Monday 26 April 2021

Red Mars - Kim Stanley Robinson (1992)


Rating: Sublime

I put off reading Red Mars for a long time, thinking that it would be a pretty dry narrative, with Robinson being the reigning king of realistic hard science fiction. How wrong I was! I could not believe just how compelling Red Mars is and how well Robinson captures both the practical difficulties of colonising Mars and the drama of the endeavour, not to mention the personal stories of the ensemble of characters, all of whom are brilliantly well rounded. It didn't take me long to realise just how special this novel is, the opening section, 'Festival Night' is set well after colonisation, and acts to pique interest, with a number of conflicts between the 'First Hundred' on display. The next section, 'The Voyage Out', is a stunning depiction of what a voyage to Mars might be like. It's completely fascinating and kept humming along by Robinson's efficient, yet engaging narrative style. Robinson is a superb writer, getting the balance between depicting characters interior lives and the practicalities of voyaging through space absolutely right. Robinson juggles the multitude of characters perfectly throughout the novel, all with their own strengths and weaknesses, flawed, like any humans would be, even though they are the chosen elite, dubbed the 'First Hundred'. Robinson deals with the problem of balancing so many characters by concentrating on around a dozen, establishing them as the principle protagonists; my favourites being the Russians, Nadia Chernyshevski, Maya Toitovna and the redoubtable Arkady Bogdanov, who has very different ideas about what should happen on Mars. The Americans are interesting in their own way, the good-guy hero John Boone, the sociopathic Frank Chalmers and the Asperger-like scientist Saxifrage Russell. Often long sections of the narrative are extrapolated via the perspective of one of these characters and you really get to know them and their personal and professional struggles whist you are exploring the surface of Mars.

The planet in question

As the novel progresses it becomes increasingly absorbing, with superb descriptions of the Martian landscape. Robinson perfectly evokes the alien beauty of the planet, particularly when several of the characters journey to the North Pole in order to set up an automated supply chain of blocks of ice to provide the fledgling colony with fresh water. Throughout the novel the hard science of building habitats, beginning terraforming and dealing with the politics of the situation, both within the 'First Hundred' and the authorities on Earth, is depicted so well that I just can't imagine any other writer doing a better job. Red Mars is totally epic in scale and things get really interesting once more and more people start arriving and infrastructure, such as a space elevator, is built. To reveal more would risk the intrigue of the novel for new readers; all I will say is that the novel has more drama and mystery than would you'd expect. Robinson also explores the philosophical aspects of humanity being on Mars and altering it forever, through individual musings and a rift between those in the "First Hundred' who are for terraforming and those who are against humanity, yet again, altering an environment for their own ends. At one point there is an amazing debate about this issue, which left me amazed at Robinson's insight and erudition. The novel's long endgame is exciting and unpredictable. Once it resolved I was bereft at losing access to Robinson's incredible world-building. Fortunately being the first in a trilogy, with Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1996) to come, I'll be able indulge myself again in the near future. If you are a fan of hard science fiction, you should indulge yourself too....

Friday 16 April 2021

Rodham - Curtis Sittenfeld (2020)


Rating: Excellent

First of all, Rodham is a very clever novel. Ostensibly it is an alternate history of Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton's lives and relationship, but thematically its main thrust is the patriarchal nature of American society and how it leans towards rewarding men, whilst keeping women in check. Rodham is an enthralling read, although many will be put off by its detailed descriptions of politicking related via the first person voice of Hillary. Sittenfeld totally nails how you'd imagine Hillary to think, conveying a tone that is both intellectual and charmingly vulnerable at the same time, an approach that works to humanise one of the most vilified and misunderstood women in American public life. So, what would have happened to Hillary Rodham if she had not married Bill Clinton? Anything is perhaps possible, but Sittenfeld weaves a very credible alternative history of Hillary's life and times living in one of the most contradictory and complex societies on earth. Sittenfeld astutely casts Bill Clinton as a fatally flawed man, who is somehow both reprehensible and sympathetic at the same time, creating a credible (although still fictional in this context) impression that Hillary really did have a tough choice to make way back in the early 70s. Ultimately, however, the novel does the real Bill Clinton no favours; I wonder what the real Bill Clinton thinks about this novel, and Hillary for that matter? As far as I know neither have commented so far.

The young Hillary Rodham

The novel really comes alive when both Hillary and Bill share the page, particularly in the opening section when they first meet and embark on a passionate relationship, so much that when the narrative fast-forwards to Rodham in middle age, leading her life without Bill, the novel falls a bit flat. What really happens, however, is that the novel becomes a different beast and draws you deep inside Hillary's life and psyche, with all her frustrations and aspirations laid bear. Once she decides to run for the senate the novel becomes a particualry absorbing read and twists the alternate timeline in fascinating and credible ways. The way Sittenfeld positions Bill Clinton and Donald Trump as different sides of the same coin is a canny move, helped with a serving of irony in relation to Trump and Rodham's interactions. Sittenfeld totally nails Trump's character as well. Not everyone will love this novel, but I certainly did. Sittenfeld is a classy writer with great control over both style and narrative form. Rodham also has a satisfying denouement, one in which Hillary finally reaches fulfilment, yet with enough depth to withstand criticisms of being unrealistic or merely a fantasy wish-fulfilment for the millions of American women who support the real Hillary Clinton.