... she had been enjoying her life as if it were a Siberia made right, living in a huge analogy, understanding everything in terms of her past. But now she stood under a tall violet sky on the surface of a petrified black ocean, all new, all strange: it was absolutely impossible to compare it to anything she had seen before.[loc. 2154]
2026: the first hundred colonists set off for Mars. Space elevator cable! Complex interpersonal dynamics! Landscapes! Areography! Areophany!
Reread, after reading Neal Stephenson's Seveneves, to see how well my memories reflect the reality of the first novel in Robinson's Mars trilogy. Pretty well, is the answer. It must be nearly twenty years since I first read Red Mars, and Mars has come a long way since then. [pause for astronomical pedantry regarding orbits.] A couple of years back I sat in a dark room at the Maritime Museum and watched rover footage of the Martian landscape unroll in front of me, like a rather dusty travelogue. At home, I can put on a pair of 3D goggles, download an app on my phone,and 'wander around Mars', except without the hypothermia, oxygen starvation or lander-related trip hazards. (Or Matt Damon and his former commander's catalogue of classic disco tunes.) Mars has been mapped by Google, putting my late-90s SimEarth experiments to shame. Private enterprise (the Mars One project) has proposed a Mars colony by 2027. Mars is very much closer now than it was in 1995.
On the whole I have to say I find Robinson's novel more likeable than Seveneves. He waxes poetic without sentimentality (though some of his characters are prone to the latter), and he's considerably more compassionate. His characters -- or perhaps just his depictions of them -- seem more diverse, more distinctive than those in Seveneves. (More diverse as individual characters, that is: 70% of the First Hundred are American or Russian, with hilarious Cold-War-in-space rivalries.) Few, if any, of the Mars colonists are reliable narrators: while Stephenson's lot pride themselves on their level-headed scientific perspectives and behaviour, Robinson's characters are flawed, biased, selectively blind to those aspects of their situation that don't suit them.
There is perhaps more humour in Stephenson's novel than in Red Mars, and there is more physics. Robinson makes up for that with long discursions on political theory. (I confess I skipped those this time around.)
Another thing about Red Mars: it's about the destination, not the journey. The voyage to Mars is an interlude, while Seveneves is, for most of the novel, about being in transit. Seveneves made me appreciate life on a planet by describing life in space: Red Mars makes me want to go to Mars and see a different planet.
Rereading Red Mars reminded me of how much I like Robinson's prose. So, stay tuned for another KSR review soon!