Sunday, April 28, 2013

The End of a Series

I've spent the past few days thinking about the ending of "Blue Mars," the final book in the Kim Stanley Robinson Mars series. It took me a while to decide what exactly I felt about the book. On one hand, this book had perhaps the best writing of the entire series. The characterizations were sharp and memorable, the long descriptive passages evoked times and places with poignancy, and the various themes of the previous two books of the trilogy really did meet a satisfactory conclusion.

On the other hand, this book felt like an elaborate and prolonged fade-out, one enormous epilogue that never quite came into focus. Partly, this was by design. One of the themes of the series, overall, appears to be tracing the emergence of post-scarcity, peaceful paradise throughout the human solar system. You can't have much of a paradise when things are blowing up and falling apart.

Most of the conflict of this story revolved around the remaining characters of the story: Sax Russell, the terraformer, Ann Clayborne, Nadia Chernyshevski, Maya Toitovna, and Nirgal. Sax and Ann show the most growth in the story, Sax becoming increasingly committed to finding some middle path between the transformative science he pioneered in the earlier books and a more hands-off approach of Ann. The final section of the book is almost entirely told from his perspective and it functions a little like the Molly Bloom segment at the end of Ulysseus, rambling, pensive, and ultimately optimistic. In book a the traces the inflexible and humorless Red environmentalist Ann path towards acceptance of the human role in the universe, that's not a bad summary of the story itself.

But I should be clear, the purpose of this book is reflection. While the book details the slow-to-build tensions between Mars and the overpopulated and chaotic Earth, the real struggle is how to manage life on a grand scale. What if you continued to live past your ability to remember your own life? What if every moment took on that 'already experienced before' nature of deja vu? What would it mean to be human if that term had to take into account life on planets as diverse as Mercury, rotating asteroid colonies and Uranus' shattered moon Miranda. While many of the chapters end with a sort perfunctory survival threat, none of this is very, well, exciting.

On the other hand, by simply letting the melancholy centuries coast past, the book really establishes a sense of place and time. I found myself constantly returning to the events of the first and second novels with a renewed appreciation of the scale of Robinson's work. The work is really one of the most fully realized examples of 'future history,' I've ever read, not merely recording events or tracing their causes, but spending time to have the characters consider their own roles within the context of that history.

One last effect I particularly enjoyed, one that I find a little bit mysterious, is how Robinson is able to evoke Mars as a setting. I found myself routinely swept away into the epic vistas of the crater seas, rugged greening terrain, and artificial habitats established throughout the solar system. I think partly this comes from the pacing of the book, because it takes such an unhurried stroll through the distant future, you really have time to meditate on just what this future might look like, sound like, feel like. That's probably the ultimate value of this book and the series its part of, a vision of a future that realistically achieves escape velocity, accelerating into the outer limits of what is humanly possible, carrying with it a weary, hopeful confidence.
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