I’m going to start this review of Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson by saying that I love science fiction and I’m a huge fan of authors like Ben Bova, Aurther C Clark, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Robert A. Heinlein, Orson Scott Card, and many more. Red Mars is my first Kim Stanley Robinson novel and it’s been on my “to read” list forever. The book is considered hard sci-fi, it’s about Mars, and it won the Nebula Award for best Science Fiction Novel in 1993. I’ve been told by many people how great this series is and that I have to read it.
Yeah… You can probably guess where this is going…
WriterAlina’s Red Mars Book Review
Needless to say, this book left me conflicted. I really want to give this book a better rating than 3.5 stars, but I just can’t. I wasn’t emotionally connected enough to the story or the characters, even though I admire the concepts of both. There were some great things and some really painful things about getting through this book. The writing style wasn’t my favorite and the way the story was told wasn’t very appealing either. I’ve read a lot of “classic” sci-fi and have been totally engrossed in the stories while at the same time being enthralled by the technical aspects that make the stories true science fiction. The three things that this book really had going for it were the topic, the scientific detail, and the character development was phenomenal. The problem was, that wasn’t enough to really carry me through the story. The only reason I soldered through the 23 hours and 52 of active listening was because I really wanted to understand why this series is so well loved and acclaimed. I get it. I just don’t agree 100%.
This is the most character driven hard-core science fiction book I’ve ever read. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. I’m not saying that these are the best characters I’ve ever read because they’re not. I’m just pointing out that most science fiction that’s written are highly plot driven novels with great characters. Red Mars, on the other hand, has a weak plot that is only driven by the actions of the story’s dynamic cast – hence why I call it a character driven story. Sure Red Mars has a plot: humans want to colonize Mars. But if you think about it that’s a pretty weak plot. This plot only implies conflict instead of stating the conflicts outright. Sure you can argue that this is a man versus nature kind of a story, but that’s not really a conflict that is directly focused on beside the obvious need to survive.
My only gripe with the character driven aspect of this novel is that the character progression turns a little soapy and the whole story starts to feel like a reality show on Mars, which is kind of irritating. (I’m not a big fan to reality shows.)
This book deserves 5 stars for its lively, believable, dynamic, and diverse characters. The various characters are so fleshed out that they all fell like real people, including the cameo characters and the mobs. It’s obvious that Robertson knows people and knows how to effectively use cultural stereotypes to give the reader the feeling of a diverse set of characters. Each of the main characters have clear motivations and the relationships between them are also clearly established from the beginning of the story through the very end. Even if there is a little bit of mystery surrounding some of the character(s) I believe it’s on purpose and if the mystery is not revealed in Red Mars I’m confident that it is in future novels.
Questionable Story Delivery
Points For Good Ideas
What I enjoyed about Red Mars, and the reason I picked up the book in the first place, was the story topic. Red Mars is about the struggles surrounding colonizing the red planet and the potential social impacts that has on humans both on Mars and on Earth. I mean, come on, doesn’t that sound like a compelling story to you? I love stories that ask what if questions like this and address the social and psychological implications of these kinds of questions. This is what I enjoyed most about this story.
I got excited to see what Robinson came up with on how we could colonize Mars, what kinds of people would be chosen to perform such a dangerous mission, how would humans maintain a viable civilization on Mars, how would Mars change people? All really cool questions that are actually addressed within the novel. Awesome! 5 stars for ideas and following through with responses to those ideas.
Big Fail In The Execution
Perhaps I wasn’t as in the mood as I thought for a dry, hard core sci-fi? Perhaps I couldn’t turn off my Writer Brain long enough to enjoy the book for what it is. I don’t know, but I found there to be many irritating flaws in the story’s execution. The delivery really only gets 2 stars; perhaps if you enjoy reading textbooks you might give Red Mars book a higher rating.
What I found most annoying about the story execution:
- There is a misleading opening to the story.
