#62 = Volume 21, Part 1 = March 1994
Notes on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars
If all goes as planned—a hazardous enough assumption, to be sure—Green
Mars (the second volume of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, not to be
confused with the semirelated novella "Green Mars") will appear in
this country at about the same time as this issue of SFS. (The British edition
appeared earlier, which accounts for the fact that a book not yet on American
bookstands has been reviewed here and there in SF mags since last November.) At
the moment I write, therefore, one can only speculate about what Green Mars will
add to Red Mars, and what will be added a year or so later by Blue
Mars; and, furthermore, Red Mars is itself so long and so rich in so
many ways that no paper of this length can do more than suggest some approaches
to the first novel of the trilogy.
Having read the earlier work of Stan Robinson, we come to Red Mars with
certain expectations. We have read the careful hard-core presentation of the
life-support system of a starship in Icehenge, and we therefore
anticipate a similarly careful treatment of the technology Robinson will
hypothesize as desirable, first, for the establishing of a permanent colony on
the red planet, and, second, for making the naked Mars inhabitable for Terran
life. We get them.
We have read Pacific Edge, and we therefore expect ecological
concerns. It is not simply an easy irony which makes those who would keep Mars
as it is—stark, and dead, and beautiful—those who on Earth would be those
most concerned with the preservation of the living environment: the aesthetes,
the nature-lovers, the artists, the humanists. Those who wish to bring life, in
all its peculiar and multiple beauties, to Mars are, on the other hand, the
technicians, the scientists, and the engineers. There is no easy judgment to be
made between these positions: both in Red Mars and in the earlier books,
the appeals and the honesty and the beauty of both sides are presented with
skill and passion.
It was Asimov, I believe, who noted that most SF is political, explicitly or
implicitly: that postulating a new society of necessity involves a comment on
our present society. Pacific Edge, an ambiguous enough Utopia, certainly
gives us politics in abundance; and as soon as we enter the first part of Red
Mars we are in the middle of a power struggle. Pacific Edge, like the
rest of Robinson’s fiction—and like much of Le Guin’s—has a
mainstreamish quality about it. Unlike Le Guin, Robinson has taken a certain
amount of grief from some readers for this mainstreamishness: what sort of a SF
novel is it, after all, we are asked, that spends so much time worrying about
how many times the protagonist has hit safely in softball games, and what it is
doing for his head?
In his concerns for the ecology, Robinson is very contemporary, but not
contemporary SF, which puts some people off. In his concern for human struggles,
interior and exterior, he returns to the example of the great SF writers of the
nineteenth century; and in his scrupulousness about technological possibility,
he belongs to the generic SF hard-core of the Campbell era.
We are barely into Red Mars, when a Swiss guide explains to tourists
the structure of the dome under which the new city has been built:
"An outer membrane of piezoelectric plastic generates electricity
from wind. Then two sheets hold a layer of airgel insulation. Then the inner
layer is a radiation-capturing membrane, which turns purple and must be
That is the sort of explanation which ought to be hard-core enough for anyone
this side of Hugo Gernsback; but note how Robinson immediately turns the
technology into metaphor, with one of the political players as his focus:
Frank reached out and pushed at the inner membrane... He poked the tent
wall so hard that he pushed out the outermost membrane, which meant that
some of his anger would be captured and stored as electricity in the town’s
It is human motion which powers the colonization of Mars; it is human emotion
which is turned into energy. Robinson returns briefly to chemistry, only to link
the fragility of molecular structure with the affairs of the human colony:
It was a special polymer in that respect—carbon atoms were linked to
hydrogen and fluorine atoms in such a way that the resulting substance was
even more piezoelectric than quartz. Change one element of the three,
however, and everything shifted; substitute chlorine for fluorine, for
instance, and you had saran wrap. (§1:8)
Change one atom, or one person, and what you have is saran wrap; remove the
human emotion from the equation, and you remove just that much power. (Robinson
discusses this kind of metaphor in our conversation.)
