It's not hard to understand why Red Mars won the Nebula Award for best novel of 1993, as voted on by the membership of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Robinson put years of research into the book, and it shows.
There's also an interesting structure at work here as well, with Robinson dividing the book into eight parts, using a different viewpoint character to color the corresponding historical events, a device which provides the reader with perspectives of every Martian faction from the "preserve Mars as an untouched museum piece" Reds to the "remake Mars in Earth's image -- now!" terraformers. There's science galore, clever writing flourishes, obscure cultural and literary references ... in essence, everything needed to wow other writers and make them say "Damn. Wish I'd written that."
Even so, Robinson hasn't written a novel here. Not really. This is a future-history, the likes of which Asimov and Heinlein were so fond of in their day, but Robinson treats his subject matter more like history than either of those greats ever did.
There's really no plot at work; rather, Robinson chronicles the events as they happen. Lead characters disappear, wander off, die, are assasinated with alarming regularity -- much like what happens in real life. When the revolution comes (and come it must), the reader can look back and see all the causes leading up to it, but it still causes quite a jolt -- an effect, no doubt, of the insulation of the viewpoint charater at that moment.
This was the biggest trouble I had with Red Mars, and by extension, all future-history novels. Fiction, by its nature, relies on characers to drive the story, protagonists and antagonists that focus events and act as ground zero. History, by contrast, is a grand ensemble. Sure, there are Hitlers and Caesars from time to time, but for every one of those there are dozens -- if not hundreds -- of Himmlers and Cassiuses propping them up, moving to clear the way for the rise to power. That detail is impossible to convey in the tighter focus of a novel, and the base motivations behind the protagonists' actions -- be they lust, greed, jealousy or rivalry -- somehow ring hollow against such a sweeping historic background.
Not much happens in the first half of Red Mars either. Robinson spews forth tremendous amounts of technical details, even including a wealth of equations and charts that explain everything from Martian seasonal variances to social dynamics! Indeed, he has written a veritable "How-To" manual on the nuts-and-bolts of colonization, which can come across as quite dry reading in places -- people turned off by Melville's lengthy discussions of whales and whaling in Moby Dick had best beware.
Despite all that, or maybe because of it, I found Red Mars to be a gripping read -- at least the second half of it -- and deserving of its Nebula. Everything from the political landscape to corporate treachery has an authentic feel about it, and I've yet to come across a more plausible speculation on humanity's future in this solar system. Needless to say, I was dismayed to discover that the book does not stand alone, ending in something of a cliffhanger to be continued in the next book in the series, Green Mars. The irony is that despite my many problems with Red Mars, it hooked me just enough to make reading Green Mars a necessity. Just call me Ishmael.
[ by Jayme Lynn Blaschke ]