Red Mars looks at the first waves of emigration to Mars, through the eyes of certain members of the First Hundred, the original settlers. The world Kim Stanley Robinson paints is complex, filtered through the perceptions of different people, the politics intense and contentious, even the debate over terraforming itself is depicted with lively wrangling.
(Honestly, and this may say something about me, but I never even questioned the general idea of terraforming before. I want to live out there! So that, at least, took me by surprise.)
I did, however, occasionally tune out of the very technical discussions of this engineering process or that geologic one. The writing in those sections I found to be entirely dry. And often it was related in pages and pages of fairly boring text, and then not tied in to how it affected the characters.
The characters themselves were fairly well drawn - not lively, not leaping off the page, but more alive than cardboard. I did enjoy the differences in the way people perceived their actions, and how others perceived the same actions. But not enough was done with this. If you're going to play with perception like that, and I'm glad that he did, in some way, it has to mean something. Not just that Maya sees herself as enjoying sex without strings and Frank sees it as a oneupmanship game. We got them fighting over this, but never really got to see that clash of perceptions come out. And none of these contrasting perceptions ever really came to anything.
And perhaps it is too bad that the most interesting part of the book happens off the page. The hidden colony, the number of colonists who disappear and found a mystical utopian settlement seemed to me to be the most provocative part of the story, yet only a handful of pages were allocated to them.
On the same note, why did we get only one chapter of Arkady's point of view, when he was one of the main figures in the Mars resistance? We got tons and tons of insider viewpoints, yet Robinson sets up great outsider characters and then never spends any time with them.
Instead, the book dwelt (very well) on the difficulties of fighting for what is best for Mars and the early colonists when those on Earth see it as a mere pawn to be stripmined for their financial benefit. This book is deeply cynical about human nature. The only one able to make any compromises is more or less a sociopath (or at least a deeply disturbed Machiavellian figure). Everyone else never bends on anything ever. No one really understands anyone else. Talking and consensus building is useless.
Goodness knows that it's not hard to believe in the truly cynical and exploitative these days, but could we get some of the counterpoint, please? They exist in the ether around this story as it is told, but Robinson never engages with them in depth.
In the end, this book is good, it's just not enough.
And there are seeds of something more in there, so it's frustrating that they're not allowed to flower.