What an accomplishment this series is – Robinson’s worlds are expansive and interesting, and he writes with great care and optimism about the difficult journey of his settlers as their tiny effort grows into a world and then more.
In retrospect, one of the things that makes these books really go is that Robinson manages to make his McGuffin not so McGuffin-like. I am referring here to the “longevity treatment,” one of a handful of quasi-miraculous scientific inventions that exist to propel the plot forward. In other works, especially in other science fiction, you get a lot of these kinds of devices and inventions, but the full ramifications of their invention are hardly ever explored. Robinson does not make that mistake. He immediately identifies that the longevity treatment would play itself out on Earth as a physical marker of class division, and would create a truly desperate Malthusian scenario. This treatment, though, really does drive forward some of the central themes of the books: how can you maintain a new, free society against an exploding immigrant population? The solution to this, for Robinson, involves a dramatic de-centralization of power. In a very long chapter describing the constitutional congress of the new Martian society, Robinson has his characters push for small-scale, locally-driven government, with most of the actual enforcement left up to an environmental Supreme court, which is directed specifically to consider the long-term effects on the planet’s ecosystem as part of its judgments.
The longevity treatment provides a serious storytelling advantage for Robinson as well: he is able to have the same handful of characters be the focus points of the story while more than a hundred years of events take place around them. Oftentimes, the characters are at the center of the crucial action: fighting in the revolutionary conflict or organizing the constitutional congress. Sometimes, though, life just seems to pass by around them. Nirgal, one of the central characters starting in the second book, decides that he wants to stop being involved in politics and so we watch as he tries to set up a farm inside a crater while critical developments in the world pass by on TV screens or in half-overheard conversations around him. For me, it created a sense of understanding and communion with the characters themselves, especially as they develop and change over the long, long course of the story.
These books are truly spectacular, and I look forward to coming back and reading them again. Robinson is an optimist in many ways: the Martian society is not perfect, but it shows humanity as able to shove aside some of the worst tendencies of late capitalism and move towards a verdant and expansive future.