Wednesday Book Club: Red Mars

Wednesday, 30 July 2008 — 4:04am | Book Club, Literature, Science

This week’s selection: Red Mars (1992) by Kim Stanley Robinson.

In brief: Robinson’s exhaustive (and often exhausting) treatment of Martian colonization is one of those uncommon novels that is far more fascinating when people sit around arguing about issues than when they actually do anything to move the plot forward. The result is a tale that flaunts its intelligence and attention to scientific detail through and through, but bores as often as it stimulates. Read it for the gorgeous landscapes and its lucid presentation of the terraforming debate, but be warned that the characters never exhibit enough agency to be interesting.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Red Mars, keep reading below.)

There are moments when Red Mars sings with the general tenor of a Nicholas Tam dream novel. After all, this is a book that, first and foremost, tackles space colonization along the axes of sustainable development and governance. What’s better in the name of science: conserving a dead and inhospitable environment in its natural state, or transforming it into a self-sufficient homeland? Are the colonists under any obligation to follow the unenforceable dictates of their superiors on Earth, at risk of the tragedy of the commons that follows from the Outer Space Treaty? (As an aside, I tend to think of the Outer Space Treaty’s consequence as an underexploited anticommons, but Robinson sidesteps that by giving Mars an invaluable export—a cure for aging.)

Even on the symbolic level, Robinson hits all the right notes: my favourite example of this is the “colour inversion” of the semantic values associated with green and red. On Mars, green represents the development of the landscape to suit humanity’s own needs, and the hands-off-my-ecosystem Greenpeace types are pejoratively referred to as the “reds”. I couldn’t help relating this to another observation I’ve heard, on the dramatic impact that the early stages of space exploration had on the ecological movement: we started seeing Earth as a precious blue marble teeming with life, its antithesis the fiery red. How soon we forget that a long time ago, red was the sanguine, fruitful one of the two. (Personally, I’m not convinced that this inversion began with the photographs of Earth from outer space: wouldn’t it make more sense for it to have occurred at the conjunction of life sciences and industrialism in the nineteenth century?)

So it’s with some regret that I confess my lack of engagement with most of what goes on in the novel. It’s not that Red Mars isn’t “literary” enough for me: it has some intensely literary moments rich with metaphor and myth, one of which I will mention later on. Nor is it that Robinson leans so heavily on the Arthur C. Clarke school of hard science fiction, which considers scientifically plausible speculation (if we were to do X, these would be the challenges, and these are ways we can overcome those obstacles) as the first priority.

For those of you new to the internecine conflicts in science fiction, it may be instructive to know that sci-fi is sometimes seen as caught in a tug-of-war between two poles: the hard-science audience that wants everything to work in a plausible manner (and want to know how it’s done), and the audience for whom the sociopolitical consequences are paramount (never mind how we got there in the first place). This is a simplistic dichotomy—good fiction of any stripe ideally succeeds in both suspending belief and staying relevant—but the perception does exist.

Where Red Mars works is in Robinson’s ability to juggle both aspects, the ethics analysis as well as the mission design.

The predicament, as I see it, is that the ethical dimension emerges primarily from extended debates in the dialogue rather than the causality of personal decisions. The story suffers because the characters, who already have to rise to the challenge of existing in an ensemble piece with no single protagonist throughout, virtually never make any decisions themselves. They are constantly reacting, never acting: Martian development largely goes according to plan in a rote, sequential and-then-this-happened, and even when it doesn’t, the planet demonstrates far more agency than the characters ever do. Robinson dedicates an overwhelming proportion of the third-person narration to poignant descriptions of the shifting Martian vista, completely swallowing the people within. The planet happens to them; they don’t happen to the planet. In a way, that’s the point of the story: that the landscape makes Martians out of Earthlings just as much as they aim to make an Earth out of Mars.

Part of the problem is that the cast is just fundamentally uninteresting, and have little existence outside of being mouthpieces for their political positions. I’ve seen ensemble pieces do just fine without a central character, everywhere from the high fantasy of George R.R. Martin to the “hysterical realism” of Zadie Smith to the Dostoevskian sprawl of Fyodor Dostoevsky (who else?), and there is some indication that Robinson at least aspires to framing Red Mars as a “character-driven” fiction (scare quotes mine)—but the first ingredient towards making that connect is to have the story feature people who aren’t terminally dull.

Character development is not having leading Russian cosmonaut Maya Totoivna spend the entire novel sleeping with the two most prominent Americans on the mission, fretting over which one she likes better, and whining about it to anyone who will listen to her.

Character development is the outstanding short-story-like Part 4 (“Homesick”), dedicated entirely to the psychologist Michel Duval, a minor player in the rest of the book. All at once, we see a critique of Greimas’ rectangle, a deep insight into the way Michel sees the world and the people around him, and what the Martian experience does to expose the limitations of his mode of thought. It’s simultaneously brilliant on objective and subjective levels of understanding: Robinson gets to go on a riff about structuralist semiotics (something I find enthralling in and of itself), and we get the satisfaction of reading it as an excursion into the mind of an increasingly introspective character, a man on the other side of the sun from anyone who can even speak to him competently in his first language.

