Friday, April 17, 2015

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

It is funny that I read Robinson's Red Mars almost back to back with Andy Weir's The Martian. Red Mars is pretty much the antithesis of The Martian. One is a tale of survival. The other is the tale of settling down, making a home. One is about a single person overcoming overwhelming odds. The other, about a hundred trying to overcome their own limitations. One is about the individual, the other about society.

It is this last aspect of Red Mars that most attracted me. The novel starts off this the idea that if Mars was to be colonized, we'd have to send a sizable population to setup an outpost. And almost immediately, this population would form a society with it's own internal social structures and politics. The first half of the novel spectacularly develops this idea. Robinson's command of character is flawless. We hear the story from the point of several members of the 'first hundred' - a group of highly talented and able people sent on a colonizing mission to Mars. We learn about the different agendas and priorities these characters have about Mars and by proxy what humanity feels about their own planet Earth.

You can escape earth, but how can you escape humanity? This seems to be central dramatic tension of Red Mars. Human frailty travels with us wherever we go. The hunger for power, jealousy and fanaticism travel with us. How will humanity deal with it's own fallibility?

Robinson doesn't have any optimistic answer to this depressing question. The only answer is - humanity manages to function and even achieve something despite these limitations. Perhaps that is real hope.

The second half of the novel veers off from these, more philosophical, musings. It focuses instead on some Orson Scott Card like near-future socio-political speculation. Robinson predicts Transnational corporations which he seems to think is what multinational companies would develop into. There is north vs south politicking going on back on earth over oil and resources in Antarctica. India and Pakistan are going to nuclear war against each other.

Frankly, this part of the novel is not only hard to buy but also seems a little dated given the novel was published over 20 years ago. World geopolitics has changed in drastic and rather unpredictable ways since then.

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