Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Because orange doesn’t roll off the tongue

I saw Kim Stanley Robinson (KST) at a Q&A with George RR Martin at UCSD in 2016. KST is alum and I enjoyed his A’s, so I figured I’d enjoy his book and do him a solid; my purchase should hopefully get him a good lunch, at least a cookie. Go Tritons!

After reading the book I feel like I witnessed something great, but didn’t really experience it. Like a toddler at game 7 of the NBA finals who is too young to know what the finals are but knows something amazing is happening (do toddlers go to NBA games?) . Or more like myself going to that same game but in the nosebleeds and I forgot my glasses. Here’s a less metaphorical explanation.

This was my first audiobook (clocking in at 24 hours). I struggled with it for a few reasons, mainly related to it coming through my ears and not my eyes.

1. The book has otherworldly descriptions (most of it is on Mars donchaknow) that need some time to be processed, and replaying is finicky and a chore (+- 30 seconds on Audible) relative to moving your eye(ball?)s

2. I found myself imagining a person in a room talking into a microphone while reading, rather than experiencing the actual story

3. It was hard to tell who was speaking without indentations and whatnot; the narrator switches his voice up which works well for two characters speaking, but gets confusing as the people add up

4. I would listen in the wrong places. I read (present tense..english sucks) often right before sleeping and I don’t have much trouble staying up if I’m not tired but audio is completely different…the book became a lullaby

1 and 4 I can avoid on my next audiobook. 2 and 3 I hope to train away by listening to more audiobooks, maybe simpler ones that I have read before.


Below is a bungle of a linear plot summary (or a genius reinterpretation if I may) of KST’s amazing Red Mars. The italic is from wiki research, filling in plot holes and making corrections. Pretend the nonitalic stuff is written by the aforementioned toddler and be amazed…he is growing up so fast!

John Boon is the first person to go to Mars. He is a great American hero and beloved by his countrymen and the world. His trip spurs (along with perhaps a worsening situation on Earth) a huge investment in space and a few years later an international group of 100 scientists is sent to colonize Mars. They got engineers, doctors, and all the ‘ists.

The journey is a few months long and although it starts swimmingly, cracks begin to show. The facade is over when one guy finally clears the air: “We were chosen to get along with each other, to be dutiful scientists who obey the will of those who sent us. But we were smart enough to know that, and crazy enough to go on this mission. Too crazy to obey and too smart to show our true natures”. It’s during this time on the ship that we first learn about many of the main characters, through the perspective of Maya, a highly emotional Russian leader.

-John Boon is the icon he is portrayed to be. Bold, fearless, maybe a bit simple. He is neutral and gets along with everyone, although he has no clear ideology about Mars, or at least he doesn’t show it.

-Frank Chalmers is the designated leader of the Americans. He is a boisterous and intelligent dude, but also has some disturbing tendencies observed by the ever keen Maya. He is very calculative with his actions, everything he does and says has a purpose; not “my purpose in life is to better humanity” but “my purpose is to have things be the way they should be and I am in an endless battle between the right way and other people’s ways”.

-Arcadi is the crazy Russian dude. He is a wildcard who reveals his intentions at the end of the trip. He wants to make Mars a better world than Earth ever was and can be. Rather than just do scientific experiments and prepare the way for future inhabitants, he wants to setup a whole new system based on science. Arcadi is not clear on what that means, but he doesn’t try to be clear; he is trying to convince the others, each of which is smarter than him in some field, through basic logic and pathos. It helps that Arcadi is very passionate and has a huge heart. He and his followers end up on the moon Deimos.

-Maya is the crazy shrewd Russian gal. She pays close attention to how the 100 behave on the ship and she doesn’t like how they break up into ideological groups. She doesn’t really do anything to stop it from happening…besides one thing. She sleeps with Frank a lot because she reasons that they are leaders of different nations and their closeness will get the two nations to be closer. As she learns about Frank’s nature she regrets sleeping with him, but continues to do so to not make him feel bad. She slowly weans him off by being more distant and friend zoning him, while proceeding to sleep with John whom she finds boring but safe. Maya came off as very similar to Frank, only she doesn’t realize it.

-Heroku is the reclusive Asian botanist. Although she doesn’t speak much, she has gathered a large following because of her smarts and work ethic.

-Nadia is a stout middle aged Russian woman who works really hard and has no patience for bullshit

When the 100 land on Mars they are relieved to work. The work consists of harvesting raw materials and using them to build settlements. They also begin some light terraforming. We follow Nadia and Arcadi (who are now a thing) in a flying contraption putting heaters around Mars that will gently warm the planet. Eventually they discover that someone has planted plant seeds (genetically engineered to survive) in the heaters. They suspect Heroku and it is pretty much confirmed when she later goes into hiding. The 100 was divided over whether to keep the planet sterile till they could learn more (the majority) or whether to terraform AQAP. Heroku decided for them.

Flash forward 50 years and most of the 100 are still kicking thanks to advancements in science (not available to the poor of course). Many thousands more people are living on Mars and the 100 are important, almost legendary leaders. John is investigating a series of sabotages on construction. Some group doesn’t want more people coming to Mars. Someone tries to murder John, a few times, but he keeps on with the detective work in heroic fashion. A police investigation team (which turns out to be corporate.. transnational/transnat) suspects John. Eventually the culprits reveal themselves to John, they till him to stay out of it and that they are keeping Mars free and good. John realizes, based on the resemblance of one of them to himself, that Heroku has been breeding the 100 (by collecting their hair?)

//This is where I began to get really lost

John goes to Arcadi, who reveals he is orchestrating a resistance against the transnats and can connect them to John. John embraces Arcadi’s vision of a Mars that is better than Earth. John goes and visits many of the resistance and hears them out. Basically the transnats are evil.

There is a party where a lot of the 100, including Heroku, are together. John makes a big reveal of what Heroku has done (people don’t seem to care beyond this one scene) and says the transnats need to be stopped and the 100 need to be united for Mars and form a MarsUnited party. There is enormous support for John, and things are looking up (idk where up is).

Fast forward maybe a few months and Frank is furious with John. This is a major event of the story (the book opens with it), but I can’t recall why exactly Frank wants John dead. Part of it is John and Maya are together, and John is more admired and powerful than Frank. Frank uses his silver tongue to convince an Arab kid that John is anti-Arab (it is partially true, John doesn’t like how separate the Arabs are from everyone, and how distant their culture is from his ideal Mars culture). The Arab kid kills John and the 100 are left headless.

Fast forward 20ish years and the 100 are playing politics with the Transnats, who are gaining more power. Frank tries to appease both sides, but the Transnats end up having the upper hand and many Martians, including Maya, resent him. There are many revolts happening across settlements and Frank goes to many, trying to appease them. Eventually he gets so frustrated he makes a threat that if they don’t stop, bad things could happen, and he destroys a settlement by doing something as simple as “popping a baloon”. Now Maya is super into him again (Maya annoys me to no end), but Frank is distrustful of everyone but they make it work.

The transnats are building a space elevator but Anne and her followers blow it up and a shitton of people die as the pieces land across Mars. Nadia and Maya and some others barely make it to the south pole where Heroku has been hiding out with a bunch of rebel scum. It’s a somber, hopeful ending…I think.


Now forget what you read, take a cold shower, and read the book or a proper summary.

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