The planet Mars is as emblematic to science-fiction as is the spaceship and the robot: it could practically be a symbol for the genre as a whole, and it sometimes is. The nearby red planet has been a part of the genre of science-fiction for as long as the genre has really been around. It would practically seem like a right of passage for an author to give us the story of how humans came to actually exert their dominion over the planet.
I wouldn’t doubt if there are dozens if not hundreds of stories like this, but I can see why Kim Stanley Robinson’s take on it so reputable.
Red Mars is the story of how humans came to colonize the planet Mars. The planet is obviously unsuited for humankind, and thus the initial colonist have a long struggle ahead of them. But as the humans find some amount of success with their endeavors (somewhat through a strange McGuffin that seems to fall into the lap of the characters, ex-nihlo) their home planet desires to reign in what is going on and exert control. Political intrigue ensues.
The book has a reputation for being on the harder side of things – that is, the kind of science-fiction that focuses on the ‘harder’ sciences and less on the softer one. Frankly, I have no idea why it maintains this reputation. What was most memorable for me in the whole book was more of the political intrigue than the science of how it happens. That might be my scientific illiteracy speaking; with knowledge of your own ignorance jargon and mumbo-jumbo are largely indistinguishable, and so all of it becomes indistinguishable. Scientific facts of the story then largely become backdrop to other events. Yes, terra-forming is an important element to the story, but it wasn’t nearly as impactful as the death of a major character roughly half-way through the story, and seeing how it has ripples throughout the lives of all the other characters.
And the book has characters in abundance. The story follows the passengers of the first colonist ship to Mars, the crew of which numbers one hundred. Even though not all of them are followed throughout the whole story, enough of them are that it can at times by hard to follow just who it is you are dealing with. Some story threads seem to be only hinted at, and nothing more of it is ever mentioned. I imagine that this was necessary so as not to create a story so massive that it broke its own back. And yet it did feel like some of this could have been edited down further with a little patience and effort. But to mitigate this, the characters were often distinct enough from each other that one did not often get lost in the reading.