Skip to main content

Falling into History

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson is a lot of things but primarily what strikes me is its insistence on being a novel. Not a book. Not a 'read.' Not a pulp tale or an epic space opera. Robinson clearly wanted to create something like the War and Peace of Speculative Fiction. Judged from that standpoint it would be tough to say Red Mars is perfect. Much like the only other book I've read from Robinson, Years of Rice and Salt, the first book of the Mars Trilogy has a reach that somewhat exceeds its grasp. However, I'm not going to judge this book against Tolstoy and I'm not even going to talk about it being Steinbeck in spacesuits.

Red Mars is about newness. It's about the future that most fiction that calls itself science fiction is not.



Every single paragraph stretches to say something original. The word 'novel,' comes from the idea that a book should talk about what is new. That's what novels once aspired to do. Not so much in style, but in raw content. I've heard novels described as applied philosophy, which certainly fits in this case. I'd go so far as to say the book is about ideas themselves as much as it is about a ruddy desolate planetary neighbor. And because the world it's set on is inherently dead, inherently empty, the thoughts and dreams of its characters loom large in the overall story.

I can anticipate a few posts about this actually. Reading a Robinson book is an experience of diving into depths of grand beliefs and swimming around in them for 500 pages. While Red Mars certainly builds to an appropriately operatic Götterdämmerung in its final two chapters, for two thirds of the story, we are listening in on very intelligent and passionate people talking about abstract things they care about deeply. We are soaking up the ancient and silent ambience of Mars which means quite a few passages about some colossal valley on planet's southern hemisphere or the way ice looks on the surface. Or how the wind blows. Or the many varied way Robinson describes rust colored ground.

We hear about machines and imperatives of terraforming Mars, how this would be done, why it's necessary. Robinson's mouth piece in this is Saxifrage Russell, a scientist with somewhat obscure ethics and an unshakable vision of a more habitable Mars. But, through a character named Ann Claybourne, Robinson also presents the ideals of the "Reds," or people who come to oppose terraforming and human settlement of the fourth planet generally. Robinson doesn't really come down on either side ultimately but I think he very deftly sets a system in motion, an intricate thought experiment, that cannot help but arrive at a certain result.

Beyond those two extremes, the story also concerns itself with what amounts to a Cain and Abel story retold for the 21st Century. Abel is John Boone, The First Man on Mars, the first American astronaut to reach Mars' surface, who exudes an earnest and jovial optimism in the creation of a truly Martian human race. Cain is Frank Chalmers who mouths the ideals of Boone while deploying infinitely more Machiavellian methods to achieve an independent Mars. It's not much of a spoiler to reveal the result of this particular conflict as Robinson settles Boone's fate within the first chapter. I wish this conflict was more developed to be honest.

Overall, it's the desire to tell something new that's the greatest strength of the story. To tell a fundamentally Martian story for an audience that is unlikely to ever go to the place is an impressive achievement. It was written 20 years ago, and only dated in its optimistic timeline for interplanetary exploration. The problems of warring nations, boundless greed, overpopulation, environmental collapse and transnationalism are perhaps more familiar now than they were at the end of the Cold War. What really rings true though are the pages after pages of arguments on things I wish people cared more about. If you're like me and bored of people talking about 'cuts,' 'taxes,' and 'entitlements,' like these were the only things worth debating, Red Mars might be a welcome.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Reading Response to "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

Reader Response to “A Good Man is Hard to Find” Morgan Crooks I once heard Flannery O’Connor’s work introduced as a project to describe a world denied God’s grace. This critic of O’Connor’s work meant the Christian idea that a person’s misdeeds, mistakes, and sins could be sponged away by the power of Jesus’ sacrifice at Crucifixion. The setting of her stories often seem to be monstrous distortions of the real world. These are stories where con men steal prosthetic limbs, hired labor abandons mute brides in rest stops, and bizarre, often disastrous advice is imparted.  O’Connor herself said of this reputation for writing ‘grotesque’ stories that ‘anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.’ This is both a witty observation and a piece of advice while reading O’Connor’s work. These are stories about pain and lies and ugliness. The brutality that happens to characters …

Arisia 2019: Wrap Report

Arisia 2019 is over!

It’s back to the real world this week after an entire weekend in Arisia 2019. I go to this convention every year, but this one will definitely be special to me. For one thing, this is the year that felt, at least for a moment, like it wasn’t going to happen. If the debacle with the e-board wasn’t enough, there was the strike at the Westin. The convention felt slimmer this year for sure. A lot of people self-selected to not come this year and honestly with the smaller, more confined venue of the Boston Park Plaza, that was a decision enormously beneficial to my enjoyment of this con.
I had a blast. I was more invested in the panels this year because I wrote a portion of them. It’s one thing to go to a panel and listen for reading suggestions, or new ideas, or people to follow on social media, but it’s quite another to put together a panel of people to create a very specific conversation and then get to sit back to see how the discussion plays out. I loved that aspect…

Thoughts on the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Anything that persists for an entire decade as a recurring entertainment event begins to mean more than simple entertainment. It’s inevitable that once a franchise like the MCU has continued for long enough that its overall significance has to be factored in. I don’t think fans quite appreciate what genre movies like these used to be like before MCU.

It’s really not the special effects or effective mix of humor, action, and character development. It’s the fact that all three of things happen within the persistent universe. Because no Marvel movie is the last Marvel movie, and there’s always another one to develop the characters, fans have a different relationship to this franchise.

It’s more like what comic books are, obviously, where no matter what crazy stuff goes on in a crossover event, you have a reasonable expectation that your favorite character will be back the next month or the month after that.

There have been good MCU movies, mediocre movies, and one that I’m pretty sure quali…