If, as I have noted above, Kim Stanley Robinson seems in various ways to be
simultaneously contemporary, Campbellian/Gernsbackian, and Wellsian, he is also,
using a conventional if finely crafted prose, surprisingly New-Wavish. And he
accomplishes this largely by nods at earlier literature of Mars. If a reader
misses this fact earlier in the book, he or she will have their nose rubbed in
it on page 19: Mars revolves, as chance would have it, in just a bit over the
same time that Earth does: 12 hours, 39 minutes, 30 seconds. But the first
colonists of Mars, dedicated and accustomed to the old 24-hour day, decide to
keep it; and so at midnight, every day, the clocks all stop for thirty-nine and
a half minutes. And what do they call this interval? You guessed it: The
Martian Time Slip.
And isn’t that a nice family joke, the younger writer sweeping off his hat
in a half-bow across three decades toward Phil Dick as if to say "Look,
uncle, what I have done with your bad dream."
But most of us have learned to take Stan Robinson seriously, even and maybe
especially when he is joking. And so we back up, hardly having started reading Red
Mars, and start over again. But before we do that, we stop and think a bit,
in both historical and symbolic terms, about those thirty-nine minutes.
Over the last several thousand years, a good bit of the intellectual energy
of our species has gone into trying to make mathematical sense out of the
timekeepers the universe has given us. The lunar year and the solar year just
will not fit conveniently together, and that fact gave our ancestors not only
fits but a lot of good mythic material. Prechristians knew perfectly well that
28 went into 365 thirteen times and a bit; hence the very old rhyme,
How many merry months are there in the year?
There are thirteen, I say.
But thirteen is a terrible number; for all sort of reasons, astronomical,
theological, and mathematical, twelve is much more to be desired, and so the old
rhyme was modified to read "There are but twelve, I say." And all of
that makes what might be called a Terran time-slip.
Worse still is the fact that the rotation of the Earth and its circuit around
the sun just won’t come out even. Now we have a formula which will work for
several thousand years, which gives us a time-slip of a day every four years, except when the year is evenly divisible by 100, except when the year is
evenly divisible by 400. But this solution is messy and somewhat offensive. Things
are supposed to come out even, we think, echoing Judah Asimov at the
candy-store cash drawer.
Humans keep pounding on the universe, demanding that it come out even,
finding that coming out even demands more and more complicated
systems of thought, shifting scientific paradigms every time the slips get too
much to bear. If the history of science tells us anything, it is that shifts in
paradigm are coming thicker and faster all the time. Most of us manage to live,
somehow, in four different systems: the pre-Copernican ("The sun rises in
the east and sets in the west"), the Newtonian, the world of Heisenberg and
quantum theory, and the world of Hawking in which black holes may leak naked
singularities and anything may happen, any time, and make total hash out of all
It is clear that the biggest part of the lives of the characters in Red
Mars, like most of our daily lives, is lived in the sensible world of the
pre-Copernican and the Newtonian. That world is Premodern, as Heisenberg is
Modern and Hawking is Postmodern. But as we think about the calendar and
timekeeping through human history, that struggle to reduce the universe to
comprehensible mathematics, we recognize that nothing is ever going to come out
quite even, that even in the middle of a history of the conquest of Mars which
pays enormous attention to the scientific and technical realities of the whole
business, there is going to be the occasional reality-slip in which, for just a
moment, the nightmarish and schizophrenic world of Phil Dick flickers into
But let’s go back to the beginning of the book. The reference to Phil Dick
makes us wary, makes us wonder: to what extent is this book going to be recursive, to use Anthony Lewis’s term? (I’m going to restrict my comments, very
largely, to the very first section of the book, "Festival Night,"
because the book is so vast in its range that there is material there for dozens
of papers; and if the Green Mars and Blue Mars to come live up to
the promise of this book, graduate students and untenured assistant professors
will bless the name of Stan Robinson for decades to come.)
