Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
(Voyager Classics, £7.99, 781 pages, paperback; first published 1992; this edition 20 August 2001; ISBN 0-00-711959-3.)
Part two of the monumental Mars trilogy, Green Mars has some large boots to fill after Red Mars, which was an amazing and unbelievably well researched piece of writing.
I sometimes imagine trilogies like this as one of those creaking rope bridges often seen in Indiana Jones movies: the opening book begins with the first nervous steps down the uncertain crossing, the third is heading back up towards the safe ground of a conclusion on the other side, but the middle book knows where it has been, it can see where it is going and it simply has to keep its nerve and not fall off. Though the footing may be uncertain, little else is.
Green Mars consummately avoids these doldrums and is, in my humble opinion, significantly better than its predecessor. It's also over 100 pages thicker, which, given that I found Red Mars to be replete with descriptions of the Martian landscape that seemed to add only bulk rather than understanding or insight, had me braced for disappointment on opening Green.
What suddenly struck me about Robinson's treatment of Mars (the world, not the 'place' - Mars for Robinson is very definitely a new world, an entirely separate elsewhere) is that what I had thought were bloated geographic indulgences in Red Mars are actually a necessary device to build up this solid sense of place. The desperate escape from the failed revolution at the end of Red is a reminder of the uncaring nature of planets; no matter how a mighty humanity may come to alter the destiny of worlds, humans are still small and fragile creatures. Robinson has a named Mars, a Mars that can be seen on a map the way we see Earth today, as an array of discreet labelled features. His Martian characters go from one distinct place, through a known and (sometimes exhaustively) visualised landscape to another; and, much as you or I might take the M4 to Bristol or get on a ferry across the Channel to France, there is a repeatable and established sense of location.
My point, at the beginning of that long and winding previous paragraph, was going to be that Robinson has names for the things his characters see. Mars doesn't blur past as a location for formulaic action plots, a blurred red landscape of broken, useless rocks; it's always present, more so than any individual human character, in fact. And if you can't quite agree with those MarsFirsters in the book who oppose any terraforming of Mars then you can, perhaps, understand the attachment to their unique landscape. The MarsFirsters do not, as they would with almost any other writer, come across as insane, but merely too conservative to survive.
Anyway, er, yes, what about the story? Well, as I've mentioned, the terraforming of Mars is proceeding apace; there are genuine (human) Martians on the planet now, people who have been born and raised there, changed not only by the physical properties of the world but by the social, emotional and political conditions, too. When Maya, stunned (in this case) by the scale of Martian engineering thinking, says:
A second revolution is coming throughout the entire book, but after the tragedy of the first revolution (in Red Mars) the Martians are determined not to make the same mistake a second time - sadly the Martian resistance are perhaps even less united than their corporate oppressors on Earth. Green Mars is very much about coming to terms with the past and learning from those lessons for the future - and making sure they are passed on.
Many of the First Hundred are still around, and still deferred to (and still narrating the story), but each of the survivors, with their individual views and beliefs have become simultaneously messianic revolutionaries and outdated intransigents for various of those among the new Martians. They represent, between them, most of the divided Martian factions. Robinson has done an excellent job of showing how the process of myth-creation works. I particularly liked the idea (on page 618) that conspiracy theories are so popular because they satisfy a basic human need for story-telling: 'not explanation, but narrative ... like Schehezerade.'
Green Mars is a masterful synthesis of internal and external landscapes and (with the reservation that I haven't yet read Blue Mars) I'm at a loss to understand why this trilogy isn't being shouted from the rooftops as a triumph of stringently reasoned and intensely felt literature.
Review by Stuart Carter
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© Stuart Carter 30 December 2001