Review of “Blue Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson

Cover of Blue MarsBlue Mars (1996) is the third novel in Robinson’s “Mars Trilogy.” It concludes the speculative history of the colonization of Mars begun in Red Mars and continued in Green Mars, both of which I’ve already reviewed in this blog. From here on I’ll adopt Robinson’s names “Terra” for the Earth—the home planet—and “Luna” for the Moon—the Earth’s only natural satellite.

The novel begins in the early 22nd century with Mars sufficiently terraformed that liquid surface water forms rivers and oceans. The pressure and oxygen content of the atmosphere is adequate to support most of the plants and animals brought from Terra or their genetically engineered offspring. Conditions are rapidly approaching levels where people can also live almost as comfortably on Mars as on Terra. Indeed, much of the conflict in this novel is focused on the carrying capacity of the transformed planet. The event on Terra that sets the stage for interplanetary strife this time is a catastrophic collapse of the Antarctic icesheet and the rise in global sea level that follows. Refugees fleeing the coastal cities begin migrating to Mars, both legally and illegally, precipitating still another conflict between the now blue Mars and Terra.

Already in Green Mars, Robinson introduced the technology for moving asteroids around the inner solar system. In Blue Mars colonists begin putting them into orbits around Terra, Luna and Mars, spinning them and terraforming their hollowed out interiors for additional space to colonize. Explorers and colonists also begin departing for the moons of Jupiter, and scientists and engineers start working on ways for humans to live on Venus and Mercury with the long-term goal of terraforming Venus in particular.

In Blue Mars, people also begin to terraform the interior of asteroids for use as spaceships to explore the moons of the gas giants all the way out to Titania, the largest moon of Uranus. And, opening a new chapter in human history, communities of colonists equip these terraformed asteroid spacecraft with a new, pulsed fusion propulsion system and embark on journeys out into the stars to spread the human seed throughout the galaxy. Jackie Boone, the charismatic leader of the Free Mars political party, and her followers, disillusioned by their failure to prevent further immigration from Terra, set off for Aldebaran, 65 light-years away “…where a Mars-like planet rolled in an Earth-like orbit around a sun-like sun.” They plan to terraform the planet on arrival.

Increasing pressure from Terra to settle more immigrants on Mars again causes a good deal of conflict among the various Martian political parties, settlements and other interest groups. MangalaWiki (see link at lists eighteen such organized groups. Among the larger political parties, the Reds are the most radical. They favor keeping Mars more or less in its original condition and oppose any further efforts to terraform the planet. Ann Clayborne had taken this position even before the First Hundred landed on Mars. She continues to be the party’s senior theoretician  and still influences the party’s stands and activities two hundred years later. The Kakaze are Red extremists, who favor violence and sabotage, while the MarsFirst party is the most moderate wing of the Reds.

The main opposition comes from the Greens, who push for developing the Martian surface to the point of supporting normal human occupancy. This was Sax Russell’s original position, among the First Hundred at Underhill, the first colony. The deep ideological difference between Ann and Sax, the subject of a much publicized debate between them, became one of the conflicts among the residents of Mars just before a second revolt against Earth got under way. The Greens also realistically argue that in light of the flooding on Terra, the Martians are obliged to accept more immigrants. Several of the smaller parties have various shades of the Green position. Many Martian natives, for example, joined the Free Mars party.

The second Martian revolution in 2127 succeeds where the first in 2061 failed because the Martian revolutionary forces are much better organized and prepared the second time. This time the revolution begins with peaceful protests all over the planet. Sax Russell unleashs a rocket-based defense system he has developed that prove capable of destroying the Terran firepower maintained in orbit. (The Terran military forces were nominally under UN command but were armed and supported by metanational corporations.) The revolutionaries took advantage of their new freedom from attack to organize and arm themselves.

An armed crowd of protestors in Underhill confront the metanational troops stationed there and gives them the option of joining the revolution or taking the train to Sheffield where there was a large concentration of Terran troops. The troops chose to leave. This drama is then repeated in towns all over the planet. Terran troops retreat to enclaves in the largest city, Burroughs, and in Sheffield.

In the only military action, the Kakaze lose a battle for the city of Sabishii against a large Terran force and fall back to defend Burroughs. In a senseless act of eco-terrorism, they breach a dam protecting the city, forcing the Terran army to evacuate the city but apparently leaving the residents no time to escape. However, foreseeing the vulnerability of the city, Sax has developed, mass produced and stockpiled in Burroughs, relatively inexpensive masks that filter out carbon dioxide, making the air breathable. The residents walk 70 kilometers to high ground without using helmets with an oxygen supply.

