Climate Change, Terraforming, and Planetary Politics: Red Mars

red-marsKim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars is a tome. It runs, at least in the edition that I read, a good 500 pages with relatively small print. That being said, I was able to take some time with this book because I spent two days on the train travelling to the conference. Red Mars has a vast scope and covers a lot of ground with everything from space travel to planetary climate change (on Mars) to interplanetary politics and onwards. If you are looking for a concise and quick read, this is not for you.

But if you want a fully realized world, then Red Mars is just the ticket. It is the first of a trilogy set on Mars in which Mars is colonized by Earth. Most of this novel revolves around the First Hundred, a group of scientists sent to Mars to colonize the planet and prepare the way for other human travellers. This group first trains for a year in Antarctica before undertaking a two year long journey on a spaceship to Mars. The novel begins in media res with unrest rampant among the many colonists of Mars and Frank Chalmers seemingly at the centre of it all. John Boone, the first man on Mars, Maya, a beautiful Russian scientist and leader of the Russian crew, Ann, a geologist who becomes very attached to the planet, Nadia, a Russian who prefers to work with her hands rather than engage in the political battles, and Arkady, a Russian revolutionary of sorts, round out the cast of important characters. As you can imagine, this is an epic novel with a revolving cast that may take some time to get used to. However, the plot itself moves at a much slower pace as Robinson details Mars, its politics, its culture, and the science involved. This is a thick book in every sense of the word.

One of the most appealing things for me was how the novel acts as a kind of allegory for Earth’s own struggle with climate change. Throughout the novel, there is a strong debate about whether the Earth colonists should transform Mars into a more hospitable place or whether they should leave it as it is for the indigenous life-forms that might exist there. The debate is, inevitably, settled in favour of human comfort, but Robinson creates an parallel to human climate change. As in reality, climate change is happening and it is more a question of what to do with it rather than one of acknowledging it (Robinson published the book in the early 1990s, so he was in some sense ahead of his time). Ann’s arguments against transformation form a kind of anti-colonial critique that, although ignored by the other characters, runs as a counterpoint throughout the novel. I found this compelling and intellectually intriguing. Of course, reducing Red Mars to a climate change analogy does not do justice to the novel. It is also a book about planetary politics, human ambition, the capabilities and limits of science, and, most of all, the wonder of settling a new planet.

I would highly recommend Red Mars to any fan of science fiction, and even for those who are not. However, its size and density need to be taken into account if you are not feeling up to a long-term investment.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. Red Mars. New York: Bantam Spectra, 1993. Print.


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