Character names in Red Mars



1. Preview

In the course of the project “Literature about the Future“ we talked about the novel “Red Mars“ by Kim Stanley Robinson. We were asked to concern ourselves with creative tasks in selected groups for five weeks.

For this reason we had a closer look on telling names in “Red Mars“. While reading the novel we got the impression that most of the characters fulfilled those features that were predestined by their names. This became obvious when we came across the name “Duval“. Fact is that it is an abbrevation for the French expression “Duc du Vallon“ which means “leader of the valley“. After talking about this person in detail it became clear that the meaning of his name corresponded with his behaviour. From this point, we started investigating the other characters and came to the conclusion that all of them adopted a role that is determined by the significance of their names. To illustrate our statement, we will give some examples as a proof. Furthermore, we want to direct the reader´s attention and arouse his curiosity by investigating further on telling names.


2. Names


One of the most popular aspect of etymology which investigates the origins of words, is the history of names. There seems to be a universal and ancient drive to give names to things. People, places, pets and houses are among the most obvious categories. Therefore, anything that stands close to human nature is likely to be named.

Names uniquely identify persons because calling people by their names leads to an atmosphere of intimacy.

It stands to reason that each name has a special significance and classifies people into certain roles. Especially old names with Greek origin such as Nikolaus (people´s winner) or Ophelia (help and support), the Roman Empire as Miranda (the one who wants to be admired) and Meinrat (adviser) from the Teutons reveal this fact. Above all, the best source is the bible. All people adopted features that were given by God and were orientated towards him like Matthew (God´s gift). Another example for the importance of names are the native Americans. The Indians had to fulfil particular physical or psychological character traits before a name like “big bear“ were given to them.

Moreover, in the 19th century names classified persons in different social sections. Names like Hugo, Baudoin or Basileus were just given to children of the upper classes.

An expression of big ignorance is to name people as numbers instead of names. The psychological treatment forces human beings to anonymity and it is the first step in taking their dignity. A bad example in history was the way the Nazis dealt with persons in the concentration camps. Each human identity became one of a million other numbers, as it is described among other things in the novel “Der Funke Leben“ by Erich Maria Remarque. Names are an important feature one has to respect while dealing with each other.

Nowadays, almost no one pays attention to names anymore. Just very few, however, know where their name comes from. Consequently, parents give their children names either without considering the meaning or by basing their decision on fashion. Names like Lucifer, Judas and Adolf are names which are almost universally avoided because of their taboo status.

A character in fiction may be established by giving the character a name that fits him because this may help to describe him. As a result, a direct characterization is given by the author to the recipient.

In the following parts of this assignment the different characters will be discussed in order to show whether their names correspond to their personality.


3. Ann Clayborne


Ann Clayborne, US researcher and geologist, belongs to the F100. Her last name “Clayborne“ means “born out of clay“ and expresses the character´s close relation to nature. From the beginning of the novel Ann personifies and symbolizes nature throughout the novel.

Starting with her outward appearance she is a brown haired woman who does not pay attention her outlook. This implies on the one hand her natural and modest being. On the other hand, she is tall and angular, which stresses her gracious state.

In contrast to most of the other characters she represents a person that appreciates the uniqueness and beauty of Mars very much. She sees the red planet as “its own place“[1], as it is marked in the following quotations. Ann describes a Martian sunset excitedly and with fascination by using a lot of positive and deversified attributes like “murky and opaque,[...] bright yellow,[...] distinctly purplish“[2] which emphasize her state of being in favour of nature. She enjoys this moment and perceives everything that happens in her surroundings with all her senses. By using metaphors, “The sun was a little gold button“[3], “the sky was a maroon dome“[4], Ann seems to evaluate the beauty of nature higher than materialistic things and to her it is worse that something happens to the beautiful landscape than to human beings. This is revealed by her temper. Thus, seeing Ann, who is always moody and less happy[5], grin is a “rare sight“[6]. However, she tries to make people become attentive to the planet in its pristine state, too.Finally, she has an effect on others[7] and succeeds in convincing some of the F100 which becomes clear in the following sentence by Nadia: “Oh Ann, I don´t know how to thank you for that!“[8]. Next to Nadia there is Simon- Ann´s husband- who supports his nature-loving woman in every situation. Yet there are a lot of opponents who do not share her point of view. Consequently, Ann is dissapointed by those who do not appreciate Mars and assume to be “lords of the universe“[9]. Therefore, she attacks persons in an uncontrolled way- especially her strongest adversary Sax Russell- as they “destroy a beautiful pure landscape, and for nothing at all“[10] willingly.

