I have seen this novel recommended at least two separate threads in the greater Pajiba FB ecosystem so I thought I would check it out. And I am starting to think that maybe I don’t like sci-fi anymore, because it seems like the last few novels I have read that fit firmly in sci-fi weren’t exactly that great for me (unless we count Red Rising as sci-fi? Because I love those books). The Three Body Problem started out interesting if dark but each novel was progressively bleaker and once I finished the trilogy, I wanted to cower in a corner and give up on life.
This novel had a lot of things that were interesting and that I should have liked but halfway through I got bored. It felt more like a tedious chore rather than something enjoyable, and I think the issue might have been the author’s need to throw in lots of philosophical musings and super specific descriptions to the detriment of the plot. Explorations of colonizing Mars when Earth is overpopulated and how corporations, politicians and scientists clash should be fascinating. Seeing how the various communities from Earth’s different countries interact, and how much of their culture and beliefs they take with them to a new beginning – normally, I would say sign me up. Instead, we get these views from white male perspectives, where the men participate in the whirling of the dervishes of the Sufi community, leading them to fake, deep insights of how they need to mix elements of the old to create the new. Gag me with a spoon already.
Also, it seemed like the exploration of other cultures was focused purely on Islamic and Arabic backgrounds so that choice felt oddly specific – the novel kept mentioning China and India but didn’t bother introducing a character from those worlds. I might have been able to overlook some of these choices and still enjoy the overall story without the long pages describing the planet and the random side travels that had no purpose, leaving us stuck inside characters’ heads, characters who were neither interesting nor likable. The extreme bore this novel became all the more disappointing because the book started strong. I was impressed with Robinson’s ability to switch character perspectives and provide us a completely different view, until it got to the point where the novel was spending time on the mundane and neglecting the truly interesting events occurring on the planet.
The novel starts once the colony has already been on Mars for around twenty to thirty years (the passage of time isn’t always super clear in the chapters and honestly, I stopped caring or paying attention). One of the early leaders and colonizers, Frank, is obviously disenchanted with the direction Mars is taking though it is not entirely clear what direction he wants it to take. After this initial chapter, the novel flashes back to the space voyage of the initial one hundred settlers, and shows the development of the community on Mars, the initial internal disagreements up to the political upheaval, catching up with the set up chapter about halfway through. The character point of views include Maya, the leader of the Russian explorers; Nadia, the logical, straight to business engineer; Michel, the French psychologist; John, the First Man on Mars, who was on the first manned voyage to the surface; Frank, the leader of the American explorers who feels unfairly pushed aside and undermined by John’s inclusion; and Anne, the geologist who wants to keep Mars pure. Robinson doesn’t alternate between these views from chapter to chapter, instead giving each character a specific time frame within the development of Mars, so that Maya is the only voice during the voyage, Nadia is the perspective for the initial building of the settlement by the 100, etc.
I was all in for Maya and Nadia. Then we got to John, whose section could have easily been the most interesting topic but instead it seemed to jump around from one tangent to another, and unfortunately takes up the largest section of the novel (or feels like it). John’s narrative voice was too much like a new age hippie, “we all love each other, we can take the best of everything.” John seemed like a nice enough guy and a leader that could hold the various communities together, but he was better viewed from afar. Being inside his head was boring and really made the middle of this novel drag for me. Frank wasn’t exactly an improvement, as he retreats and spends two years on caravan with the Bedouins of Mars.
I think another thing that felt off for me was the fact that by this point all the characters are basically in their 70’s or 80’s but still acting about as emotionally mature as teenagers. By the end, Nadia, Arkady and Anne were about the only characters I liked. I also was a bit annoyed with the anti-aging process that the biologists developed even as the world is dealing with overpopulation. Yes, living forever and continuing to have children will totally solve that problem! The characters muse that the possibility of living for a much longer time will influence people’s decisions as they will care more about the long-term impacts but none of the characters in this novel showed that kind of wisdom.
One thing I appreciated is how well Robinson did with the characterizations and showing the differences between how people viewed themselves and how their actions were viewed by others. For example, I liked Maya when she was the viewpoint but once I saw her through Nadia and everyone else’s eyes, I definitely started rolling my eyes at her as a drama queen. I think the fact that those initial chapters from Maya and Nadia were so interesting and comparatively focused make John’s and Frank’s chapters of random musings with the occasional insight into the truly interesting things that are happening on the planet even more frustrating.
I have the next two novels in this series already but I have serious doubts as to whether I will actually get around to them. I am much more interested in character focused or plot driven stories. While I appreciate scientific details to show that thought went into the plotting, I don’t need everything explained to me for pages, especially, when even with explanations, the actions don’t make sense to me. I am still musing about the extreme costs and wastes of resources involved in building an elevator between Mars and its moon, and the amount of fuel required to send thousands of colonizers to Mars. Wouldn’t Earth have been better off investing that money and those resources in creating solutions for an overpopulated Earth?