrong.

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Theoretical projections of the effect of terraforming process on Mars, nabbed from Wikipedia

The colonisation and terraforming of Mars throughout these books is a human process, meaning it is messy, only vaguely guided by fractious and capricious humans, who occasionally utterly lose control and find, through momentary lack of control, new ways of reacting and planning and sometimes they reach a sanguine realisation that life is not control and wisdom is not knowledge (or memory); it is experience and a will to peace tempered by the ultimate acceptance of its lack of likelihood. It is the awareness that the moment, if it is good, must be savoured, and if it is bad, it will not abide. It is coming to peace with the truth that, whatever you construct, however much willpower you put into the world, the process of the world will take the briefest glance, if any at all, and construct itself in an unrecognisable image anyway. And so, the human Mars is made, through the fractal guided chaos of humanity.

Frankly, I never expected to see these sorts of themes and messages coming from the pages of a heavily technical trilogy of books ultimately about the terraforming and colonisation of the red, freezing dustball next door. The further into the books I got, the more engrossed I became, and the process of exploration of this world Robinson creates became immersive, engaging and fascinating in a very immediate way.

These books are an achievement. In years to come, when human feet walk Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson deserves a place in the pantheon of those whose imaginations helped us get there, alongside Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov and HG Wells. Magnificent.

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Review: Vacuum Diagrams – Stephen Baxter

I wish I could do justice to this book by writing it as beautiful review as it deserves, but I’m exhausted and feeling terrible after a bout of food poisoning from a terrible burger bought at three in the morning in Leeds at the end of a friend’s stag do over the weekend.

So apologies to Mr Baxter. I read Vacuum Diagrams during my honeymoon a couple of weeks ago and didn’t want to wait any longer to write happy words about it.

This is a wonderful book, exploring celestial history, from the universe’s birth to its premature death in four million years time. It’s effectively a collection of short stories, bound together by a framing narrative set in the sixth millennium; a bit of a history-through-characters sort of a thing. Frankly, I found the ideas more engaging than the characters for the most part, with a few major exceptions, and I was happy to immerse myself in the world-building, to the extent that one or two of the character-based stories rather felt like they got in the way.

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Go buy it, it’s lovely.

The world-building though, good grief. It was an absolute delight being led through Baxter’s infinite universe(s), endlessly inhabited, endlessly textured. Some of the ideas put forward are genuinely stunning: alien civilisations in the first microseconds of the universe, before physics as we know it have come into being, humans living at the extremities of collapsed stars, planets folded into themselves through further dimensions… That’s not even the weirdest or most shocking stuff in there. Despite the horror and dread of the xeelee and the photino birds, it’s a universe I’d love to spend exploring forever in a spaceship, but I’ll have to make do with exploring it on paper.

I read this book before the main body of the Xeelee sequence on recommendation, so I’ve got all that to come. Awesome times!

So read this book. I’m sorry this review wasn’t more elegant, (apologies again to Stephen Baxter). Read the book. Read it. I love it. You will too.

Now I’m off to fall asleep on the couch. Goodnight.