Plot and Style in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy

It took me three months to read Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars Trilogy,” and I’m not really done yet! Robinson also has a collection of short stories, The Martians (1999), based on material he didn’t include in the other three books. I read and reviewed Red Mars, the first book, in March, Green Mars, the second, in April, and Blue Mars, the last, in May. They’re long books: The paperback editions run: Red Mars, 572 pages, Green Mars, 624 pages, and Blue Mars, 761 pages. The Martians (1999) adds a modest 336 pages to a 1957-page speculative history of the colonization of Mars. (Incidentally, the Red Mars review was included in my essay on Robinson and his other trilogy about scientists, “Science in the Capital.”)

Once again I found myself with more material than I could fit into my self-imposed limit of 1500 words, so I’ve split what was to be my final post on the Mars trilogy into two parts, the present one, which discusses several aspects of Robinson approach to writing, and the next and last one which reflects on several themes that run through the trilogy.

Speculative Fiction vs. Historical Fiction

As I worked my way through the three novels of the Mars Trilogy, I was repeatedly reminded of the style and structure of James Michener’s popular novels, especially Hawaii, his earliest one, and Poland, one of his later ones. His books are histories of places, eg, the State of Hawaii and the nation of Poland, told from the point of view of fictional ordinary people. Typically, these characters are caught up in the great events described in political and military history books. They often witness or participate in the important events in the lives of the kings, generals, and politicians of the time.

The difference is that Robinson’s trilogy is a “history” of the future exploration of the solar system—a speculative history, if you will. In this respect the trilogy resembles Robinson’s later novel, Years of Salt and Rice, which is an alternative, and therefore speculative, history of civilization. Another important difference is that the fictional characters are by and large the individuals who are leaders in the military and political history of the colonization of Mars.

Beyond the time frame and the characters, there are other differences between Robinson’s speculative history and nonfiction histories. Most important is the fact that science, both established theories and factual information, and speculative projections of scientific knowledge at the end of the twentieth century, play a central role in the story. Still another striking difference is Robinson’s preoccupation with current political issues, for example, climate change and the pernicious effect of powerful (and wealthy) corporations on matters as important as politics, war and economic development.

Speculative Fiction to Science Fiction Within One Trilogy

Another feature of these novels caught my attention while I was reading them the first time. There is a steady march of the storyline from speculative, near-future fiction to more traditional distant-future science fiction. This has less to do with the books’ content and more to do with their genre classification. The beginning of Red Mars is similar to Rescue Mode and seems like a continuation of Bova and Johnson’s fictionalized but realistic proposal of how we could send a manned expedition to Mars in the near future. Red Mars requires very few additional assumptions about the technological feasibility of establishing the first colony there. By the last book, we have traveled far beyond contemporary science and technology—the realm of hardcore science-fiction..

Aside: “Telling versus Showing” (and the Publishing Industry)

Like Michener, Robinson spends a fair proportion of each Mars novel telling us what happened (“happens,” “will happen,” “might happen”??) instead of showing us. As a retired academic scientist, I continue to be fascinated by the degree to which the publishing industry is controlled by people who have very narrow, self-centered notions of what constitutes publishable fiction, but have established track records that show (1) that their ability to spot novels that will sell is much, much worse than meteorologists forecasting the weather, and (2) that the books they do publish often break every “rule” and guideline (including the “show, don’t tell” decree) laid down in the hundreds of how-to books on writing successful fiction. Not surprisingly, many of these manuals were written by successful authors, agents and editors. Robinson’s Mars Trilogy shows just how wrong they are.

I began this review of the trilogy with the phrase, “as I worked my way through [it].” I’ve warned readers repeatedly that unless they love discursive writing on complex and difficult issues, often very abstract philosophical debates, they’re going to put each of these books down long before the end, probably before finishing the first 100 pages! They can be very tough sledding for readers looking for page-turning action.

Long passages of fictional history that read like nonfiction history books are interspersed with gripping scenes involving life and death adventures in a very hostile environment. Lengthy scientific explanations (some highly speculative) are scattered through the books, and there are a few segments of philosophical reflections that will challenge even the most sophisticated readers. Some of the latter are dressed up as dialogue or internal monologues, but even so they can be strenuous reading. One has to wonder why agents and editors won’t look at intellectually rich but imaginative manuscripts from writers who haven’t yet established they can write page-turners.

Readership and Wiki Resources

Apparently, there are people who read and re-read these stories with the same passion the Harry Potter series has created. There is a fan base so engrossed in the details of the Mars trilogy that they have created an online “Mangala Wiki” on Robinson’s author website. (The name is derived from a Martian surface feature, Mangala Valles.) Although it covers all of Robinson’s novels, it focuses on the Mars Trilogy, described as his most well known work. And I wasn’t surprised to discover that PhD dissertations have been devoted to the trilogy!

I found the MangalaWiki website quite disorganized and uneven in its coverage of the trilogy. The system of links is not too bad, but many of the pages are works in progress. The main page for the trilogy is promising, with links to each of the three books, to an overall timeline (very helpful to readers confused about the sequence of fictional events), to a character list with one page for the First Hundred and another for the others, to a list of the political parties and groups, to a list of places, particularly colonial cities and settlements, and to a glossary. The links to Red Mars and Green Mars, are disappointing because none of the chapter summaries have been filled in. Only the link to Blue Mars has a chapter by chapter synopsis. The pages for all three novels do have short summaries and a timeline for each novel. Fortunately, there’s a concise site map at the bottom of every page.

It’s difficult to know what the best organization for such a site might be because it isn’t clear who the consumers are. Are they prospective readers, forgetful readers, confused readers, literary critics or just the fans and enthusiasts? All of these links are potentially useful to readers who come across words and names they know they’ve seen but can’t recall what they refer to 100 to 200 pages later! This is true of secondary chracters who are absent from the narrative for long stretches, often in later novels. And the ManaglaWiki is especially useful in keeping all the political parties sorted out.

The Martian political parties can be especially confusing. The political reds want to keep the red planet red. That’s easy enough until you realize it makes the reds conservatives—also environmentalists. The greens, on the other hand, want to turn Mars green like Earth. And one way of doing that is to pollute the atmosphere! To make matters worse, there are parties left and right of reds and greens and many in between that lean one way or the other. One of the latter is the moderate red-leaning “Free Mars” party, whose name is a slogan that resonates with all but a few Martians. The most radical far right group, the Kakazes, favoring eco-terrorism (thus violently changing the red planet) early in the trilogy and turning to guerilla warfare later on. (Got it? One red party wants to destroy Mars to save it.) Still, these ambiguities and contradictions are realistic. However, even devoted fans can be excused when they have to consult the lineup to figure out who’s on the right!

An alternative source that will be useful to some readers is found on Wikipedia. The Mars Trilogy article has a more scholarly flavor than MangalWiki. A single page contains plot summaries for each of the three novels, paragraphs describing the major themes in the trilogy, and a brief description of many of the characters. The introduction mentions some interesting context information, such as a reference to Robinson’s novel Icehenge. Spoiler alerts apply to all these reference sources, by the way.

Finally, this thought: How do suppose an agent or editor would react to a first time writer’s manuscript that required a concordance to keep the story moving?

Two Hundred Year Old Characters

One last comment a propos Robinson’s approach to writing: Having characters that live a century or more beyond today’s lifespan helps to give the trilogy more continuity throughout a story that lasts more than 150 years. Obviously, this wasn’t a trick Michener could get away with!

Reviews of the three novels in the Mars Trilogy can be found at Red MarsGreen Mars and Blue Mars. Comments on some of the characters in the Mars Trilogy appear in my previous post.

, , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply