After reading several books where the very fabric of reality is twisted and tampered with, it was refreshing to hop into a book which is set in our universe and where laws of cause and effect work just as one expects them to work. There is Earth, just like the one we are living on right now, and there is Mars, which is a planet and not a metaphor or something arising from our collective psyche.

A spaceship is launched towards Mars, carrying a hundred scientists and engineers. Already midway towards Mars it becomes obvious that despite all the best efforts to choose only the most all-round balanced, even bland characters for such a mission, people who have dedication and determination to push through the selection process are not that. They have to have some obsession, overdeveloped character trait, ideologue or grand plans which power them through hardships. Factions and alliances form almost instantly, and later, when more colonists arrive, grow around the First Hundred like crystals do around seed crystals. (Robinson likes to describe his characters with the same terms as the environment on Mars – anger sublimates off Frank just as ice sublimates water into the atmosphere, Ann's streaming tears reflect running waters of a broken aquifer etc. and I like this effect, as it underlines the interaction between human and environment.)

Mars is described in such a way that it comes alive to me, I'm nearly wiping fine red martian dust from my skin and kind long to see wide crater rims from my window… but these long descriptive passages may get on the nerves of others. Robinson's scientific accuracy is commended, I can't really comment on that, but I swallow it all whole – except for age-reversal technology, which feels a bit too magic-y. Another bit mysterious thing is the amount of free time to roam around both top guys, Frank and John, seem to have. The de-facto leaders of Mars colonists wander where they please, taking their time. They disengage from their mundane duties with apparent ease and drive thousands of kilometers across Mars, to find answers, to make friends, to find themselves. It's a pleasure to read, but when observing critically – not realistic.

The story is told through the viewpoint of several characters. We fix engineering problems with practical Nadia, despair with Ann about humans tampering with Mars, feel adventurous and perpetually excited with John, try to keep all strings of power in our own paws with Frank, delight ourselves on advances in terraforming despite any human cost with Sax etc. I've been thinking lately about character building in literature, and this to me seems like a great example of that done successfully.

But oftentimes when a book is lauded for being character-driven, I read it a bit baffled, feeling like I'm missing something. So if I find characters well-motivated and consistent, are the readers who enjoy character-driven literature unhappy? Indeed yes, many people find the characters in Red Mars one-trait stereotypes, utterly predictable, merely convenient plot devices etc. Ffs people, what's good enough character building!? I have now Frank and John and Ann and Nadia and Sax living in my head, and I can very well imagine what they would do in certain situations, I can almost ask them for advice, and that's a whole lot more than can be said for most literary characters. (Maya and Arkady, otoh, remains personalities I do recognize, but cannot really understand or empathize with).

Characters, who have a distinct view on life, humans' place in universe, a certain desire of knowledge or at least curiosity, our responsibilities towards our environment and external world (including but not limited to other people) feel alive and real to me. If a character does not appear to have this perspective, well, I'm left untouched despite any amount of multilayered emotion and carefully constructed background story.  Come to think of it, this applies to real live people too.