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You Probably Won’t Read These Books: The Mars Trilogy

So, if you check my post at the beginning of 2016, you can tell I’m pretty far behind in my reading plan. I could probably blame a number of things–my own failure to hunker down and keep reading, an extremely busy furlough from June through September, the unexpected departure of our teammates, etc. But I choose to blame it on one thing: Kim Stanley Robinson’s multi-award-winning Mars Trilogy.

I got through the first fairly quickly–it took me about three weeks. The second took me about two months. And the third took me a full six months. It was a brutal experience. Here’s a quote to give you a taste of what the last 1,957 pages of reading have been like:

Later experiments clarified things; it became obvious that all the actions of consciousness were taking place on a level far smaller even than that of neurons; this was associated in Sax’s mind with the general miniaturization of scientific attention through the twenty-second century. In that finer-grained appraisal they had begin investigating the cytoskeletons of neuron cells, which were internal arrays of microtubules, with protein bridges between the microtubules. The microtubules’ structure consisted of hollow tubes made of thirteen columns of tubulin dimers, peanut-shaped globular protein pairs, each about eight-by-four-by-four nanometers, existing in two different configurations, depending on their electrical polarization. So the dimers represented a possible on-off switch of the hoped-for engram; but they were so small that the electrical state of each dimer was influenced by the dimers around it, because of the van der Waals interactions between them.

Yep. Or this:

Certainly the trough predated the chaos and the outbreak channels, which were no doubt located there because of the trough. The Tharsis bulge had been a tremendous source of outgassing from the hot center of the planet, all the radial and concentric fractures around it leaking volatiles out of the hot center of the planet. Water in the regolith had run downhill, into the depressions on each side of the bulge. It could be that the depressions were the direct result of the bulge, simply a matter of the lithosphere bent down on the outskirts of where it had been pushed up. Or it could be that the mantle had sunk underneath the depressions, as it had plumed under the bulge. Standard convection models would support such an idea–the upswelling of the plume had to go back down somewhere, after all, rolling at its sides and pulling the lithosphere down after it.

Mm-hm.

So, my guess is you’re probably not going to read these. My copies are hilariously representative of what I imagine is common among people who pick up this trilogy. I bought them in a used bookstore in Phoenix several years ago. The first title, Red Mars, is well-worn. The spine is cracked in several places. The pages show the marks of greasy fingers. The second title, Green Mars, looks read as well, but less so. The spine is clearly cracked at about the 20% mark. The pages after that look much cleaner. The third title, when I first opened it, was as if it were brand new.

Why did I read these? Well, Robinson’s not a bad author. I had read Red Mars once before and enjoyed it. In spite of the critical tone in this post, I’d say that it’s a fantastic work of science fiction. On the strength of Red Mars, I picked up a collection of his short stories, and found a fair number of them to be enjoyable as well.

Also, the Mars Trilogy is genre-defining. It won multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards. Green Mars won the Primo Ignotus Award for the best sci-fi novel in Spain. It is often listed among the most important works of science fiction ever written. And I think this is right. This is science fiction. It’s not a fairy tale in space. It’s not a mystery novel with a robot in the cast. It’s fiction about science. The entirety of the trilogy concerns itself wholly with science, with inquiry, with the consequences of technological progress, with the ethical questions that spin out of all of these, and with the place of mankind in the universe.

There are genuine high points in all three of the books–portions of the narrative that ripped along and kept me transfixed, or portions of engrossing digression into political theory or the scientific endeavor. I found myself highlighting several interesting comments or even whole passages, which I’ll drop into my files for later review. At the end of the journey, I feel like some of the characters (particularly Nadia Chernyshevski or Nirgal or Sax Russell) will stick with me for years. And, as I found during our furlough, I’ll be incapable of driving through the incredible landscape of the American west without thinking about erosion models or soil attrition or some other aspect of the geological forces that have shaped the landscape. But still, I found myself less and less enchanted the further Robinson went with this trilogy. Some chapters were just a chore. Some characters were miserable people to spend any length of time with.

If you’re interested in checking it out, maybe limit yourself to Red Mars. And maybe I don’t even have to say that, because it’s most likely that’s exactly what you’ll end up doing anyway.

In the end, I’m glad I read this trilogy. Or I’m glad I’m done reading this trilogy, at least.

I alluded to it at the top, but for clarity: I’m still sticking with the reading list I drafted at the beginning of 2016, but I’ll just aim to wrap it up this year. I’ve been doing a fair amount of other reading as well. I just finished reading a Spanish novel–the first I’ve completed–and I’m slowly clearing the backlog of interesting articles that have piled up in Pocket since this past summer. So, my next book is Abe’s Woman in the Dunes. We’ll see. Until then,

Happy Reading,
Dan J.

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