RED MARS, by Kim Stanley Robinson, A No-Spoiler Review of the Classic Scifi Novel

The Short Review

5 reasons RED MARS is a must-read for the scifi fanatic and anyone remotely interested in planetary geology:

  1. RED MARS is a KSRobinson classic, published in 1992 and winner of the Nebula and the first of his acclaimed Mars Trilogy
  2. The story imagines life on Mars in a way that feels scientifically viable and compelling, therefore relevant to the current and growing conversation around Mars exploration
  3. Scientists are the narrators of this story. They are also the heroes, sometimes the villains, the problem solvers and the work horses. I was especially drawn to the “builder” character, Nadia 
  4. The planetary geology content, naturally integrated into the story, is breathtakingly fun
  5. Despite being over 170K words long, KSR does not get bogged down in the “how would that ever be possible” science scenarios, but drives the story forward through characters and the politics that pressure a budding Martian community


The Longer Review

RED MARS tells the story of the first 100 scientists sent to Mars by a multi-national Earth entity called UNOMA, United Nations of Martian Affairs. The story PG-13 (for some sexual content) follows about 10 of those scientists closely, though many others are referred to and are part of the action in direct and indirect ways. The novel is broken up into eight parts and each of the parts has a different primary narrator. I do think Robinson’s choice on point of view works in a novel this long, adding a level of complexity and depth to the very audacious idea that Mars might be “tamed” by human beings.  Robinson plays with themes around the idea that really smart people might be able to build a better civilization from scratch, and form some kind of utopia, but does not make the task easy on the idealogues within his story.

Various characters, all of whom are scientists in one discipline or another, give voice to ideas of alternative governing and living environments. The sharing of abundant resources is the initial reality for the first 100, but eventually, when new groups arrive on Mars, the corporations who have funded the exploration and building, come calling for the planet’s vast natural resources.

The conflict that arises is somewhat predictable and draws out the best and worst of the people in charge who are trying to manage a fragile, but quickly expanding human presence on Mars. 

Meanwhile, Earth is falling into total chaos. Robinson does not spend any time showing the reader Earth itself, but shows it  via news stories viewed by the inhabitants of Mars. Earth’s chaos is also a reason why many thousands of migrants are streaming to the new world. Robinson does lean left in his politics (proudly so) and sees corporate giants as the villain, though the villain is also amorphous in the story. Robinson’s ideas don’t come across as preachy to me. He’s a deep thinker and a thoughtful writer, so he understands the grittiness of governing and the probable impossibility of building that utopia even if one does start with 100 brilliant scientists. 

Many science fiction readers will not mind the length of RED MARS, but at times, I confess to being a bit bored and wondered…Where is this story going? However, I did stick it out and the payoff was decent. It stands alone as a novel, without the kind of cliffhangers that drive you to the second book. Will I read the next two books in the trilogy? Probably yes, but not this summer. 


by Cixin Liu

Worthy of a Physics/Calculus Teacher’s Attention particularly high school and particularly for AP or IB Physics students

ALSO instructive for discussions in philosophy and ethics (see bottom paragraph)

High school physics instructors or calculus instructors…this novel would make a great summer reading assignment before your class begins in the Fall. One, the story is entertaining. Two, the story portrays historically some of the greatest physicists to walk planet Earth. Three, The Three Body Problem itself, the actual physics problem, this engages the physicist’s and the mathematician’s mind, Newtonian physics and all that jazz…Not that I understand it all, but I believe these the guys who write on the website: The excerpt below is from their website

The Three Body Problem is to exactly solve for the motions of three (or more) bodies interacting through an inverse square force (which includes gravitational and electrical attraction).

The problem with the 3-body problem is that it can’t be done, except in a very small set of frankly goofy scenarios (like identical planets following identical orbits).

The unsolvability of the 3-body problem, rather than being an embarrassing hole in physics, an obvious but unsolved problem, is actually the norm. In physics, the number of not-baby-simple, exactly solvable problems can be counted on the fingers of one hand (that’s missing some fingers), and that includes the 2-body problem.

The dynamics of one body is pretty straight forward, in as much as it travels straight forward.

The dynamics of two bodies, while not trivial, can be reduced by pretending that one body is sitting still, and then restricting all of your attention to the other body.  Using that technique, you find (or, at least, Newton found) that the motion of a body under gravity is an ellipse. The same idea can be applied to the quantum mechanics of electrons and protons to find the exact structure of the electron shells in hydrogen (1 proton + 1 electron = 2 bodies). In that case you’re not talking about actual orbits, but the idea is similar.

But, for three bodies, there doesn’t seem to be a fancy trick for finding solutions. As a result, the exact behavior of 3 or more bodies can’t be written down. The exact energy levels and orbital shell shapes in anything other than hydrogen is impossible to find.  Even deuterium (hydrogen with one extra neutron)! Can’t be done.

Despite that, we do alright, and happily, reality doesn’t concern itself with doing math, it just kinda “does”. For example, quantum field theory, despite being the most accurate theory that ever there was, never involves exactly solving anything. Once a physicist gets a hold of all the appropriate equations and a big computer, they can start approximating things. With enough computing power and time, these approximations can be made amazingly good. Computer simulation and approximation is a whole science unto itself.

The main actors in THE THREE BODY PROBLEM are almost all physicists and/or mathematicians and they’re nerdy, but not dweebs. Read chapter 5, A Game of Pool if you want a taste of what the novel offers. Then, there is the virtual reality, which unfolds as a puzzle/game and is played often by nanotechnology researcher, Wang Miao. Wang is compelled to understand the mystery introduced in the early chapters of the novel and realizes that the game is key to the revelation he seeks. In the game world, Wang walks through the history of physics with virtual characters like Confucius (our earliest physicists were primarily philosophers…a helpful connection for students to make), Newton and Einstein. Trisolara happens to be grappling with the three body problem. It is a planet in a solar system where there are three suns. The game players, along with the philosophers and physicists throughout history try again and again, in a systematic way, to solve the problem of the planet’s impending destruction. To go through each game level, Wang encounters physicists who have furthered the thinking regarding the problem. It’s like taking a course called The Intro to Physics…all this learning while the reader hurtles toward the big reveal at the end of the novel. Ah…to be entertained while learning…tis a wonderful thing. At the very least, THE THREE BODY PROBLEM ought to raise the curiosity level of your students and give them a glimpse of the relevance of physics and math to their everyday lives.

For the ethicist/philosopher, THE THREE BODY PROBLEM raises interesting issues about elites thinking they know best for all. The Cultural Revolution in China drives the narrative in the early chapters. Many elites are driven out of their positions of authority, killed or exiled by the communist party as it takes power. The author calls this a madness. (Chapter 1’s title is: The Madness Years). However, within the communist party, a new breed of elites rise to the top. Later, toward the final chapters of the novel, a group of environmental activists, along with men and women Liu specifies as elites across the globe, use their power to set in motion what they hope will be Earth’s salvation (knowing that saving the planet may come at the expense of most or all human lives). This small group of people have become judge, jury and executioner for humanity. Moreover, their hope for saving the Earth might not evolve the way they imagine. The stage is set for a discussion about power, elitism, environmental degradation and what might be ways to stem our self-destructive/planet-destroying tendencies.

To read a No-Spoiler review of this novel, click THREE BODY PROBLEM, Book Review

To buy THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, click here.