14 January 2013

Blue Mars

Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
1997 Hugo Award Winner
Narrated by Richard Ferrone
Got it from: Public Library
31h 52m

Blue Mars is the inevitable conclusion of the Mars Trilogy.  In Blue Mars the First Hundred have been whittled away.  Humanities problems have outgrown Mars.  Terraforming takes on real nuance.  Politics remains deadly.  To read Blue Mars without reading the rest of the series is impossible.  To talk about Blue Mars without talking about the rest of the series, would be distressingly inadequate.

History’s Epilogue
As one begins the Mars Trilogy, one is struck by size of the solar system, Kim Stanley Robinson’s imaginative muscle, and the sheer and utter coolness of the planet Mars.  Very quickly one realizes that while KSR may have given us some of the most complex and memorable characters in all of SF, and while Mars may be the character, in fact the Mars Trilogy is the story of the evolution of humanity.  I know… Sax would try to tell me “it’s just phenotypes,” but I’m telling you, in these books…Mars is really just a tool.  Mars.  Doesn’t.  Matter.

Don’t kill me yet, hear me out.

I realize this is probably one of the top 5 most sacrilegious SF statements I could ever make, and if each Red, Green and Blue Mars were taken as stand-alone novels, I’d not say the same thing, but Blue Mars makes it clear that KSR always intended that (while Mars is a super-ultra-cool part of the books) Mars would play a supplementary role.  In Blue Mars, we begin to see that the relatively tiny carrying capacity of Mars will limit its ability to remain relevant in the ongoing political turmoil on Earth, but you see…Mars was also never meant to be the destination.  In Blue Mars we’ve gone beyond those Martians who no longer care about Earth; now Uranians have stopped caring about Mars.

In Blue Mars we’ve also witnessed the near complete triumph of human technology over billions of years of Martian history, over the entire notion of the “natural world”, and of human evolution.

Gene therapy can have you purring like a cat if you want.  Literally.

And that’s how we knew that Sax was wrong, it wasn’t just phenotypes.  In Blue Mars…humans are undeniably different, and genetic differences are just the beginning.

In the late-80’s to early 90’s, around the time of the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama (and the rest of academia – whether they agreed or not) started talking about “The End of History”.  “History” hadn’t stopped, but he argued the realm of socio-political progress had reached its conclusion.  The Western Ideals of Capitalism and Democracy, while not yet perfect, represented the final frontier of political philosophy.  The Socialist Vision and Communism had been physically, philosophically, fundamentally overcome.  Though not without its detractors, The End of History became a popular idea that influenced both right and left thinkers.  I haven’t read it in some time but I remember the essay being at once philosophically stimulating and horrifying.  Not entirely unlike any of the Mars Trilogy in fact.

At this same time, as the academic world was caught in the whirlwind of History’s End and debates about socialism’s ability to continue to exist as a political/philosophical possibility, Kim Stanley Robinson won 2 Hugo Awards, 1 Nebula Award, 3 Locus SF Awards, 1 BFSA Award, and countless nominations with a trilogy built on the very idea that the socialist vision has not only survived the cold war, but represents the inevitable result of humanity’s expansion to the rest of the solar system, that patriarchy is a serious impediment to democracy, and that the entire democratic process has been hijacked by privatization.

I wrote in my review of Green Mars, about some of the transformational aspects of the novel, how they made the book great.  In Blue Mars, the transformational potential of the series is finally and fully realized and it makes the series practically transcendental.

If one never makes it to the conclusion of this trilogy, Red and Green Mars may very well seem to exist entirely within Fukayama’s worldview, where Western democracy and capitalism seem to be, if clearly flawed, so ingrained and insurmountable that even striking out to colonize Mars won’t break us free of their grasp.  And while KSR does begin to dismantle this idea in Green Mars, it isn’t until Blue Mars, the dissolution of patriarchy and the money economy, and the “accelerando” that it becomes absolutely clear his vision of what I suppose in light of Fukuyama’s essay, one might call, “history’s epilogue”.

Just about everyone talks about how immersive and lived-in and realistic these books are.  The perceived realness of this trilogy is always front and center in any online discussion and in light of the fact that KSR does not tread lightly when he comes to the socio-politico-philosophical debates -- one cannot enjoy these books without enjoying these debates -- I have to believe this is an indication that the SF community still recognizes a valuable dialogue taking place and believes the dialectic has not in fact reached its inevitable conclusion.

But there IS still Mars…
Well, obviously Mars still matters…I won’t completely rule it out.  Mars is still the revolutionary hot plate.  Mars and Martians, are still developing.  And the sunsets so are beautiful.  

