There are several similarities between the fiction of Robinson and that of C.J. Cherryh, especially her Union-Alliance novels. Both write deliberate, detailed examinations of people living in a situation different from what they are used to. Both consider the political implications of events, and their plots are generally event-driven. There are major differences as well. Their settings are worlds apart (literally). Robinson rarely strays far from Earth, his Mars stories being about as far as he tends to go (until he bravely took Galileo to Jupiter in his latest novel Galileo’s Dream, and I’ve read that his next trilogy will be a space opera), while Cherryh wanders far from the solar system. She also tends to analyze human-alien interaction, while Robinson is content to explore how humans interact with each other. But while their means may differ, their intent is fairly similar: analyzing how people deal with difficult adjustments.
Red Mars is the first book in a trilogy which details fairly precisely how humans might colonize and terraform their nearest neighboring planet. It begins with the first hundred colonists, who become media stars as their long flight and settlement are broadcast across Earth on an almost-daily basis. So while viewers on Earth see an ongoing reality show, we readers see almost constant bickering among the hand-picked hundred. They were chosen for a combination of scientific expertise and the ability to subjugate their personal feelings toward the common goal. While the former might have been done successfully, the latter was a total failure, as their differing views, goals and personalities bring them into almost total opposition, so that bickering becomes more common than compromise.
The unofficial leaders of the group are Frank, a consummate politician from the United States contingent, and Maya, an emotional leader from the Russian group. Other dominant colonists are:
· John, who was the first astronaut to visit the red planet, and whose decades-long celebrity has given him considerable influence among the colonists;
· Ann, a rigid proponent of not terraforming Mars, but maintaining its pristine condition;
· Sax, the scientific leader of the colonists, who devises most of the ideas for terraforming Mars;
· Hiraku, the head of the gardens providing the colonists with food, who forms a cult of followers who ultimately flee the settlement to live hidden away in the Arean wilderness;
· Arkady, a “wild card” who almost from the beginning of the flight advocates vociferously the colonists’ need to ignore the United Nations’ demands and become an independent society.
Much of the first third of the novel takes place during the flight, when the hundred colonists plan their settlement while bickering constantly. Once they reach the planet, things improve somewhat as different groups head off in different directions to do their colonizing, exploring, and terraforming. Things worsen though as the UN begins sending additional colonists, so that tensions between groups become inevitable, and sabotage against the terraforming starts taking place, including at least one attempt on the life of John, the most visible proponent of terraforming.
John is the main character in the middle-third of the novel, as he rushes from settlement to settlement handling disputes and pushing the goal of terraforming Mars. After his assassination—which is revealed in the first chapter of the book—Frank becomes the viewpoint character as he deals with the growing difficulties of out-of-control immigration with no master plan for the assimilation of so many people, as well as increased interference in the affairs of Mars by multi-national corporations(the transnationals). In spite of Frank's efforts, conditions are getting worse and worse until the rebellion starts, as colonists attack transnationals, UN police attack settlers, and the whole planet is on the verge of exploding.
Red Mars is a strong novel equally-divided between political and human-interest concerns. I selected it as my book-of-the-year in 1992, and I see no reason to change that high opinion of the book upon this latest reading of it.