From a bad novel

Alberto Benitez
11 min readApr 22, 2023

Kim Stanley Robinson is not a thoughtful author.

That makes it interesting to discuss his success.

In a talk from February 2020 (“Learning From Le Guin”, which can be seen on YouTube), he assures that CF is an expression of the level of industrialization of countries, and that is why there is CF in China but not in Latin America. He says that García Márquez’s magical realism reflects the level of industrialization in Latin America.

In the same talk he assures that China will colonize the Moon before the US.

Part of the success of Kim Stanley Robinson has to do with the public’s attitude towards his statements.

Some readers will gladly applaud the statement that China will colonize the Moon before the US. Robinson is wrong, but whoever believes the same things Robinson believes will easily accompany him in his texts.

The same will happen to those who believe that the level of industrialization in Latin America is lower than in China, and that this is the reason that there is no CF in Latin America but there is in China.

Red Mars, although it is a mediocre novel, won the Nebula (1993) and Ignotus (1997) prizes. And it was a great commercial success.

The careless reader can review it like this: “It is the novel that deals with the colonization of Mars! It explains the conflicts that can occur and exposes the machines that will help in the colonization!”.

And it is true. It does deal with the colonization of Mars, if it talks about the machines for colonization and says things about what happens to human groups in that circumstance.

But it does it poorly.

The most daring picture ever taken

When the Apollo 11 trip and its arrival on the Moon, Nixon said “this is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation”.

And he was right.

The colonization of Mars will be the most complex enterprise ever undertaken by the species. The construction of the pyramids in Egypt or those of the Valley of Mexico are much simpler undertakings in comparison. Military operations in the First and Second World Wars will be actions that are much less diplomatically and politically complex than agreeing to those who will participate in the colonization of Mars. The machines that will have to be invented, developed and perfected will be far more numerous and complex than those developed to fight World War II. One has to compare the colonization of Mars with the long process that resulted in the cities of Rome, Ur, Paris, or Tenochtitlan to make an equivalent comparison.

Robinson is not serious about colonizing Mars.

What happens in his story? What is, according to him, the colonization of Mars?

According to Robinson, it is that tens of trillions of dollars and euros and yen are invested in opening a mine in the most difficult and inaccessible place, for reasons that are never explained. Also, for reasons that are never explained, thousands of people want to arrive or work in that mine, but those who arrived first reject the new ones, also for unknown reasons. In the end, all the miners fight among themselves (we never know divided into which factions) to the point of putting the very existence of the mine at risk, without the reader ever knowing why the miner's conflicts are so serious that they choose to put their lives at risk.

Robinson divides his texts thus:

First the long journey. The travelers are all super-qualified scientists and technicians because they are going to build the most complicated and uncertain installation ever carried out by the human species. Comparatively, the voyages of the Vikings across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean are safer. Comparatively, the construction of Constantinople had fewer technical problems.

Why do they make the trip?

What do they seek?

What do they want?

What do they aspire to?

We do not know.

We don’t even know their status: are they citizens going to colonize, émigrés under UN rule starting a new nation, employees or shareholders or partners in a company, slaves sent by their masters, adherents of a cult seeking a land where to escape from persecution, fugitives who escape punishment and persecution by an authority, mercenaries who will earn a good salary, prospectors after a treasure?

Robinson wants us to believe that the first colony on Mars will arrive without any instruction or political command. There is no military among the first travelers. Not one. That is, to say the least, hard to believe.

All of them are necessary due to the technical and even scientific complications of the company.

But why are they going? What are they going for?

It is never made clear.

We never know what they want.

The installation of the enclave is complicated enough for the author to have many excuses to describe it and for the reader to keep reading.

But sheet by sheet there is something that doesn’t add up: why are they putting their lives in danger? What reward will they have?

Another flaw that weakens the story: he never has a problem with the machines.

Reactors never fail. Neither do robots. Computers never crash. They never get sick. Vehicles never experience problems more complicated than a battery change.

That’s absurd.

In the second part, there is only one interesting point: one of the scientists is morally disgusted with the creation of the mine. She expresses her displeasure, and that prompts another character to make an interesting speech about why the mine is materially and morally valuable enough to reject objections against it. And that’s it. That’s all. The character who is upset is still upset, but she never does anything. She does not sabotage, protest, claim, or defect… That inaction makes her annoyance implausible. She takes weight and strength from him. The only thing she does in her moral outrage is cry and stop talking to some of the other technicians. In other words, the moral pain that she suffers is not something important to her. And if it is not for her, less for the reader.

One day, obviously, they finish the installation.

New miners begin to arrive. Thousands. Thousands of new miners.

Terrible things are declared to be happening on Earth. There is mention of a nuclear war between Pakistan and India. It is said that every day there is more pollution and that in general “things are going from bad to worse”.

But it is never explained what or how. The author neglects something fundamental: why is something as dangerous and uncertain as the trip to Mars and life on Mars a less bad or even a good option for those who live on Earth? Going to Mars is uncertain in many ways. Why do several thousand prefer it to stay on Earth?

And again, the author omits the basic point of explaining what character the new miners arrive with: there are citizens, slaves, fugitives, employees, prospectors, free men…?

So it is impossible to know what benefits they are looking for, or what threats they are escaping.

What are all these people going to Mars for?

Robinson is unable to imagine why anyone would want to go to Mars.

And for that reason, his text leaves us indifferent.

Throughout the story there are many interesting walks. How can there not be them on a planet that is being colonized? Robinson uses this resource permanently. In each part of the text the characters go from one point to another on Mars exploring it. This is the only item of interest.

There is another element that is perhaps the most frustrating.

