Like a bunch of really good actors, the characters in Red Mars wear different masks to present one persona while hiding another. Unlike really good actors, though—who can go from being zombies to Shakespearean kings to bootlegging gangsters in an afternoon—the masks worn by the citizens of Mars are a little more natural, sometimes insidious, and often subconscious.
Masks first appear in Part 1 during the festival. The citizens of Nicosia celebrate a Mardi Gras-type affair, adorned in masks. Frank sets a plan into motion to remove John from the political scene by way of a good, old-fashioned, Earth-style assassination, and as Frank scurries around town, he's shrouded in two different types of masks: the one he's wearing for the party and the metaphorical variety. The metaphorical one means he shows a different personality to John, Maya, Zeyk, and Selim. Tricky, Frank.
As the story expands beyond Frank's perspective, we learn that he's not a unique case. Every character wears metaphorical masks, and as the story shows us the story from different characters' perspectives, the masks become more and more evident.
But, if we're going to discuss masks in Red Mars, then we really need to talk about…
Case Study: Maya Mask
Part 2 comes to us courtesy of Maya's point of view. In this section, we meet the crew through her eyes, and as Maya notes:
The process of shedding their Antarctic masks continue[s], and every time someone display[s] some new and hitherto unknown characteristic, it [makes] all who noticed it feel that much freer; and this feeling caused more hidden traits to be revealed. (2.3.2)
As readers just getting to know these characters, we feel the same way. On the Ares we grasp who these characters are, what they stand for, and their relationship to the others. Maya comes across as an intelligent character with a gift for understanding others, if a tad unlucky in the love department.
And then the perspective switches.
In Part 3, we shift to Nadia's point of view. Although Nadia and Maya are friends, Maya's incessant schoolyard drama gets under Nadia's skin fiercely. Through Nadia, we must consider that Maya isn't the public servant she seems in Part 2—that all her drama is just her "practicing another manipulation" (3.4.80). Is Maya manipulative or is that just the mask Nadia sees? And if Maya is manipulative, then can we trust what we learned about her in Part 2?
Thankfully, things get easier from here on in.
Wait, No, Sorry. Just Kidding.
Complicated. We meant to say things get more complicated.
From Michel's perspective, Maya is sexy but also "crazy in a Russian way" (4.2.3). Then from John's perspective, Maya is "mercurial, full of her own thoughts and plans, full of herself" (5.5.20). And let's not forget how Frank thinks "[Maya] would use people like that without a qualm" (6.4.61). How many sides can one person have? Good grief.
Maya doesn't just own a mask; she's an infinite mirror of masks reflecting masks reflecting masks. And although each reflection represents a part of the whole person, we can't really say who Maya is by the end of the novel. We're only ever privy to her many masks, including the one she wears for herself. And the same goes for the other characters, too.
Best we can say is this: if we add up all the masks together, we might get something resembling the true Maya. Maybe.
No Mask? No Problem.
We say Red Mars typically symbolizes people with masks because that's how we first see the symbol working in Part 1—with Frank wearing his literal and metaphorical masks. But it's important to note that masks appear several times in the novel without being called a mask.
Yeah, we know. If you're going to be convinced, we're going to need to provide some examples. Happy to oblige.
Michel Duval refers to "programs" often in Part 4, and he thinks of the face he shows everyone as his "shrink program" (4.2.39). It's not the real Michel; it's just the face he shows everyone when they expect him to act like a shrink. Same idea as a mask, right? Something he puts on.
John has what he calls the "First Man routine" (5.5.14), or the mask he wears around people who expect him to act like the first man on Mars. He's able to drop this routine around friends, like Frank and Maya, but as we've seen above, he probably just puts another mask on when he's around them—perhaps the mask of rival and lover, respectively.
Point is: keep your eyes out for masks when reading Red Mars. Like all expertly crafted disguises, they might not look like masks at first glance—and characters might not even realize they're wearing them. There are books where one or two characters aren't quite what they seem, and then there's this book, where pretty much no one is.