The Mars Trilogy:
By Kim Stanley Robinson
Published by Recorded Books
Read by Richard Ferrone
I read these three books some years ago when they were first offered by the Science Fiction Book Club. It is the multi-generational story of the colonization and subsequent terraforming of Mars. There is a lot of good story-telling in these volumes, but much like the aquifers of Mars, it is buried deep and hard to find.
My biggest complaint is that Mister Robinson chose to kill off one of the most interesting characters in the prologue of the book. Well, okay, it turns out the prologue actually takes place chronologically between the first and second half of Red Mars and the assassination of John Boone (the first man on Mars, famous for the quote, “Well, here we are.”) loses a lot of impact simply because the reader has no idea of who he is at that point, so we have high drama totally lost due to a poor arrangement.
On my first reading of the story I completely forgot the prologue as I delved deeply into the tale of the First Hundred colonists and the explorations of their new home. I think my favorite part had to be the trek to the Martian North pole. It was an interesting journey in a totally alien landscape and I think it was that small part of the book that kept me reading. Unfortunately, that was fairly early on.
However, I remained interested as the next waves of Martian colonists arrived and also went to work. There begins to be some tension between those who want to terraform mars as rapidly as possible and those who feel that for scientific reasons, Mars should be left as untouched as possible until adequate exploration had been accomplished since once terraformed, there would be many areological features that would be lost unstudied forever.
The first half of the book concludes with a triumphal party on Mons Olympus, the largest mountain in the mountain in the Solar System. This was a point in the story where most of the First Hundred reunite and all seems hopeful for a wonderful Martian life. And then the second section mentions the death of John Boone, one of the leading voices of unification and I found myself thinking, “Wait. When did he die?” Well, as I said, it happens in the prologue, but the book is so long, I really had forgotten that first scene. From triumph to crash I tried to follow the rest of the characters. Each had his or her flaws, but that was okay; no one is perfect. And then I realized how shallow the characters were; high school students from a very bad movie. John was pretty much the star quarterback, and Maya behaved like the neurotic head cheerleader. Then there was Frank, the class president, popular in his political way, but feeling threatened by the jocks. Next we have Arkady, who at first I thought was captain of the Chess Club, but while smart enough, he’s too cool for that caricature – think of him as the captain of the basketball team, leader of a different but related clique. Then we have the nerds; Sax and Ann who are at odds throughout most of the series (and yet come together at the end). The characters seem complex at first, but it is just a veneer. Maybe there are too many main characters for real personality depth? Maybe that is why all the really interesting ones get killed off in the first book?
In my first reading I tended to side with the terraformers. The way I saw it was Mars had no ecosystem, no life, so what was the point of not transforming the surface into something humans could live on. As I listened to it again, I sided more with the “Reds,” those against rapid terraforming even though as the two stances turned into political parties, the Reds became militant in their defense of Mars as it was found and even though it was obvious that it was already too late.
I had some real antipathy for the more fanatical Reds, but similarly I thought the radical “Greens” were equally wrong in their own ways. I will admit to having some apolitical tendencies (some might call me a rational anarchist) so I do not have a lot of patience for any politician.
Indeed, Mister Robinson put a lot of thought into the politics of colonial Mars, including plausible conditions on a hyper-populated Earth. He apparently also put a lot of thought into the philosophical, psychological and technological aspects of his future history. I think he was too anxious to show off everything he came up with. So much of the books are filled with long-winded narrative prose explaining the nature of things on Mars while nothing much happens, and there lies the true problem with the series.
After the party on Mons Olympus there is not a lot of plot left and it gets stretched to the breaking point several times. Here is a template for all three books starting with the second half of Red Mars; Nothing much of dramatic significance happens for a long time. People go about whatever they are going on about and, in the manner of modern novels, there are enough Point-of-View characters to really stretch the story way too long.
NB: I have complained about that in other recent reviews; just fill in what I said before about stretching flash fiction to novel length. In this case I think each book has a novel’s worth of plot, but they are still twice of long as they ought to be for the amount of plot.
And then there is a war. The war is a short stretch of excitement after the long period of day-to-day humdrum activity. Then the story ends.
This pattern repeats in Green Mars and then in Blue Mars and gets less interesting as it goes along. There are newer characters introduced, other colonists, subsequent generations and with only one exception I can think of, none of them are particularly interesting as people and get increasingly boring with each generation. It is a real disappointment in the case of Zo who starts out more interesting than most, but somehow she devolves into a shallow hedonist with no real interests outside herself. And in some ways she foreshadows the most uninteresting concluding war of the series.
It is possible that Mister Robinson was trying to escape his own plot template as the war is really a no-war sort of situation, with Earth sending invading colonists to Mars, despite various treaties and the Martians greeting them with, “Oh, so you’re the invaders? Dude! You’re doing it all wrong. Let us show you how.” Believable? Well, not to me, but I will give it a couple points for originality.
In all, however, in spite of some good writing when something is actually happening, I found that the story lags badly much of the time with flat characters, numerous repetitions of various themes handled with sledge hammer subtlety. So by the time we get to Blue Mars there is nothing really new for the reader. Sure there are now thousands of new habitats all over the solar system and even some generation ships headed out for the stars, but plot-wise it has all been said. On top of all that as the story progresses it becomes increasingly hard to know how much time has passed since the previous chapter. We seem to go from a Mars that is too cold and with air too poisonous to one that is suddenly warm enough to walk outside with only warm clothing and with a perfectly breathable atmosphere from one chapter to the next. Sure, I suppose it takes longer than that, but the transformation is barely touched on and the first time a character goes out without a mask it is because he has added reptile genes to his body in some manner that allows him to tolerate the high level of carbon dioxide. Next thing you know, people are running around naked and pursuing a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Did they all have the gene therapy? It is never mentioned one way or the other, but the implication is that they did not.
The series is dreadfully uneven and badly in need of editing. Of course if you pull out all the stuff you do not need in the books, you would only have one novel and publishers always want sequels. It might have benefited from some comic relief too. The entire series is dead serious and even situations that might have been comic remain serious, but I suppose colonization of another planet is serious business? If so, why is everyone partying around the clock with sex, drugs and steel drum music?
I do not know why, but it is rare to find a really good narrator reading a mediocre audiobook. Perhaps the explanation is simple. The reader’s abilities so often affect one’s enjoyment of an audiobook that it is difficult to separate them when writing a review.
However, I am happy to admit that is not the case with Richard Ferrone’s reading of the Mars Trilogy. He goes a very good job of keeping the characters delineated vocally, none of his voices are over the top, he does not seem to be in a hurry to get the words out and he is pleasant to listen to. It is, in fact, his reading that kept me listening to the entirety of the trilogy even though toward the end I was desperate to hear it come to a conclusion. He even got me to listen through to the end of the rambling and really unnecessary epilogue.
So, all told, I have to call the series interesting in places, but mediocre overall due to the long-winded and repetitive narrative passages and lack of good old-fashioned plot-pushing, but Richard Ferrone’s reading makes this worth listening to, although If you only listen to the first book of the series I think you will walk away with a very favorable impression. The series only really drags badly in the second and third books.