The transnationals, or transnats, are the multinational corporations of the future. This means they're just like the corporations we have today, but about a million times more powerful. We're not even sure that's an exaggeration.
As Helmut mentions to John Boone, the transnat Armscor owns "banks of its own" and a "controlling interest in about fifty of the old Fortune 500" businesses (5.4.21). To put that into perspective, imagine an umbrella company that controls Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil, Apple, and then about forty or so other leviathan-sized companies. Then give the company its own banks and a military-grade security force, and you've basically summed up Armscor, one of the smallest transnats in this book.
Yes, there are even bigger fish swimming in the future's economic sea.
Dastardly Whiplash Inc.
There are no villains in Red Mars, certainly none of the moustache-twirling variety. But if we had to pick who or what comes closest, it would be the transnats. Nope, not a particular person within the transnats—the entire transnational system.
The transnats exist for a single reason: money and the acquisition of said money. Maybe that's two reasons. Either way, John Boone accuses them of fostering a "world order [that] is just feudalism all over again, a set of rules that is anti-ecologic, it does not give back but rather enriches a floating international elite while impoverishing everything else" (5.10.105). It's a pretty scathing review.
In other words, the transnats' methods for acquiring money don't consider the livelihoods of the individuals working or the societies they alter in their monetary pursuit. All that matters is the benjamins, and deep stacks at that.
Case in point: Mars. Mars began as a scientific community, but when precious metals were discovered on the planet, the race to acquire those metals was on. The transnats applied major political pressure to alter the Mars Treaty and allow them access to Mars before the treaty had even been revised. And once they were given full access, they quickly sent a million or so people to Mars to begin working.
But did they take care of the people the shipped into space? Nope. As Frank notes: "A million people here already, with more on the way. And no police, and crime—or rather, crime without police. A million people and no law, no law but corporate law. The bottom line. Minimize expenses, maximize profits" (6.4.94). And beyond the crimes are poor wages and even poorer living conditions. Mars colonies at corporate sites became slums filled with the downtrodden and unwashed, a major cause of the Martian Revolution.
Pretty villainous, don't you think? But the question we really have to ask ourselves is this: how different are the transnationals in Robinson's fictional universe from the multinational corporations we live with in everyday reality?
We'll leave you to ponder that one.