Consider the introduction to "Festival Night"; it consists of two
pages, apparently drawn from the speech which John Boone is giving to his fellow
colonists as the narrative proper begins. "Mars was empty before we
came," he says. "We are all the consciousness Mars has ever had"
A couple of years ago, at the International Association of the Fantastic in
the Arts convention, I dealt with Stan’s novella "Green Mars" in
which, incongruously, in the middle of climbing Olympus Mons, a couple of
characters begin discussing Jean-Paul Sartre and his notion that we change the
past by what we do in the present. Since the past exists only in our memories
and our records and in the relative importance we attach to different segments
of those memories and those records, the past of a devout Marxist is going to be
quite different than the past of a convicted Christian.
And therefore, going back to the speech of John Boone, the past of Mars is
whatever present consciousnesses make it. As Sartre says,
The past is...the past of something or somebody.... There is not first a
universal past which would later be particularized in concrete pasts. On the
contrary, it is particular pasts we discover first. The true problem...will
be to find out by what processes these individual pasts can be united so as
to form the past. (88)
John Boone goes on to appeal to all the stories that have ever been told
about Mars and all the names it has had—Nirgal, Mangala, Auquakuh, Harmakhis—from
the Ice Age down to our present. Through his mouth, Robinson invites us to see
the multiple symbolism of his use of color (almost an echo of John D. MacDonald’s
Travis McGee books):
Yes, for thousands of years Mars was a sacred power in human affairs; and
its color made it a dangerous power, representing blood, anger, war and the
[But] then the first telescopes gave us a closer look, and we saw the
little orange disk, with its white poles and dark patches spreading and
shrinking as the long seasons passed. (§1:2)
Just as Hawking’s world-view encompasses that of Heisenberg, and Heisenburg’s
that of Newton, and Newton’s that of Ptolemy, so Boone’s new story of Mars
is made to encompass all the stories told about Mars all the way back to Ice-Age
campfires. Fossil stories they are, as the names for Mars are fossils:
perhaps it is not surprising that all the oldest names for Mars have a
peculiar weight on the tongue...they sound as if they were even older than
the ancient languages we find them in, as if they were fossil words from the
Ice Age or before. (§1:2)
But some of those fossils, we are given to understand, come to life rather
like the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, one of the past pasts of Mars
is evoked in terms which are obviously meant to apply to the colonists whom
Boone is addressing:
the best Earthbound images gave Lowell enough blurs to inspire a story,
the story we all know, of a dying world and a heroic people, desperately
building canals to hold off the final deadly encroachment of the desert.
It was a great story. But then Mariner and Viking sent back their photos,
and everything changed. Our knowledge of Mars expanded by magnitudes, we
literally knew millions of times more about this planet than we had before.
And there before us flew a new world, a world unsuspected. (§1:3)
But, Boone goes on to say, even after the arrival of colonists on the planet,
the old stories keep reviving themselves, like "elusive little red people,
always glimpsed out of the comer of the eye."
They are, he says, "an attempt to give Mars life, or to bring it to
life." And here it has to be noted that this whole introductory section,
the speech of John Boone, is a deliberate echo—Robinson has confirmed this in
conversation—of, and contrast to, the introduction to one of the best-known
Mars stories, C. L. Moore’s "Shambleau" (1933):
Man has conquered Space before. You may be sure of that. Somewhere beyond
the Egyptians, in that dimness out of which come echoes of half-mythical
names —Atlantis, Mu—somewhere back of history’s first beginnings there
must have been an age when mankind, like us today, built cities of steel to
house its star-roving ships and knew the names of the planets in their own
native tongues— heard Venus’ people call their wet world "Shaardol"
in that soft, sweet, slurring speech and mimicked Mars’ gutteral "Lakkdiz"
from the harsh tongues of Mars’ dryland dwellers. You may be sure of it.
