Skip to main content

A look back at Red Mars


Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson was published in 1993 so in reading it I was very curious to see how how well the book has aged. I would argue pretty well but especially in terms of Mars itself, the book remains remarkably close to what seems to be the developing understanding of both the planet itself and the feats of engineering required to reach it. Partly I think this comes from the conservative approach to the planet and its exploration. Right off the bat, Robinson takes the very measured and, even today defensible view that Mars does not have and never had life even in microbial forms. While rovers and probes sent to the red planet are increasingly finding evidence of a warmer, wetter past, the evidence for carbon based life is highly debatable. More on that later.



Looking back to 1993, it's interesting to see how the book was received given the views about space exploration common to the time. The book would have been written primarily during the first Bush administration and one of H.W.'s biggest efforts to confront the "vision thing," was a massive effort to interplanetary space exploration. The plans were very ambitious: an international space station, a return to the Moon (permanently) and an eventual push to land a man on Mars. 


Check out this video for cheesy sub-Babylon 5 CGI and quick summation of the rhetoric of the time. Sorry about the audio quality.

Now more than twenty years later, what we have is a space station. Partly this resulted from a very discouraging figure that came out of budget analysis of the proposed Mars mission. With the expected cost structure of NASA, any trip to the fourth planet was expected to run to $450 billion. Even during the relatively profligate early 90s, this was a monstrous sum of money and one that quickly drove the agency to shelve much of the mission. The Clinton administration merely presided over the funeral of the Mars mission by scrapping everything but the ISS. NASA drifted for nearly a decade until 2003 when the second shuttle disaster kick-started the second Bush to propose a new Mars initiative. I am not one to casually give W praise and I'm not going to start now. His typically feckless directives did little to make a Mars mission reality. I'm not sure it was ever anything other than a useful publicity stunt anyway: Look people I'm not all about death and taxes! I like space too!

Whatever.

The Obama administration largely abandoned Bush's Moon plans and redirected NASA to land on an asteroid in preparation for a mission to Mars in the 2030s. I like Obama, voted for the guy, but this plan is not serious. Take a look at Mars Direct for a vision of space exploration that gets us to Mars now with existing technology without busting the budget. Better yet, look at the various companies like Space X for a look at how Americans are most likely going to reach the other planets. Travel to other planets has to be cheap and its has to be ready in the next decade; anything else is just media-bait. Elon Musk's interview with Wired seemed to me particularly encouraging but I'm sucker for this kind of thing.

Back to Red Mars. Once you take in the sketch of the past two decades, it's clear how the vision of Martian exploration Robinson described went off the rails. After a few days of reflection, the novel's connection to the time it was written is more clear. The newly ascendent American superpower of 1993, vanquisher of communism, liberator of Kuwait, makes a strong appearance in this book. It's clear Robinson expected American supremacy to go unchallenged for considerably longer, and that big government support of the space program would survive into a second Bush term. 

I was also curious about the Mars Robinson described. How has that fared? This has been arguably more prescient. As I said, Robinson is nothing if not cautious in his portrayal of Mars. He essentially took the barren lifeless view of Mars the Viking Landers presented and made it canon. This is actually a bold move and a risky artistic choice if you think about it. Not three years after Red Mars, the Allen Hills meteorite find seemed to suggest that 3.6 billion years ago Mars had bacteria on it. I think the consensus never really formed around that interpretation however. Neither Opportunity or Spirit found much supporting ancient Martian life. The anomalous carbon or chlorine sample aside, Curiosity hasn't dredged up much evidence yet either. So, Robinson's view of a lifeless rust desert has weathered quite well. 



I'll devote more space to Terraforming in another post but I'll close my look back at Red Mars by referencing a recent article from the Chinese space agency. It's clear that America isn't the only game in town anymore. As NASA suggests, any trip there with American astronauts will have to be multi-national in character. That is not the case with the Chinese, they seem bent on leaving the gravity well on their own by any means necessary. The rise of China is one of the aspects of the geopolitics of Red Mars Robinson most clearly missed the boat on. 
Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Solemn Treasures

In Gilead, the transcendent novel by Marilynn Robinson, a 76 year old man confronts his impending mortality and the sense he cannot provide for his young son after he is gone. He had not expected to meet his son's mother in the twilight of his life, not expected to have a son. If he had, he tells his son in a lengthy letter forming the substance of Robinson's novel, he might have set something by for him. Some sort of savings or investment. It pains him to think that when he is gone, all that he can leave are a few words.

What words.

As mentioned in a previous post, I set myself on the task (is that really the right word here? maybe endeavor would be better) to read as many of the 'great novels' of this young century as I could. After reading Hillary Mantel's "Wolf Hall-" which was also fantastic by the way - I made my way to Gilead. One of the many quietly strange things about this novel is that it's actually the second novel from Robinson. Her first…

New Story Acceptance!

As mentioned last week, I do have a bit of happy news to share. I am excited to announce that my story, "The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY," will appear in the next issue of the Electric Spec Magazine at the end of the month. I am tremendously excited about this for a few reasons:
Electric Spec is simply awesome. I've been reading this magazine for awhile and never been disappointed by a single story. To have one of my stories selected is beyond humbling. I can only give an earnest thank you to Lesley L. Smith for choosing the story.I love this story dearly. It has one of my favorite protagonists and shows in the clearest way I've managed where I'd like to go with my fiction. Electric Spec also gave me the chance to reflect on this story and its meaning in a guest blog which I am sharing below. Without being spoilery, this blog expresses some of what resonates about "The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY," with me. Guest Blog at Electric SpecAt the moment, I think the…

"The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY" is now available!

My new story, "The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY," is now available in the current issue of the Electric Spec magazine. I'm very proud that this story is getting published at Electic Spec for the simple reason I've been reading the magazine for years, dreaming of the day I might get a story published there. Well, it's finally happened.

The story of "Yuru-chara" is pretty simple: a young girl wakes up to discover that her old virtual friend, a seven-foot-tall yellow monster named Tama Bell, has come to life. While navigating through waves of other virtual creatures released through a world-wide hack, the young heroine tries to come to grips with her responsibility to her forgotten friend and the losses inherent to growing up.

I hope that you enjoy my story and that you give the other stories a try. They're awesome!

Thank you for your continued support.