Meanwhile, the Kakzes move to attack Terran troops at Sheffield but are met with a well-organized revolutionary militia that has taken control of Sheffield. When the radical group ignored a demand that they let the Terran troops leave peacefully, they were met by fellow colonists and defeated in a bloody battle that left Mars free of Terran sovereignty.

Independent of Terra at last, the political parties call a constitutional convention in Pavonis Mons. In the chapters that follow, Robinson gives the reader a speculative history of how contemporary Americans might rewrite their Constitution in the image of Robinson’s utopian vision–were a constitutional convention ever to be called under the amendment provisions in that document. This is a blow-by-blow account of how agreement on a final document is hammered out and then ratified in a planet-wide general election. There are a great many interesting ideas here, and since most of them are motivated by philosophical themes that run through the trilogy, I’ll discuss them in my last post on the Mars Trilogy.

In the third revolution a similar crisis is resolved by peaceful negotiations between the Earth and the new planetary government of Mars. Ann Clayborne and Maya Toitovna, with Sax Russell’s advice and encouragement, help convince the quarrelling factions to agree to the terms of a new treaty that requires the current residents of Mars to accept a new wave of immigrants in exchange for a guarantee of complete independence for the Red Planet. What happens then is a long-term cultural revolution. The diverse and fragmented local democracies scattered across the surface of Mars find peaceful ways to deal with the broad ethnic spectrum of refugees that have arrived in illegal landers.

Another development in the plot is the increasing frequency of death among the remaining ancients from a syndrome referred to as the quick decline. Now more than 200 years old, thanks to the genetic repair treatments they’ve had, they are as spry as today’s 70-year-olds until their unexpected deaths. As the name implies, the person has sudden, catastrophic somatic failure ending quickly in death. So far no one has been able to isolate a cause; the only common feature is the precipitous collapse.

I was reminded of Aldous Huxley’s vision in Brave New World of death among the humans produced in factories. They too suffered a short period of rapid deterioration of the body, as though aging had suddenly caught up with youthful specimens at a certain point and they physically fell apart all at once, much like Dorian Gray’s portrait did. However, Huxley had his mass produced humans die more slowly after only half a century, not two and a half.

When Sax witnesses Michel’s death, it has a major impact on him, and in a characteristic response, he begins an intellectual assault on the problem. He emerges from his literature search with the conclusion that a package of targeted therapies might help the ancients recover some of their memories. He enlists the help of two of the remaining hundred who arrived on the Ares, and they develop a memory-restoration drug cocktail for the brain. He contacts thirteen of the remaining fourteen ancients and persuades them to come to Underhill–the original colony has now becomes a kind of museum–to receive the “anamnestic” treatment together in the context of their first shared experience on Mars.

Ann Clayborne, the remaining ancient however, is the only one he is unable to reach electronically. As he anticipates recovering more of his memories, he reflects on his controversy with her over terraforming the Martian surface and realizes how much a part of his life she has been. “All his reflections on what happened to Mars, he thought, were framed as a conversation with Ann.” He learns from inquiries that she is currently living in a climbers’ community on the crater floor of Mars’s highest extinct volcano, Olympus Mons. He decides to locate her himself and ask her to join the other ancients in the memory treatment. When he finds her, she suggests they hike up out of the stupendous crater, and when they reach the crater rim, she agrees to join the others at Underhill.

Remaining with Sax’s viewpoint, Robinson describes the subjective experience of the anemnestic treatment. Throughout the episode, Robinson repeatedly displays his knowledge of the psychology of memory circa 1990. His account is an exercise in literary excess. [p. 661] Describing the emotions Sax felt simultaneously, he uses ten different words and the following: “…a kind of nostalgia to the nth degree, a fullness, even bliss—pure sublimity.”

During the memory treatment, Sax and Ann are reconciled both philosophically and romantically.  From a literary perspective, the scenes in Underhill serve an important purpose in recapitulating Robinson’s story of the colonization of Mars. It’s a clever and elegant literary device for readers who have followed the details of all three novels. Contrary to all principles of successful fiction writing, Blue Mars ends, not with a bang but a whimper. I won’t go into detail so that readers who prefer the leisurely pace of nineteenth century classics will not have the idyllic conclusion spoiled.

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