"It always seemed to him that sunset more than any other time of day made it clear that they stood on an alien planet; something in the slant and redness of the light was fundamentally wrong, upsetting expectations wired into the savannah brain over millions of years."
KSR is a marmite kind of author, but I love marmite, and I love KSR. I think he writes beautifully, if a little densely at times, but I can't for the life of me explain what it is about his prose that grabs me so. And this is going to be a long review, because although I've now read this book three times, I've never actually reviewed it.
This is the first of three epic long books, following Mars from the first colonist landing, 100 scientists and engineers carving out a place to live on an entirely new world. This first book begins with an assasination, then flashes back many years to show what led up to it, eventually continuing. It covers quite some decades, primarily through the eyes of a handful of that first hundred, seeing immigration, settlement, exploitation and the very beginning of terraforming on a planetwide scale.
Robinson writes far up the hard side of sci-fi, and there's a lot of tech in here. But there's also typically KSR discussions on philosophy, politics, nationalism, religion. Mostly politics, with the final third of the book part action packed escape drama, and half an examination of a possible future where the nations of earth are subjugated by transnational corporations who can, and do, ignore international treaties with impunity, moving their nominal headquarters between flags of convenience as it suits to their best advantage.
There are a lot of characters of extremely ideological opposites, but I think he manages to make them sympathetic... eventually. Ann for instance, the stone hard "leave Mars as we found it", anti-terraforming geologist, is hard to like for a good long while. She's more of a position statement than a character, until suddenly she comes into her own. There are others like this, even some characters I just can't get a handle on until they are gone. But others, like Nadia, the Soviet engineer, who loves her machines, whose reaction to almost any emotional turmoil is to look for something to fix.
It's a little ironic then, that Nadia and Ann, my favourite and least favourite characters, early in the book share a touching moment. In fact, the very scene that made me fall in love with this book. Ann, as mentioned a geologist, has spent most of her time at this point out exploring and surveying as far as she can. Nadia, the engineer, has spent most of her time at the base, even inside, building, constructing and solving any number of life-threatening problems, and hasn't been anywhere at all. Ann talks Nadia into going with them on an exploration trip to the polar caps, where a water reclamation factory was dropped, in order to get it going. And on the way, one night when Nadia wants nothing more than to sleep, Ann drags her out onto a dune ridge to look at a sunset. And this is what she sees:
"The sun touched the horizon, and the dune crests faded to shadow. The little button sun sank under the black line to the west. Now the sky was a maroon dome, the high clouds the pink of moss campion. Stars were popping out everywhere, and the maroon sky shifted to a vivid dark violet, an electric color that was picked up by the dune crests, so that it seemed crescents of liquid twilight lay across the black plain. Suddenly Nadia felt a breeze swirl through her nervous system, running up her spine and out into her skin; her cheeks tingled, and she could feel her spinal cord thrum. Beauty could make you shiver! It was a shock to feel such a physical response to beauty, a thrill like some kind of sex. And this beauty was so strange, so alien. Nadia had never seen it properly before, or never really felt it, she realized that now; she had been enjoying her life as if it were a Siberia made right, so that really she had been living in a huge analogy, understanding everything in terms of her past. But now she stood under a tall violet sky on the surface of a petrified black ocean, all new, all strange; it was absolutely impossible to compare it to anything she had seen before; and all of a sudden the past sheered away in her head and she turned in circles like a little girl trying to make herself dizzy, without a thought in her head. Weight seeped inward from her skin, and she didn’t feel hollow anymore; on the contrary she felt extremely solid, compact, balanced. A little thinking boulder, set spinning like a top."
I think, it's somewhere in this, and the quote at the top of this review what I really love about KSR. I've read a lot of space colonization books, and Mars being our nearest neighbour, has been the target of a fair few of them. And I think I know, on a tiny scale what it is to feel alien. For years, something about the long slow sunsets here in Sweden almost set my teeth on edge, until i realised it just "felt wrong", to me, having come from the sub-tropics where you look out one minute and it's broad daylight, and the next it's pitch black and the stars are twinkling in the sky. It's an inexplicable, visceral "this is not my place, I am not meant to be here" feeling. Even now, after fifteen years, if you ask me which way is north, I point the wrong way - because the sun is in the wrong place in the northern hemisphere. I can only imagine how that same effect must sit like a weight in the gut of anyone on another planet. Of all those many, many space exploration books, KSR is the only one who's really nailed that feeling for me.
Anyway, I love KSR (have I said that enough)? And I think a lot of people are put off him, by the idea of reading a trilogy of 1000 page books. Or the idea that he's super hard science. Or the fact he takes wanders into all the other things he wanders into, the politics, the philosophy. But I like his books because of these things, not despite them.
The only reason this doesn't get the full five stars, is because he also wrote 2312, and I like that book even better! But if anyone should ever ask me where to start with his writing, I think it'd be this one, because this does have a more coherent and accessible main plot than 2312 does.