Red Mars.

I have a scouting blog up with notes from three games I saw last week, covering Jeff Hoffman, Gleyber Torres, Matt Strahm, Spencer Adams, and Brad Markey.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy won a Nebula Award for the first book (Red Mars), Hugo Awards for the second (Green Mars) and third (Blue Mars), and Locus Awards for the second and third, as well as a passel of other awards and nominations. I just finished Red Mars, the dense 570-page opener, on Friday, and I can’t fathom why it won the Nebula or has spawned a cult following that appears to be leading toward a scripted series on Spike TV.

The Mars trilogy covers the first human attempt to colonize Mars, with a mission leaving Earth in 2026 (heh) with 100 colonizers chosen largely for their scientific and engineering skills. The goal is merely to establish a permanent settlement that may open the door for further research and potential economic activity like heavy-metal mining, but as conditions on Earth deteriorate due to war, pollution, and overpopulation, emigration to Mars becomes a reality and accelerates beyond the point that the red planet can handle it – especially since Mars is freezing and its thin atmosphere comprises mostly carbon dioxide. This in turn exacerbates the initial philosophical divide among the “first hundred” of whether humans should attempt to terraform Mars and make it suitable for long-term human settlement, or if humans have any responsibility to maintain the planet’s environment and, if present, any ecosystem that might exist at a microscopic level.

Red Mars is hard science fiction, very heavy on the technical aspects of its subject, with painstaking attempts to keep it as scientifically accurate as it can be. That means the book is about as dry as the Martian equator, as Robinson devotes paragraphs and even pages to details that contribute nothing to the plot and only serve to show that the author has indeed done his research. I can understand the desire to convince the reader that something like the space elevator transportation system is feasible, for example, but the point of including it in a work of fiction should be to show its effect on the characters within the story, not merely to say, “hey, cool, a space elevator!”

Robinson seems so caught up in demonstrating the technologies required for the mission and his mastery of their specifics that he spends very little time developing the book’s central characters, roughly a dozen of the first hundred who play significant roles in the novel’s multistranded story arc. Two of the most significant ones are dead before the book even ends, as are a few characters of less importance, and while many dramatic works benefit from the uncertainty around characters’ fates, Red Mars isn’t one of them. There’s no sense of impending jeopardy to raise tensions, and when the novel ends with a lengthy journey where several of the first hundred escape from Terran forces, I never doubted that they’d succeed in reaching their destination. And, most damning of all, I didn’t really care if they didn’t, so long as Robinson didn’t bore me to death first with details of how their little rovers worked or more about that bizarre flood that, even with all his descriptive text, I still could not for the life of me manage to picture in my head.

So my question to those of you who’ve braved this series is whether it’s worth it to continue, as I’ve been reading past Hugo winners, which would include both of the next two books in the series. My instinct is no, that the issue was Robinson’s writing style, and that seems unlikely to improve from book to book, at least not enough for me to plod through another 1200 pages.

Next up: I just finished A Bell for Adano, a wonderful satirical war novel by John Hersey (author of the famed New Yorker piece Hiroshima) and have begun Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.


  1. Mixed emotions. I’ve read Red and Green and am halfway through Blue. I liked them better than you, there’s some good stuff there, but still thought the story often failed to engage.

    I think that you should expect more of the same in Green and Blue.

  2. Huge fan of KSR. I really enjoyed the Mars Trilogy; Red and Green more than Blue. I enjoyed his Science in the Capital trilogy more than Mars (and The Years of Rice and Salt is one of my fav novels of all time).

  3. Most people who have read the Mars trilogy, whether or not they are fans (I read them all and liked them fine), think that each successive book is less good as the one that precedes it. So if you’re not already into it, I don’t advise you to continue.

  4. For what it’s worth, i remember the first book being the slowest of the three (although it’s been almost 10 years since I read them). Some of the technical stuff becomes important later (there’s a rather dramatic sequence involving the space elevator in particular), so the set up work he does in the first book is not entirely wasted, even if it isn’t done particularly elegantly.

  5. I don’t think there’s anything in them that’s going to turn your opinion. I think I liked Red the best of the three.

  6. I did push through and read the second but never could bring myself to pick up the third. I do recal the the extreme topic depth being over the top as well as being blown away by the killing off of seemingly main characters. The second was better in general but still not very compelling. I found the Ben Bova Mars books to be much more enjoyable. Well researched but not to the point of feeling like there’s going to be an exam at the end of the book as in Red Mars.

  7. I read and enjoyed Red, soldiered through Blue, and gave up partwau through Green. If you think the digressions in Red were annoying, there are twice as many in Blue and three times as many (probably) in Green. Why? Because backstory.

  8. When I was younger (in high school, I’m 29 now), I LOVED these books. Recently I decided to re-tackle them, but as Audible books rather than pure reads. I think the Audible productions are not great (not a great narrator), but I think the source material is ultimately the reason I petered out mid-Green Mars. I mostly did Red while I was living alone, when my girlfriend and I had to be separate.

    tl;dr: nah, not worth it. And I loved The Martian

    What’s up with the ESPN chats?

    • I’m shooting to try a new chat here on Thursday. Watch this space, as the Sneaker Pimps once said.