I Will Sell You The Mars Trilogy

I highly suggest you commit whatever time it takes to read the 1800 or so pages in the Mars series by Kim Stanley Robinson, an award winning science fiction epic published in three parts, beginning with Red Mars in 1993.

Kim Stanley Robinson delivers what has rightly been called “hard science fiction.” It is a label he deserves having supposedly researched for 15 years in preparation for writing this series. The hard science of Mars is immediately made clear in the harsh material realities faced by the first hundred scientists sent to establish a permanent settlement on Mars. And it follows through in a relatively plausible and brilliantly detailed speculation of how humans might colonize Mars in the very near future.

If it were not so masterfully wrought, the research could easily overwhelm the story. What makes this series so superb though, is that Robinson manages to not sacrifice plot or character development. Instead through the eyes of a wonderful cast of compelling and complex, evolving characters, we as readers bear witness to a great unfolding human achievement tethered to a realism of sorts: an almost totally dysfunctional utopia. As Mars is slowly transformed, and as the material realities of the planet thus also change, Robinson finds the fractured, incomplete truths of human knowledge as it struggles with the increasing unpredictability of a planet that had not substantially changed in billions of years.

In so far as science fiction is concerned, this is a very realistic premise.

In fact, what seem unrealistic about this book is that Robinson thinks he can have his cake and eat it too. It is a book that indulges science fiction in the sense that he doesn’t mean to use science strictly as metaphor or plot device. This is why Mars is the perfect setting. This is no wild speculation about a distant humanity in the far reaches of the galaxy caught in a war with an alien civilization. Humans have known of Mars for thousands of years. Most of the main character, such as John Boone, were born in the 1980s. The beginning of the colonization of Mars is a very real possibility in the 21st century. Thus he indulges science fiction, littering the book with details of Mars geology, interplanetary space travel, the challenge of terraforming Mars into a breathable atmosphere (and later other parts of the solar system), and the unpredictability of Mars shifting weather patterns.

Yet Robinson also uses the science of his fiction to further layer meaning into the text. Humanity faces itself, human eyes gaze from Mars to Earth and Earth to Mars, and suddenly the challenges of building a just, participatory political and economic society as manifested on the different planets are contrasted for all to see.

This becomes the essential theme. The real treasure of Robinson’s creation is his deftness with utopia. In its dysfunction it represents something both realistic and radically imaginative. He presents a variety of heterogeneous and fragmented alternatives to our current, global hypercapitalist moment. As a coalition to resist the hegemony of Earth, there are occasional alliances but otherwise the Martian political spectrum is divided amongst widely divergent ideologies and movements. The intricate political tapestry is pregnant with alternatives, from primitivists, to free marketers, socialists, libertarians, liberals, cooperatives, anarchists and more. Over centuries these dynamics weave together and apart, as the colonization of Mars quickly escapes the control of anyone person, place, or thing. Unintended consequences are the real rulers on Mars.

The result is something that is alien to us, a diverse polyarchy of sovereign factions with their own internal systems for decision-making, economic cooperatives in the place of more hierarchical corporations and more accessible capital, life-extending technology that lets people live for hundreds of years, and more. Mars, though not completely different from Earth, is nonetheless radically different. However, as such, there is still something familiar about the potential the series explores for another sort of world that is, though different, still undeniably human.

This realization is what makes this series a masterpiece of a science fiction as well as something that transcends it. In this series Robinson has it all, and he imagines an alternative in which we all might be so fortunate.

The Mars series is a science fiction masterpiece that both indulges in and transcends its genre, and is perhaps the masterpiece of the utopia subgenre. Read it and you will not be disappointed.

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