Book Review: “Red Mars”

red mars

Cover image for Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel “Red Mars.”

When reading author Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1992 Nebula award-winning novel Red Mars, I made a decision I rarely consider. I stopped reading before I finished. Yes, it was that dull.

The book is actually the first in the Mars Trilogy describing the colonization, terraforming, and the final result of turning the fourth planet into an Earth-like environment over several centuries.

So what was so dull about the novel? I mean, the first part deals with passion, jealousy, and murder, so you’d think it would be exciting.

It has to be Robinson’s writing style. Even during “the action,” the presentation and characters were about as thrilling as watching grass grow (especially in early March in Idaho). The story is told through the points of view of several of the 100 initial colonists of the red planet, but their lives, even aboard a spacecraft and on the surface of Mars, is so ordinary. I didn’t particularly like or relate to any of them.

“Today, we took the dirigible to such and thus, long, slow, dull journey, had breakfast, talked about life, dropped off some technical equipment, made love all night long (yes, even the sex was boring), and yada, yada, yada.”

I really wanted to like this book, I mean it is the 1994 Nebula award winner, which meant that the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) must have thought it was pretty hot. Of course, when I looked it up , I didn’t recognize any of them.

Actually, I also looked up the author and reading about his usual themes and his political and social ideologies, I could see it all play out in the part of the novel (about the first third) I chose to consume (and it was a struggle from the beginning, I’m sorry to say).

His major themes are Nature and Culture, Ecological Sustainability, Economic and Social Justice, Scientists as Heroes, and Climate Change and Global Warming. I’m sure you see the trend. Of course none of that means he has to be a writer who fails to engage his readers, but I think in this case it does. Sure, other SF/F books include similar themes including those written by Robert A. Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Ursula K. Le Guin, all of whom I’ve read and enjoyed, but Robinson’s writing is more like a cross between a laundry list, spending a dull Sunday lazing around the house, and a lecture on environmentalism given by the most uninspiring instructor in the department.

Yes, I put it down and not only will I not finish it, but I most certainly won’t take a look at the two sequels.

So I got to thinking about the Nebula Awards. They were first issued in 1966, and since then until the present, I found out I’ve read 31 of the novels which either won or were nominated, including 17 of the winners.

The very first book to win a Nebula, and rightfully so, is Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” which also deals with environmental, political, and interpersonal relationships, but it’s one of the finest science fiction novels of the 20th century and perhaps of all time. Among the other winners I’ve read are Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon,” Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness,” Larry Niven’s “Ringworld,” and Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rendezvous with Rama.” I enjoyed all of those novels, so what makes “Red Mars” unenjoyable?

Really, just what I mentioned above. Of course, all of the novels I’ve mentioned won between 1967 and 1974. That’s a long time ago. Clarke’s novel won a full 20 years before Robinson’s, which leads me to believe that SFWA’s criteria for what makes up a “good” science fiction novel may have changed over time. I’ve previously mentioned this relative to the Hugo Awards. I understand that how we understand and evaluate a word of art (novel, film, television, music) changes with time and cultural preferences, so that might be part of what I’ve experienced.

The most recent Nebula award nominee I’ve read was N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, which, as I said, was nominated but didn’t win the Nebula for 2016, but I read it primarily because it did win a Hugo, and I wanted to educate myself about what makes an SF/F book an award winner in the 21st century.

Before that, I read the 2008 Nebula nominee “The Accidental Time Machine” by Joe Haldeman. That novel I did finish, but I swore never to read anything written by Haldeman again because the only purpose the book served was to let the author go out of his way to insult Christianity in every conceivable manner. Really, I don’t care of Haldeman is an atheist but he really, brutally rubbed the reader’s nose in his bias.

The last winner I read (or partially read in this case) is the aforementioned “Red Mars,” and before that, the 1987 winner, Orson Scott Card’s “Speaker of the Dead.”

With at least certain award-winning novels and other stories, I suspect part of what might put me off is the heavy leaning towards popular social and political ideologies. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, if I feel like I’m being lectured to more than anything else while reading a work of fiction, I’m probably not going to enjoy the experience.

But in Robinson’s case, I think it’s just the writing. It wasn’t that good. Of course the 63% of 1,045 readers on Amazon who gave it four or five stars would probably disagree with me, but not the 22% who gave it only one or two stars.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: “Red Mars”

  1. The only story by Mr. Robinson that I can recall reading was Aurora back in ’16, I think. It wasn’t too bad, at least for the first 2/3 of the book. It deals with a generation ship traveling to a new star system and then back to earth. It is slow in areas, and is heavy in socio themes, but it also has a decent mid-section that is more a dramatic theme. It was almost as if he was trying for a contemporary version of Orphans of the Sky. The last segment of the book was, imo, nothing more than environmental lecturing that had nothing to do with the first 2/3 of the book. Kinda put me off reading more of his work.


    • The worst possible example of this sort of “preachy” writing in the guise of fiction is Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” Each of her main characters gave the same, long, boring, ideological speech at several points in the novel culminating with John Galt’s radio announcement. Really, Rand was a terrible writer who could have gotten her point across in a book a third of the size. I think that’s probably the fundamental fault in Robinson’s works, at least if I have to go on “Red Mars” plus your comments. We all have some sort of theology, philosophy, or ideology that guides us, but when people read fiction, they want to read a human story.


  2. Books are so like that; just like movies. I have read Hadelman’s “All My Sins Remembered” and enjoyed it a lot.
    But I have also read and watched books and movies which were touted as a “must” and disliked them immensely.
    As you alluded to, a great majority loved them, but a decent portion usually doesn’t.


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