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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

Blue Mars

Reviewed: January 28, 2009
By: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
761 pages, $11.99

Kim Stanley Robinson's massive trilogy about humanity's colonization of the solar system concludes some 200 years after it began. In this rather optimistic vision of the future, Mars has been terraformed into a habitable place, cool, but with a breathable atmosphere pooling in the many rifts and valleys, and trapped under enormous canopies in higher elevations so that protective gear need be worn only outside these tent cities or on higher plateaus.

Similar technology has been used on the larger moons of the gas giants, while a different solution has been found to allow some settlement on Mercury.

The focus in this book is on a short list of the First Hundred, the original settlers, with the two exceptions being a couple if their children. In structure the novel is more like a series of interlinked novellas and short stories, with the fourteen chapters rotating through the viewpoints of several prominent characters. These viewpoint characters don’t all have the same opinions or political leanings, so we get a full range of opinions and reactions to the events in the book and sometimes we see the same events from different perspectives.

While Earth unrealistically sees Mars as release valve for its burgeoning billions, the Martians are divided on this as on many other topics. Martian scientists have discovered a longevity treatment that effectively triples the normal human life span. This development enables Robinson to follow some long story arcs over what is, essentially, a 2200 page novel (beginning with Red Mars and Green Mars).

While most of the First Hundred enthusiastically embraced the notion of making Mars more like Earth, some Martians, especially the second and third generations, feel that the original Martian ecosystem deserves to be preserved in all its austere majesty. Some of them follow the model of more radical eco-terrorists on Earth: blowing up atmosphere generators, or trying to bring down the space elevator that links the surface to the spaceship docking modules in orbit.

These so-called Red Martians are also in violent opposition to the waves of immigrants arriving from the home planet, even though the official leaders of Mars have agreed to a certain amount of settlement as part of a treaty with Earth.

I said this was an optimistic look at the future. That’s not really true when it comes to Robinson’s take on life here. Mars is the frontier. Earth is trapped in a mire of consequences stemming from centuries of bad decisions and class greed. Climate change has flooded the former coastlines and redrawn the political and economic maps of the world. Our Martian protagonists experience some of this when they come to Earth to negotiate a treaty.

About the only good thing to come out of the crisis is the total breakdown of the interlocking system of metanational corporations which had come to control the planet. New systems are emerging in the 22nd century that actually seem to work better for the people. Still, Mars and the other colonies are seen as the equivalent of the New World, and the overcrowded billions of Earth cannot understand why the fledgling habitats cannot absorb more of the teaming billions yearning to be free.

On Mars the expansion of settlements and population have reached the point where the simple rules of settlement governance have broken down, and it has come time to create a planetary government. This means writing a constitution, creating executive, legislative and judicial structures that balance each other. Somehow this section of the book manages not to be boring.

Where Blue Mars is a challenge is in the sections were various members of the cast head off exploring. They have some marvelous equipment in the future: Winnibago sized land rovers powered by solar energy and controlled by AI computers that allow for extensive exploration and travel over the landscape; ships that sail the new Martian oceans; paragliding equipment that would turn my friends in Dawson green with envy. All of this is a lot of fun to read, but it does bog down in pages of geological description which cannot entirely be skimmed because you never know when it isn’t going to turn out to be important to one of the subplots later on.

Robinson must have developed binders full of technical data, diagrams, schematics, maps, calendars (a year is 687 Earth days, or 669 slightly longer Martian days, for instance) and other details. The descriptions do serve to remind us that we are reading about people interacting within an alien environment, but it sometimes makes for heavy sledding.

As an impressive example of “hard SF”, incorporating lots of technology but also including the softer disciplines of history and sociology, it is no wonder that Robinson’s trilogy won him a slew of awards when it first appeared between 1992 and 1997. Red Mars won him the Nebula, and both Green Mars and Blue Mars won the Hugo Awards for their years Nor is it a surprise that the books have remained in print since.

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