Man has conquered Space before, and out of that conquest faint, faint echoes
run still through a world that has forgotten the very fact of a civilization
which must have been as mighty as our own. There have been too many myths
and legends for us to doubt it. (7)
These myths, these legends, these stories, all—in Sartre’s terms—parts
of the past pasts of Mars are told, Boone says, to give Mars life, or to
bring it to life.
But giving Mars life, and bringing it to life, are the central concerns of
the book. As in the novella "Green Mars" and as in Icehenge, as
we have already noted, the colonists are divided into those who would leave Mars
as it is—red, and lifeless, and barren, and majestic in a way that no Earthly
landscape can be majestic—and those who want a green Mars, gradually filling
up with genetically tailored flora and fauna which will slowly push back the
deserts which threatened the pathetic and heroic Martians in Percival Lowell’s past past of Mars.
Like many of the writers of the Golden Age, Robinson is himself a great
reader of SF; and he says that before beginning the trilogy he went back and
read heavily in the literature. Red Mars gives the reader an almost
continual sense of itself as artifact, in its declaration that it is a story
encompassing past stories which, in turn, encompass still older stories. The
enraged Arab, Selim, mutters about "the Koran or Camus, Persepolis or the
Peacock Throne, references scattered nervously among non sequiturs,"
(§1:11) and we are once again back to Philip K. Dick. Boone says,
what they didn’t realize was that by the time we got to Mars, we would
be so changed by the voyage out that nothing we had been told to do mattered
anymore...we became fundamentally different beings. (§1:4)
And we are reminded not only of Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles but
also, less happily, of Pohl’s Man Plus. The underground colony
which preceded the domed city was called, we are told (§1:18), Underhill, and
all of a sudden, out of the comer of our eye, there is Bilbo Baggins, like an
elusive little red native. Nadya (§3:118) is Nadya Nine-Fingers, an echo of
Frodo. In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Gods of Mars (§13:206-08), John Carter
flies his airship straight up a shaft, amazing everybody; and so does Hiroko in Red
Mars (§2:60). And it just goes on and on: people will be digging references
out of this book for decades. If Robinson’s short fiction reminds us of Dubliners in an SF mode, Red Mars, beneath its deceptively conventional
surface, is as recursive and rich in allusion as Ulysses.
And, like Portrait of the Artist, Red Mars is, among other things, a
manifesto. At the end of "Festival Night," Frank Chalmers, who has had
Boone killed so that he may assume power over the colony, says to himself, in
words that seem to come from the author himself, looking back over the
accumulation of Mars fiction of the past several hundred years, "Now we’ll
see what I can do with this planet" (§1:22).
Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. NY: Doubleday, 1950.
Burroughs, Edgar Rice. The Gods of Mars. Chicago: McClure, 1918.
Dick, Philip K. Martian Time-Slip. NY: Ballantine Books, 1964.
Lewis, Anthony R. An Annotated Bibliography of Recursive Science Fiction. Introduction
by Barry N. Malsberg. Cambridge, MA: NESFA Press, 1990.
Moore, C.L. "Shambleau." (Weird Tales, November 1933). The
Best of C.L. Moore. Ed. Lester del Rey. Garden City, NY: Nelson Doubleday,
Pohl, Frederik. Man Plus. NY: Random House, 1976.
Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Gold Coast. NY: TOR, 1988. Part of the
so-called Orange County Trilogy, along with Pacific Edge and The Wild
—————. Green Mars. NY: TOR, 1988. A TOR double with Arthur
C. Clarke’s Meeting with Medusa; first published in 1985. A
novella, not to be confused with the forthcoming Green Mars which
will be a sequel to Red Mars.
—————. Icehenge. NY: Ace, 1984.
—————. Pacific Edge. Norwalk: Easton, 1990. Also NY: TOR,
—————. Red Mars. NY: Bantam, 1993.
—————. Remaking History. NY: TOR, 1991.
—————. The Wild Shore. NY: Ace, 1984.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Baines.
Secaucus NJ: Citadel Press, 1977. First published in Paris by Gallimard, 1943.