- There is too much “telling” and not enough “showing.”
- I left feeling like I was reading a book version of a reality show. Ugh.
Misleading Story Opening
I get why the novel started in the middle of the “story,” because, hello, you have to hook your readers somehow. And nothing hooks the reader better than a good mystery, especially if the mystery involves a murder. In of itself, there’s nothing wrong with this approach.
The problem occurs when the murder is ignored for then next 2/3 of the book. Okay, true that this is mainly due to the fact that we are getting all the events that lead up to the murder, but when the timeline of events finally gets the reader to the point of the murder occurring the perspective changes and suddenly we are at events that are “after” the murder. We don’t even get to see it, we don’t even find out how it happened or who killed him (though we find out who feels responsible, which is totally not the same thing). The reader is just told that the character is murdered, rendering the death emotionally meaningless. DUDE! A main POV character just died and the event is totally glossed over. What!?! *followed by inexplicable cursing* There is only before the character died and after the character died. I understand that there’s a lot of “story events” to get through but I didn’t even get to experience the man’s death. That’s half the reason to be reading the story to begin with is to experience the characters and to be effected by what happens to them. *grumble grumble*
Too Much Telling and Too Little Showing
The novel was written in a kind of mix of omniscient and third person. I want to say that it was a distant third person narrator, with a hint of an omniscient narrator that occasionally made itself felt within the text. There’s a lot of information delivered to the reader: some scientific, some descriptive, and other more emotional or personality driven. There’s nothing wrong with having a lot of information, but when it’s delivered in a more telling and removed way it gets a little old. Because there is so much information being thrown at the reader, some of it relevant to the story and other things simply there for the sake of authentic technobabble, the “story” gets lost. Sure it’s cool that we get to see how the colonists got to Mars and how the people were selected, it’s cool to read about the philosophical debates that they have about how to treat Mars: should Mars be preserved in it’s authentic state or should it be terraformed? All of these things are cool thought experiments that catch my interest, but at the end of the day most of it was just a long drawn out thought experiment.
Because I didn’t feel the various characters all the important climax points at the end were muted and I didn’t feel the impact of people’s deaths and triumphs as I should have. I didn’t feel emotionally engaged, I felt like I was watching a documentary. Well, so and so died. Huh. I should feel more than just. Huh.
Reality Show Narration
I guess if you like reality shows and don’t mind the random bouts of drama that unexpectedly turn into long hours of watching someone sit and think, then I guess this story structure could work for you. It just didn’t work for me.
Science Needs Emotional Balance and Connection
The book deserves 5 stars for its attention for scientific detail, but 2 stars for its delivery. The hard science in this book varies from pretty accurate to plausible, which is awesome. And the psychology and human aspect of the characters and their reactions is spot on. It’s obvious on all fronts that Robertson really did his homework when he wrote this book. The problem is that the delivery was so dry and I found myself wondering, many times through the book, “Why isn’t this more interesting for me?” “Why am I not excited?” “Why was the science in The Martian by Andy Weir so much more engaging and exciting?” There’s obviously something off if these kinds of things are coming into your head when you’re going through a story.
Perhaps it’s the narration? Perhaps the information being delivered didn’t always feel “necessary” it just felt like gratuitous technobabble? Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my Star Trek technobabble, it’s one of the things I love about the shows and their books, but usually the technobabble comes up when it’s crucial to the plot or a character’s development or interactions. In Red Mars the plot is so vague that the technobabble feels frivolous.
Continuing The Series?
I’m on the fence about whether or not I will finish this series of books. The characters are compelling enough for me to want to know what happens to everyone who survived the revolution at the end of Red Mars, but I’m not sure I have the patience for the writing style right now to do it. There are many more intriguing novels to read and listen to. Perhaps some day I’ll get around to it.
Have you ever read Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson? How did you enjoy it? I’d love to hear your thoughts about this remarkable novel.