I came to the series shortly after Red Mars was released and have lived with these books for the better part of a decade. Though the characters are not fascinatingly quirky or psychologically exotic, they all seem as real to me now as people in my life. But the most important sense of realism is the place. Robinson has made Mars live in an utterly convincing way. It is not a fantasy environment, as in Bradbury, nor a mere setting for hard SF antics. It has a sense of place. It is a world, in the fullest sense of the word. Not only has he created the experience of being in this world, but he awakened in me a powerful desire to actually do so. It is sad that I won’t live to see it.
The sense of place that Robinson conveys seems to have its roots in a genuine love of another place: California. Robinson is a Californian whose evident love for wild and barren landscapes haunts every page and comes from the center of his being. Perhaps as a Californian myself, I immediately “got” his love for nature at its driest, and it is this experience which underlies his clever inversion of the Reds and the Greens in the book (the Reds have an almost Heideggerian love of Mars in its unspoiled and hence lifeless state; the Greens are the pro-life, pro-technology terraformers). There are many books with an ecological message, but the Robinson effect is subtler: after reading him, you notice landscape, your embeddedness in it and dependence on it without having to be told what to do about it. I am more “green” (in our sense) for having read it, and never once felt preached at.
Also Californian is Robinson’s affection for ramshackle utopianism of all stripes: it is not so important whose vision is the correct one as it is that there be a discussion and contest of visions. The setting, a New World in which (for a time) anything will be possible, makes these kinds of discussions inevitable. Robinson’s progressive politics (rare for hard SF) is less a matter of critique and more a matter of stressing the open-ended, possibility-rich character of human experience. I don’t doubt that volume seventeen would have to have been “Hopelessly Corrupt and Bureaucratic Mars” either. But this is beside the point, which is to show that a central part of being human is deciding how we are to live, and this is something we do together. While mostly disagreeing with Robinson’s politics (utopianism must also be tempered with pragmatism lest it become violent and destructive) this didn’t bother me in the slightest–if anything I came away respecting certain positions more than I did coming in.
This is a very very slow read, with very little action and very loose plotting. If the idea of making friends with some very interesting people and spending a few years with them in a desert appeals to you, read it. If you don’t have the patience for that, this is not for you. For me personally, the Mars trilogy was an unforgettable experience.