Study Guide

Red Mars Setting

By Kim Stanley Robinson



The Red Planet. If you'll allow us to summarize Robinson's exquisite introduction to the planet from Part 1, Chapter 1:

When ancient societies believed the constellations had the power to alter human affairs, Mars had a special—if sometimes violent—place in the hearts of man. The way the dusty red star traveled backwards in the sky gave it a hold, a power, over our imaginations.

Then we became a little more knowledgeable, learned about elliptical orbits, and started building telescopes. While going all peeping-tom on our starry neighbor, Percival Lowell thought he saw canals on the planet's surface, evidence of an extinct civilization. This turned out to be an optical illusion, but the idea spawned decades of stories set on the planet's rusty landscape.

Then we sent orbiters to take pictures of Mars and found evidence of a world completely dead, yet strangely familiar to us geologically. Nearly two decades after Robinson's novel was published, NASA sent the robotic rover Curiosity to explore the planet's surface.

Basically, what we're saying is that if you're going to set a novel on any planet in the solar system, you could do far worse than to go with the Big Red.

Planetary Blank Slate

In more ways than one. Mars is a blank slate on the life side of things. There are no trees, no animals, and no flowing streams; even algae can't stand a round on the harsh surface of Mars.

But if Mars is a blank slate in the realm of life, then it stands to reason that Mars is a blank slate historically as well. Although five billion years old, Mars has no past beyond the mineral and geological—it has seen no politics, no societies, no economics, no wars, and no environmental manipulation. So when humans first arrive on the scene, they get to start writing the history of Mars from page one. As John Boone notes:

I mean people aren't fighting over whether they're American or Japanese or Russian or Arab, or some religion or race or sex or whatnot. They're fighting because they want one Martian reality or other. (5.2.141)

We can substitute the words reality and history and get near the same understanding (in this context they're near the same anyway). Everyone living on Mars tries to turn it into a utopia of their own design in some way:

  • Ann wants to leave the landscape pure, untouched.
  • Sax wants to use Mars as a planet-sized laboratory.
  • Arkady wants to create an independent state of equals that celebrates individuality.
  • Phyllis wants to turn Mars into her personal goldmine.
  • John Boone wants to craft a world out of the best parts of human history.

Of course, one person's utopia is another's dystopia, so Mars's historical blank slate is written on by several different people and groups, all of whom feel like Mars's history should go in one direction or another.

But a completely blank slate? Well… there might be a few footnotes.

People Problems

Mars itself may be a blank slate, but the people colonizing it are not. Just like the Pilgrims coming over to colonize the one-day United States, these Martian colonists are bringing a lot of baggage with them. And we don't mean all those cool science fiction survivalist tools either.

In this case, the baggage comes from the societies and cultures they are leaving. Since old habits die hard, simply moving to Mars doesn't magically erase all the ways the characters have been taught to act, think, and operate in the world.

The transnats still cling to greed and monetary gain as their sole mode of operation; revolutionaries like Arkady still pursue their revolutionary ideals; Frank can't imagine Mars surviving without working with the United Nations. And Hiroko takes her religious beliefs of nature worship and crafts them around the Martian landscape.

So while Mars is a blank slate, the people crafting its history are anything but.

The Mars Face is a Mask

So perhaps what we're saying is that Mars is less a setting and more a character in the novel. Maybe even the character of the novel, you know, the protagonist. We'll give you a moment to gather the pieces of your freshly blown mind. Go ahead.

Like we mentioned in our "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section, every character in the novel wears many masks. That is, we see them being one thing to one person and something completely different to another person. Well, Mars has its share of masks, too:

  • Ann sees Mars as a "beautiful pure landscape" (3.6.118).
  • Sax understands Mars to be a backup-plan so "the consciousness of the universe [i.e., humanity]" doesn't get wiped out if Earth goes belly-up (3.6.123).
  • Michel sees Mars as "[w]allpaper in hell" (4.2.39).
  • Hiroko sees it as "viriditas, both fully red and fully green at one and the same time" (4.2.86).
  • John views it as an act of "genetic engineering" where "the DNA pieces of culture [can be] broken and mixed by history" (5.10.105).
  • And Nadia has the ability to view Mars from the different perspectives of others, noticing its many different masks simultaneously.

All of the characters see Mars differently, and so Mars wears masks like all the other characters in the novel. In the end, we're not entirely sure we can say exactly what this is or what it means—maybe it all depends on the mask you see when you look at Mars.