Red Mars is peppered with flashes of brilliance like “Homesick”, and I wish there were more of them. My favourite, which is another one of the “intensely literary moments” I referred to earlier, is the three-page interlude that opens Part 6. It’s the only passage in the novel written in the first person, most of it in the collective first person of an unidentified “we” that stands in for the settler community as a whole. There’s a natural lilt to the narrator’s voice that we never see elsewhere in the novel, apart from a speech or two:

Oh man once I saw him pull a glider out of a downdraft that would have killed anyone else, it was a shear-off and it would have ripped the glider apart if he’d tried to resist it, but he just went with it and the plane dropped like a Rickover a thousand meters in a second, three or four times terminal velocity, and then when it was about to go smash he just tweaked it to the side and up and pancaked it in about twenty meters. Came out with his nose and ears bleeding. He was the best pilot on Mars, he could fly like an angel. Hell the whole first hundred would’ve been dead if he hadn’t hand flown them into their orbital insertion, that’s what I heard.

It sounds like nothing else in the book. I wouldn’t want the whole novel written that way, mind you, as it wouldn’t suit the Clarkean stuff; the beauty of the interlude stands out because of its uniqueness. And that’s not all. The best part of this passage is when the narrator works Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox into a creation myth of the Martian landscape, Tharsis Bulge and all. And it gets even better—Paul Bunyan, the quintessential hero of American folklore, stands in for the cultural pollination of Mars and the dissolution that occurs as settlers become an indigenous people with their own identity:

But his own bacteria ate him, naturally, and they crawled all around down on the bedrock and under the megaregolith, down there going everywhere, sucking up the mantle heat, and eating the sulfides, and melting down the permafrost. And everywhere they went down there, every one of those little bacteria said I am Paul Bunyan.

(Pause for applause.)

The last thing I want to point out about Red Mars is how it has aged since its initial publication in 1992. Red Mars is unambiguously a product of its time: it grapples with the uncertainty of life after the Soviet Union (remember the catchphrase “new world order”?), the future of South Africa as we saw it before Mandela, the rising tigers of the developing world, a brewing culture clash with Islam, conservation and eco-terrorism, and globalization’s empowerment of multinationals to the point where they reach the “transnational” stage of transcending governments (see Stephenson’s Snow Crash, published the same year, for details).

For the most part, this works; not surprisingly, what I found most intriguing apart from the terraforming debate was the critique of the United Nations in several respects—the validity of its less enforceable treaties, its policing authority, and its capacity for emergency response. There’s more than a hint of cynicism here: Robinson claims that as corporations supersede governments, they gain a de facto controlling share in the UN’s operations as well.

The topicality adds up to a bit too much at times, but Robinson’s willingness to advance arguments on both sides of the key issues saves the novel from falling into the pits of allegory.

As for the cultural indigenization of the settler colony and its inevitable desire for full autonomy, I found Robinson’s take (a dash of enviro-totemism here and there, a bit of immigrant multiculturalism that resists assimilation, etc.) to be neither as organic nor as coherent as Robert Heinlein’s classic, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. It’s not entirely Robinson’s fault—geopolitics got a lot muddier after the 1960s, the decade in which Heinlein was writing—but when it comes to space colonization novels, I know which one I’d recommend first.

Red Mars leaves a lot of threads hanging, but that appears to be intentional: by design, it is the first entry in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars Trilogy”, and is followed by Green Mars and Blue Mars. I can’t say I’m all that motivated to push forward, as I have other reading priorities, but one should not take this to mean that I don’t enjoy Robinson as a writer. He is, at times, astoundingly, breathtakingly good. He is just better with planets than he is with people, and in the novel form, you can’t exactly get by without the people.

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6 rejoinders to “Wednesday Book Club: Red Mars

  1. I’d really like to get your take on the follow up novels.

    If anything they had characters with even less agency than those in Red Mars (in fact, one of the theses is that history could have been different if great men hadn’t died/great men were destined to die), but they have far more of the “literary moments” that you highlight above.

    Also, what was your take on Robinson’s far more esoteric Years of Rice and Salt?

    Monday, 4 August 2008 at 9:52pm

  2. The Years of Rice and Salt is new to me, so I can’t say I’ve read it. I’ll put it on my list, which is starting to become a very long list.

    After Red Mars, I almost have the impression that Robinson is a writer I would enjoy in smaller doses. He comes off as a better world-designer than a plotter, if you know what I mean.

    Tuesday, 5 August 2008 at 5:18pm

  3. I think it’s deeply unfair to Mars to judge it by Red Mars, almost as much as it would be unfair to judge LOTR by The Fellowship of the Ring (books or movies, either will do). “Almost”, because the trilogy structure of LOTR is not Tolkien’s, and was imposed on him by the wartime paper rationing. Let us say then: as unfair as to judge the Covenant Chronicles, or even the First Covenant Chronicles, by Lord Foul’s Bane.

    It’s quite right that the colonists become Martians, but the Martians they become depends over time on the Mars they have at the time. Red Mars is dead Mars, and the characters are mostly dead, most of them: all they look for beyond bare survival is a little bit of warmth, sexual warmth being the obvious but not the only kind. (Afer all, they come to Mars from Antarctica, not only the coldest but the most dessicated place on Earth.)

    In accordance with the Maslow hierarchy, the other needs have to wait until later (and thanks to the life extension, it’s the same people later) and they emerge when the Mars they live in makes growth both possible and necessary. It’s only when Mars becomes truly a blue marble in the sky that the people in it, now true Martians, can also become truly human — there’s a techno-McGuffin for this, but its logic is not the logic of science but of narrative necessity.

    Anyhow, I’m writing this primarily to urge you to continue reading and then re-judge. I know, ars longa, vita brevis, but I happen to think it’s very much worth your while.

    Friday, 19 December 2008 at 1:29pm

  4. Oops, forgot to mention that the variation between reds and Reds (this of course was before that color became associated with the U.S right wing) is very important: sometimes the Reds are reds, sometimes the reds are Reds, sometimes both, sometimes neither.

    Friday, 19 December 2008 at 1:31pm

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