A woman, one of the first miners, has the plan to create a colony that she owns, independent and separate from the one that the rest are going to establish. She does complicated and dangerous things. First, she manages to get stowaways on the ship. Then, she saves, fertilizes, and gives birth to several of her ova, with the semen of several other early travelers, that way she become’s the first (and perhaps only) woman with children on Mars. She is going to be the creator of the Martian lineage. We would say, of the Martian people. A new Eve.

He invites, in an indirect and confusing way, a French technician. Why him? We do not know. Why only him and not several others? We don’t know either.

This woman does these very dangerous and daring things for some unknown reason.

And she is all the success.

She gives birth without problems. She founds her secret colony successfully. She passes a set of technical and material problems, Olympically. She doesn’t have social friction issues. It is hinted to her that her colony grows to house several hundred people, children and adults, though the number and quality of that colony are also never made clear. And although any reader intuits that having children in a colony on another planet should not be a simple situation.

Nothing is known about this character.

Why does he do what she does?

How did she do it?

Who helped her? What did they help her for?

What problems did she, they face?

The author proceeds leaving a lot of questions unanswered.

That is something characteristic of this text.

We never know what the miners want. Neither the first nor the second.

They settle, and it is declared that they suffer from nationalistic and religious friction among themselves. That gives us a clue as to his status, but it’s never confirmed.

The miners who came first are unable to create a government. Despite the fact that we are told that they are highly intelligent, it never occurs to any of these luminaries to discuss who and why and how they are going to rule on Mars. They never do it. They never raise the issue.

Those first miners are witnesses of the frictions that begin to occur among the population due to religious, moral or nationality issues. But they never face the problems. We do not know if due to indifference, because they feel that they cannot, because they feel that they should not, because something threatens them, because their own troubles absorb them…

And that’s how you get to the end. An equally bad ending.

A war breaks out on Mars. We don’t know how. We do not know why. We do not know what intractable and serious problems have not been resolved that thousands prefer to risk their lives rather than negotiate.

In the midst of the chaos, several of the first miners are rescued… by unknown characters. The children or members of that colony were installed in total secrecy by the daring Martian Eva.

This group was fleetingly mentioned as likely responsible for some acts of sabotage against the mine. Small sabotages, which never put the mine in real danger. Sabotages that we never know why they are carried out. But, on the other hand, since there is no government on Mars, these acts of destruction cannot be qualified as sabotage.

Nothing is illegal on Mars.

There is no law.

In war, those Martians appear without explanation, without justification. And they save several of the first travelers.

Why?

Why if they never helped or hindered the miners?

And just like that, magically, they are saved.

End.

With all those flaws, Robinson was very, very successful with his novel.

Why?

A very popular bad novel

At the same time that I was reading Red Mars, I also read City Without Stars, a novel that won the Minotaur prize in 2011, one of the most prestigious and respected prizes in Spanish SF.

City Without Stars is mediocre work.

It was a strange coincidence to read two successful novels with very little literary merit at the same time.

I keep wondering how any of them became a renowned work, one that many readers will believe to be of quality despite the flaws that can be pointed out.

But it doesn’t bother me that much. All works are subjected to the passing of time, and just as many millions of books have been forgotten, that will happen to these works if they are really bad. If they are not and I am wrong, they will still be read in fifty, seventy years.

As to why and how they succeeded, I can only speculate.

I believe that both works are supported by very robust cultural industries. There are prizes, there are readers, there are bookstores, libraries… Authors and publishers have channels of communication and dissemination that reach the reader and excite them and persuade them to go, buy and read those texts. That industry knows how to connect with readers and present them with products that give them value that readers are willing to buy with their money.

The two novels that I have read in parallel have many flaws. But there are readers who will find value in each, depending on the particular type of reader they are at the time. Because readers change as they read, as much as writers as they write.

I finished reading both novels because I want to better understand the literary phenomenon and because I want to have a clear picture of the state of SF in the world, to know what themes it deals with, to know what twists, what plots are covered the most, which ones are in fashion, and reflect on how and why something gets or goes out of style and how and why there are other things that have never gone out of style.

In the case of Red Mars his author uses a resource that I believe sustains his reader throughout the text, helping him to overcome his defects.

Robinson repeats every few pages that capitalism is evil and causes the destruction of everything. The problems that the miners has are entirely due to the companies that have paid for the trip and the machines and the salaries of the travelers. Somehow, because we don't know, because is not explained how they make the miners angry.

There is one compliment to Fidel Castro, as if he were a heroic figure, not the dictator he was.

If someone with those beliefs reads Red Mars, they will give him more credit than he deserves, because the text flatters his beliefs.

Just like a bad novel that flatters the belief that young people should respect adults because are adults, will be well received by that sector of the public. The author of that text does not get into discussing whether that belief is correct: he simply flatters it and thus wins over certain readers. As these particular readers find a text that proves them right, they themselves are put in charge of disseminating and publicizing it. There is a novel like this, which has been one of the most successful in Mexico: “Youth in ecstasy”. The novel is very bad, but it uses the same resource that Robinson did in Red Mars: flatter the reader. Tell the reader that his prejudices are correct. Tell the reader that he doesn’t need to think: that he already knows the truth.

It seems that this resource is extremely successful.

But it is immoral.

Because it turns the writer into a propagandist.

Because he holds beliefs that may be wrong instead of discussing them.

Because it keeps the reader in the same intellectual and moral state in which he was before reading the text.

Because it flatters the vanity and ignorance of the reader.

Reading these bad novels and trying to understand how and why they work has allowed me to clarify some ideas. They were the right material for a special job, and also for the other that is necessary for anyone who wants to be a writer.

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