Kim Stanley Robinson's massive award-winning Mars trilogy represents interesting challenges for both readers and writers. I recently described a short story by Edmond Hamilton, "A Conquest of Two Worlds" in which Mars and Jupiter are initially explored, colonized and finally entirely subjugated, all in the space of around 60 pages. Robinson's trilogy, concerned about the colonization and terraforming of Mars, comes in at around 1700 pages because he is interested in the details and personalities involved in the process. And, as you might expect, it's the details that are the most troublesome.
Red Mars is the first novel that I can recall that took time to think about the exasperating conditions of long-term space travel (Poul Anderson's Tau Plus does somewhat, but not to the extent that Robinson does). Imagine a years-long process by which a pool of thousands of candidates is winnowed down to one hundred to travel to Mars. And then that team must work together, probably for several more years before they board the confined quarters of a ship for nine months. While Robinson does not spend time on the training efforts, by the time the colonists start to travel they all know each other and their relationship patterns have been mostly set. So by the time they are actually on board the ship and travelling, they are likely to grow ridiculously bored along the way. Such travel is monotony punctuated by exercise and simulation cycles, and Robinson forces the reader to feel that weight. As such, it is a risk for the author—how far does he go to realistically portray how boring that flight will be and yet not go so far as to bore the readers into finding another book? Robinson dances that line very well, relying as our imaginary space travellers would, on the interrelationships of the crew to entertain. Robinson also cheats a little by providing an introduction that takes place years after the start of the novel, an introduction filled with intrigue and events that suggest to the readers that their patience will be rewarded.
When the colonists arrive, led in part by Maya Toitovna, Frank Chalmers, and John Boone, themselves already a romantic triangle, they begin to build on Mars to suit their image of what Mars should be. Some see Mars as a place where they can refute all the prejudices that Earth carries and begin working on a free-form culture and architecture to reflect it. Some immediately begin working on making Mars as much like Earth as possible, beginning terraforming projects that may take as much as thousands of years. Others wish Mars to remain pristine for study and find the idea of terraforming to be destructive, And still others tire of the arguments and separate themselves from the colony entirely. It is the intertwining of these points of view that make up the bulk of the novel, as the original colonists and those that follow try to make and maintain choices about the future of Mars.
Robinson divides the narrative up so that sections of the twenty or so years that novel covers are described by different voices and thus different points of view. This is a real strength of the novel, especially in character development: the way one character sees events and their role in them is not the same way that other characters see them. The section of the novel dealing with the flight from Earth to Mars is narrated by Toitovna, the head of the Russian delegation. Through her eyes, we see her as completely rational, a product of her strict Russian upbringing and assured about the decisions she makes. But as the novel goes on, we see her from the point of view of three of her closest friends, and her self-described image doesn't hold up to their observations—she is emotional, at times to the point of ineffectiveness, and as likely to get in the way of progress as to help it along. These multiple viewpoints make for fascinating and realistically rounded characters, the forces that have to drive what cold otherwise be a long, dry novel.
As compelling as the characters are, the ongoing history of Earth as it falls prey to overpopulation, global warming, and exploitation by multinational corporations that hold no allegiance to any country is also fascinating. It is this troubled foundation which looks to Mars as the solution to all its issues, and which brings so much strife to the colonies there in repetition of patterns that readers know too well from their knowledge of contemporary history. The effects of the decisions of the corporations and governments are humanized by the individual points of view that Robinson provides. What could be treated as more news reports is made visceral as characters that we've come to know must deal with the consequences of greed and poor planning.
Robinson remains unafraid throughout the book to emphasize how slowly history usually moves. Characters spend days crossing the deserts of Mars alone in rovers, and the reader is there for nearly their whole passage. Life, often mundane and boring, goes on at its own pace even as world-changing events unfold. The result is that, as I set the book down, the first novel I thought to compare it to is Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, where the entire history of mankind is described through the lens of their place in the galaxy. Slow and uneven, Stapledon doesn't really have any characters, just historical movements that affect humanity's place in the universe. Red Mars sometimes feels similarly slow, but for reasons of realism and development. In fact, Robinson's novel starts the long process of forcing one planet to take on the ecology of another, a process that generally takes eons if it were to occur naturally. The stateliness of nature is being countered by the hand of man in this novel, so the reader must learn to forgive the pace for its breakneck speed, even if it seems slow from our fairly short-term perspective.
Red Mars is a powerful novel for its efforts to humanize and realistically portray the next great human adventure, travelling to our neighbor planet and beginning the process of asserting man's will on the cosmos. Nearly the entire history of speculative fiction has been premised on just such an expedition, and Robinson has masterfully presented it in both the terms of astronomical time and the limited perspective of a human lifetime. So in many ways, Red Mars culminates the tradition while opening it up to exploration from modern points of view.