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Notes from the Reading – Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Every so often, I post a few editorial thoughts about a traditionally published book I’m reading—what I see working and what I see as problematic. Hopefully, it will give you a chance to learn a few things, both about what I see as an editor and about what to look for when you’re evaluating your work. I’ll stick to books that are by big-name authors and popular—books I don’t think I can hurt when I talk about what I see as their flaws.

This week’s book is Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Nebula winner from 1993. The book describes the colonization of Mars in pretty granular detail. It focuses on the lives of Mars’ first hundred colonists during their journey to Mars, then during the building of the first colony, then as they adapt to the arrival of additional colonists.

It’s fascinating to read today, because while I have it on good authority that the science Robinson used to write the novel was state-of-the-art at the time, things have progressed. A particularly ambitious book club could get a ton of mileage out of reading this and The Martian in the same month.

I enjoyed it a lot. The book’s pretty long, but I always looked forward to settling down to read it.

Of course, I also have some things to talk about.

What’s working:

– Character choice. This is a book of ideas, but ideas alone don’t make a story; sci-fi has to be grounded in characters—that’s what makes it juicy rather than dry. Robinson has done a masterful job of choosing the right character to guide us through each of several phases of colonization. Political operator Frank tells the story of political upheaval. Mission leader and emotional hothead Maya tells the story of interpersonal relations on the journey to Mars. Hard-nosed engineer Nadia tells the story of building the first colony, etc. Each character is interesting on their own, but they’re made even more interesting by the way they harmonize with the situations we follow them through.

– Pacing. This came up recently in a sample edit I did, so it’s fresh in my mind. Long books have a tougher time getting away with slow pacing than short books do. Some readers will tolerate a little wandering, a slow setup, or authorial indulgence in a novella. In a book that’s 200,000 words long, the author tends to get less leeway. Red Mars handles its pacing and its length excellently. It’s a long book, but no sentence seems wasted, so the length feels earned and exciting rather than frustrating.

– Resonance. One of the things I love most in a book—it’s not necessary for it to be a good book, but it always elevates its status as far as I’m concerned—is when there’s a resonant moment near the end. I love to see the tangled threads of the narrative come together, the clouds open, and the book take on a crystal-clear meaning. This book has that moment, on page 556 of 572:

Late in this quiet meal Ann looked around curiously at her companions, suddenly awed by the spectacle of human adaptability. Here they were eating their dinner, talking over the low boom from the north, in a perfect illusion of dining-room conviviality; it might have been anywhere anytime, and their tired faces bright with some collective success, or merely with the pleasure of eating together—while just outside their chamber the broken world roared, and rockfall could annihilate them at any instant. And it came to her that the pleasure and stability of dining rooms had always occurred against such a backdrop, against the catastrophic background of universal chaos; such moments of calm were things as fragile and transitory as soap bubbles, destined to burst almost as soon as they blew into existence. Groups of friends, rooms, streets, years, none of them would last. The illusion of stability was created by a concerted effort to ignore the chaos they were imbedded in. And so they ate, and talked, and enjoyed each other’s company; this was the way it had been in the caves, on the savannah, in the tenements and the trenches and the cities huddling under bombardment.

That’s what this book is about, over and above all the dozens of smaller stories it tells, and it’s a brilliant piece of art that can create that moment of revelation.

What isn’t working:

– Technology overreach. There is some seriously cool technology at play in Red Mars, and a lot of it makes sense. Watching people invent fantastical new ways to deal with the necessities of Mars feels believable, particularly when it’s mixed with strong characterization and what looks like solid research. But there’s one area of science where the advances in the book left me scratching my head. There’s some very important biotech being invented on Mars that has nothing to do with the Martian environment. As the book goes on, more and more of the plot hinges on the invention of this technology. It was really the only way in which the book disappointed me, and it left a bad taste in my mouth as I enjoyed everything else.

– Character creep. One of book’s biggest strengths is its characters, but partway through, two of them begin to melt together. There are, I think, a few potential narrative explanations for this. The two have a very close relationship, and there’s been a major recent sea-change in it that could conceivably lead one of them to start becoming like the other without realizing it. But that’s left undeveloped—if it’s intended, it may be a bit too subtle, and either way, the ramifications of that sea-change moment didn’t feel fully explored to me.

That’s it! Small-potatoes stuff, as you’d expect with a bestselling, award-winning novel, but it was there nonetheless. And you know what? I bet both of these things came up during edits, and at some point both author and editor said, “It’s working well enough, let’s get it out the door.” That’s how the process often works; you can keep tinkering and tinkering searching for perfection and never find it, or you can settle for “great” and then go write the next book.

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