The same kind of thing continues.  This time, Ann’s character was absorbing in that transformative way that approaches Sax’s metamorphosis in Green Mars.  But in Blue Mars, and throughout the trilogy, characters like Ann Clayborne, Arkady Bogdanov, John Boone, Nadia of the Nine Fingers, Hiroko Ai, Sax Russell are convincing and memorable enough to take home the Hugo.  And though I downplay it here, Robinson’s treatment of Mars deserves its own Hugo award.  Every.  Time.

Blue Mars is the piece of the trilogy for which I feel least enthusiasm.  Obviously, if you haven’t read Red or Green Mars, you should not read this book.  While I may have been biased, I thought that Green Mars deserved the Hugo in its own right.  I’m not sure I can say the same about Blue Mars, though the weightiness of the political outcomes and the continued growth of some seriously deep rooted characters makes hard not to.  All that being said, Blue Mars was as immersive and mind-numbing as any other SF in existence.


Universe 5/5
Social/Political Climate 4/5
Dialogue 5/5
Scientific Wonders 4/5
Characters 5/5

Overall 23/25

This week I'm working on The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, my very last Hugo from the 1990's!


  1. Great review, I am looking forward to reading this one! I'm going to start it once I finish this month's WoGF title. So Ann gets a lead role this time? That's great, I always wished she'd get some more page-time! It sounds like Robinson has a lot to say in the trilogy's concluding novel.

    1. She doesn't necessarily get any more page time than anyone else, but I really enjoyed her treatment. I think you will too, though as before, she really struggles with her personal demons. The longstanding feud between her and Sax is rekindled and while I didn't necessarily love the conclusion, I had fun getting there.

  2. I am drawn to this due to the socio-political aspect and this part in particular: " the dissolution of patriarchy and the money economy, and the “accelerando” that it becomes absolutely clear his vision of what I suppose in light of Fukuyama’s essay, one might call, “history’s epilogue”."

    Do you have an opinion on books in a series that do not really stand-alone winning major awards?


    1. I am of two minds and I expect to write more about it someday. For now, I think it's important to remember that the Hugo Award doesn't exist outside of the greater context SF generally nor outside of fan favorites specifically. Members can nominate and members vote so if one is looking for impartiality, I don't think the Hugo Award is the way to go.

      As someone reading through the list somewhat out of context, it can be pretty aggravating when I hope to read the years best and find something that doesn't make sense as a stand-alone novel. Since I'm undecided, I've mentioned it in a couple reviews when I think it's an issue, but I don't think I've ever specifically used it in my criteria for the HEP Score.

      That was a good question because I've been thinking about the very thing quite a lot recently. Thanks!

    2. Yeh, Hugo is a good indication of the popularity of both book and author in a period. I guess fans were awestruck by Robinson's immense saga, both in character development and science. Blue Mars is a good conclusion to the series, even though I find the prequals a lot more engaging.

    3. I agree and that's a good way to characterize it. I felt myself disengage from this one in a way that I hadn't done with the others. Still great though...

    4. thanks for the reminder clarification on the Hugo. I'm fairly new to Sci-Fi (books anyway) and I forget that the Hugo differs in that way. I like this about the Hugo though. It comes from the community versus being handed down to the masses by the 'intellectuals' as it sometimes feels with the big-L literary awards. although you can still track some of the cultural trends, at least in the establishment.

      looking forward to you thinking on the winners out of series thing.


    5. I forget it myself and have to stop myself from getting to worked up over why Red Mars didn't win...

  3. Have you read 2312 yet? It was a solid standalone, and I'd probably place it and Red Mars at the top of my KSR list (though I've only read a few of his other standalones, and not hit Green or Blue Mars). I wonder how you'd feel about a non-Mars KSR book.

    1. Wow. That's saying something. I don't know where I should start after the Mars books. There are a couple, including 2312, that I'm really interested in. But hey, isn't 2312 pretty much in the same universe? I thought I read an interview that said it wasn't the same "intellectual universe" or something along those lines - not the same story or people but coming from the same place.

    2. Well, you could probably say it's in the same "Universe" in a general sense, but not all of facts will match up (I think I read KSR saying that he didn't wanted to be limited by the timelines of the original trilogy). I still think Red Mars was better, I just prefer 2312 to some of KSR's other standalones, like "Icehenge," and "The Martians." It felt a little more ambitious and expansive, though in some ways I think it's inferior to Red Mars for trying to be ambitious and expansive without. quite. hitting it. I mean, I'm calling them standalones in the sense that they're not part of the trilogy, and they're not trying to do the same things that those three are.

    3. Okay, I think I thought it was really within the same space. That's okay, it is on my radar either way. I've also been curious about The Years of Rice and Salt but I confess it is just because I like the cover :) But considering your recommendation, I'll probably begin with 2312.


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