An additional aspect that supports the meaning of “Clayborne“ is the fact that she does not want to exploit Mars for her own purposes. What she wants is just living in symbiosis with it as it is shown in her words:“We obtain water to allow us to explore, we don´t explore just to obtain water!“

To draw a conclusion, it can be said that Ann Clayborne personifies nature because her name reflects her point of view as she is a woman that stands very close to nature.


4. Sax Russel


Above all, Sax Russel’s full name is Saxifrage. On account of the fact that Robinson names the U.S. researcher by his short name “Sax“ the stylistic device of telling names does not become obvious at first sight. “Saxifrage“ is a small plant with white and red flowers that grows among rocks in the mountains. In Latin it means “rock breaker“[11]. The recipient expects a purposeful, determined, dominant person with staying power. That is what Sax fulfills as a main proponent of terraforming. He sees Mars as a “dead“[12] planet where he can assert his power.

From Sax’s point of view “ the beauty of Mars exists [just] in the human mind“[13] and only terraforming would add life- the most beautiful system of all[14]- to him.

As a competent reasearcher he knows how to make people share his point of view involuntarily by persuadinging them with empirical and scientific arguments. Another point which stresses his predestined character traits is his calm and nonchalent way of life that is shown by his behaviour while arguing. “He looks the same way as ever“[15] and has the “same dry tone that he would use to analyse a graph“[16]. His determination becomes clear by his mottos “veni, vidi, vici“[17] and “if it can be done, it will be done“[18].

Furthermore Saxifrage is described as the perfect phlegmatic by the psychiatrist Michel Duval[19]. This combines a stabile as well as introverted character trait which helps Sax to fulfil his aims This also corresponds to the features of the flower his name stands for.

Similarly, there is a link between his traits and the impression the alpine flower gives. Sax is convinced that he can realize all his plans to terraform Mars and like the plant that can grow everywhere among worse conditions he succeeds in getting a lot of his ideas done.

At first sight both Sax and Ann look insignificant, but taking a closer look one sees the power both have.

After all, the character Saxifrage Russell fulfils like Ann the features which are given to him by his name and so he is another example of the stylistic device of telling names in the novel Red Mars.


5. Frank Chalmers


Frank Chalmers is the leader of the US contingent. The name ”Frank” expresses an open, honest and in literary sense a frank character. It is certain that an observant reader who pays attention to stylistic devices like telling names will expect a friendly and open-minded person. Next to other characters it becomes clear that the name “Frank” is used in an ironic way because the character is towards most of the Martian people neither frank nor direct at all, but only appears to be.

In contrast to the meaning of his name, he does not seem to be honest. Being jealous of John’s indirect leadership of the mission, Frank is shown as an intriguing person by planning the end of his friend’s life carefully[20]. By talking to the Arab Selim, the death of John Boone is foreshadowed in order to avoid that the reader anticipates Frank´s reals features at first sight. His thought after John’s death “Now we’ll see what I can do with this planet”[21] symbolizes his egoistic attitude. Throughout the novel he keeps his secret that he had killed John and nobody around him does suspect Frank as a sinful and unfair person even when he gets closer to Maya.

There are just a few allussions that suggests his real identity. His outward appearance shows a “dark [...] contrast to John’s good looks”[22]. His behavior presents a “rough charisma”[23]. Moreover, he “like[s] to have the last word”[24]. Further on in the novel “Frank’s sneery arrogance”[25] is pointed out especially when his relationship to Maya is “going poorly indeed”[26] and consequently he does not talk to Maya and John anymore[27]. But the fact that he is a good friend of the Arabs shows that he can be frank to some persons. His dreams are another example for being open because they reveal his bad conscience[28] and reality. It becomes clear to the reader that Frank is less stronger than he pretends to be.

Even his surname “Chalmers“, which can be traced back to the adjective “calm“ is meant ironically. His choleric character[29] is the reason why he combines special character traits which are explained as “grim, unhappy”[30], “truly angry”[31] and even “cynical”[32].On the one hand he is “running from one appointment to the next, changing masks, dealing with crisis after crisis.”[33] And on the other hand he causes restlessness but by killing John.

After realizing that the author makes use of “telling names”, the reader becomes more attentive and expects that a character in the novel fulfils the traits that are predestined by his name. In contrast to Ann, Sax and other characters, Frank does not fulfil his given traits and it becomes clear that Robinson uses irony.


