A hundred hand-picked colonists travel to Mars; they create a loose-knit scientific settlement, not unlike one of the Antarctic bases, and set to work. Their little utopia slowly begins to chafe against later settlement; twenty years down the line, there are half a million people on Mars, terraforming and industrialising is underway, and the power is shifting into the hands of the multinational corporations. By an authorial sleight of hand (a life-extension treatment), our original protagonists are still around, and we see them schisming and splintering over how best to respond to it. Fifteen years further on, and there are restive shantytowns of migrant workers clustered around the cities, with power firmly in corporate hands. A strike, a riot, and suddenly a spasmodic and messy revolution. Some of our protagonists are ringleaders, some are trapped in it; but none of them can control it.
There's a nice pattern to it; the journey and the settlement, a growing and flourishing society, and then it begins to decay under outside pressures. After attempts to shore it up fail, we go back down the same path; settlement is replaced by destruction, with the painstakingly built townships wrecked, and our viewpoint characters are forced to flee in desperation, on a new and harder journey, through the irrevocable effects human terraforming has had on the planet. It's not a happy end, but it's a convincing one - and there is a sequel, after all.
Mars is beautifully described - Robinson has a certain way of writing about desolation, and it comes across well. The last section, a long journey across the changing planet to safety, really brings this out; you get the feeling that this is a real place, not a fictional construct.
I'm pleasantly surprised on re-reading; some elements I only vaguely remember seem a lot more prominent. The whole quasi-mythical status of the First Hundred, for example; the passage of people reminiscing about John Boone, which quietly shifts from "where were you when he died?" through ever more ludicrous stories - two of which we know to be untrue - until the stories switch to Paul Bunyan retellings, and the shift is complete. The background of the characters is interesting to re-examine - the First Hundred are explicitly stated to be mostly American & Russian, with a few foreigners; the settlements later are said to be from a wide range of countries, but we only ever seem to see a close focus on the Arabs (and occasionally the Swiss). I'm not sure why, but I suspect deliberate authorial choice to only write what he was comfortable with trying to get right. No-one seems to be excessively stupid or uncharacteristic, though it would have been nice were Hiroko and her farmers not quite so clichédly enigmatic.
All this aside, it caught me, this third or fourth time through, for an entirely unexpected reason.
There's a scene mid-way through the book where Boone, the first man on Mars, reflects on growing old. He was born in 1982, and is now in his sixties. I first read this in, what, 1999-2000? My generation landing on Mars in 2020 was just about conceivable. Now... well, we're debating whether or not we'll fit a sample-return mission in by that year. Of course, it's obsoleted itself before then. It's post-Soviet, but at the same time not really; the Russians and Americans are still effective superpowers, and there's passing talk of "the Commonwealth" in that weird federal-state way people expected the CIS might turn into. It's a little sad, to have it presented like that. It might still happen; it might even happen somewhat like this, barring the changes to Mars we've learned over the years. But it won't ever happen to us like this.read more
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