6. John Boone


John Boone, the leader of the mission and “First man on Mars“ is a “typical American”[34]. He is described as “simple, open, straightforward [and] relaxed”[35]. The meaning of his name symbolizes this general thought.

His surname “Boone” can be traced back to “boon”, a thing that is good or helpful for somebody. In addition, a “boon” is somebody whom people like to join and who „deal[s] with them easily“[36]. The fact that many people accept him as a leader is another proof for being able to cope with them and succeeding in filling most of them with enthusiasm for his plans. The Swiss are one of those who see John like a good companion as it is shown in “the warmth of their welcome“[37]. They like him because he can make people laugh[38], is a fun guy to party with[39] and sociable[40]. Thus, he enjoys to be with them especially because of their life style and their ideas of society. Next to the Swiss he feels very good among the Sufis and other groups.

His relationship to maya and to “several other partners”[41] supports his trait of being boon, too.

However, John deviates from being boon in special situations. There are a lot of people, especially the Arabs and Israeli who greet him cooly, “perhaps because he [is] seen as being antireligion“[42]. The fact that John takes drugs is another evidence that destroys the image of being the strong man. This shows that John just pretends to be the “front man”[43] very often which can be regarded as a sign of weakness and a lack of personality. Moreover , this stands in contrasts to a stabil and extrovert[44] character, as John is described as a typical sanguine by the psychiatrist Michel Duval .

Referring to his name “John”, that is one of the most common names among Christian people, Robinson implies irony. Boone, although he “was brought up Lutheran”[45], does not believe in Jesus Christ as a real person. to his mind “religion [is] not good for [a] new society”[46].

In contrast to Ann and Sax, John Boone does not reflect all but most of his predestined traits which make him more realistic and complex but more difficult to describe.


7. Final remark


Besides outward appearance, behaviour, position, roles, thoughts and values Robinson defines his characters through their names. To quote Ann Clayborne, Sax Russell, Frank Chalmers and John Boone as examples it becomes clear that there are still differences between the characters. Furthermore, it must be considered that no name can seize all the features a person possesses.
On the one hand, Ann and Sax represent flat characters which are merely types quickly and clearly to portray. They can be presented without much individualizing detail and undergo little change because they reflect the Martian conflict Reds vs. Greens.
On the other and, there are Frank and John, who are shown as round characters because they are complex and much more many-faceted then Ann and Sax. Additionally, both Frank and John are marked by a mixture of weakness and strengths and undergo considerable changes.

As a conclusion it can be said, that names help to get closer to the characters but one will never be able to gain all the aspects and details of a person.


8. Appendix


To: Breitbach <>
From: (kim stanley robinson)
Date: Thu, 23 Dec 1999 09:53:46 -0800


Dear Kathrin Breitbach,

Thanks for your letter. Yes, the names in the Mars trilogy are often
chosen for symbolic reasons. You have noticed already most of the ones I
put in there. I would say that the name "Frank Chalmers" is however
ironic, in that mostly he isn't frank at all, but only appears to be. One
that I placed deliberately that you didn't mention is Sax Russell, whose
full name is Saxifrage, which is an alpine flower, and means in Latin "rock
breaker" because the flower is often seen in cracks, I assume.

Nadia and Ann Clayborne were particularly straightforward symbols, and I
suppose Maya is a good name in that it is a common Russian name, as I
understand, but is also "illusion" or "outside appearance" in Sanskrit.

Mery Christmas and happy new year!

Best, Stan


  1. p.40,l.;
  2. p.141, ll.19-22.
  3. p.141,l.23;
  4. p.141,l.29;
  5. cf. p. 107;
  6. p.142, l.15;
  7. cf. p. 252, l;
  8. p. 142,l ;
  9. p.179, l9;
  10. p. 177,ll.22-23.
  11. cf. appendix;
  12. p. 40;
  13. p. 177;
  14. cf. p. 178;
  15. p. 177;
  16. p.178;
  17. p. 40;
  18. p. 178.
  19. cf. p. 220,
  20. cf. p. 14;
  21. p. 23.
  22. p.6;
  23. p.6;
  24. p.7;
  25. p.280;
  26. p.161;
  27. cf. p.161;
  28. cf. p.413;
  29. cf. p.221;
  30. p.125;
  31. p.216;
  32. p.284;
  33. p.17;
  34. p.37;
  35. p.37;
  36. p.125;
  37. p. 258;
  38. cf. p.257;
  39. cf. p. 275;
  40. cf. p.303;
  41. p.281.
  42. p. 260;
  43. p.11;
  44. cf.p.219;
  45. p.51;
  46. p.53.