Friday, August 4, 2023

Review: Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

There is not an overwhelming amount of science fiction writers tackling the climate crises and other challenges of social organization from a leftist perspective. Kim Stanley Robinson, or KSR, is probably the most decorated of this crew, and the Mars trilogy is the most well-known of his work. For these reasons alone, I thought it would be interesting to check out this series. 

Fiction provides a good way to explore topics like social organization at a level of distance or abstraction, can provoke discussion and debate, and at its very best it can inspire a desire for change. Its ability to explore these topics and spark discussion rely on how well it portrays the interconnectedness of issues, the relationships between peoples and the problems they face. This doesn’t exclude fantastical elements: R.F. Kuang’s Babel wonderfully explores the internal contradictions of imperialism and capitalism in a world powered by magic. But within the world the author builds, the issues and their solutions have to seem realistic, each challenge and its solutions arising naturally from the world, and they need to feel relevant to our example. For the work to inspire, it has to show an appealing path forward for us: good characters who resonate with us, and who are tied into the challenges in the world and the solutions.

Red Mars, the first installment of the trilogy, does not achieve these tasks. Its characters do not demonstrate a way we can change society, and its analysis of sociopolitical relationships is superficial.

The premise of the book is the formation of a new society on Mars: in an international collaboration, 100 scientists are sent to Mars to begin colonizing efforts, followed by waves of additional immigrants. The narrative follows a handful of these “First Hundred” scientists, while off-scene, Earth increasingly struggles with inequality, overpopulation, and powerful international corporations. This choice of setting sets KSR up for a challenge in making the issue he’s discussing relevant to our world. For the next century at least, our social projects must build on the foundations of existing societies — how would this change the characters’ solutions? The novel does not explore this. Additionally, there’s something off-putting about a story about the colonization of a new frontier without people — this is also how the first settlers in the Americas viewed their task and we haven’t really reckoned with this past yet. (There is a brief discussion about the danger of terraforming Mars without first ensuring it had no original traces of life, but the scientist in favour of a “red” Mars is quickly over-ridden and her concerns are made to look silly.) 

In their nine-month voyage to Mars, the scientists discuss declaring independence from Earth and forming a new society. A scientist named Arkady sparks this debate with some of my favourite lines of the book:

“To be twenty-first-century scientists on Mars, in fact, but at the same time living within nineteenth-century social systems, based on seventeenth-century ideologies. It’s absurd, it’s crazy, it's — it’s —” he seized his head in his hands, tugged at his hair, roared “It’s unscientific!”

The conflicts between them rapidly dissipate when they arrive and diffuse across the planet. I liked this analysis: this reflects the dissipation of social tensions in Europe as the “surplus population” spread to the (“unpopulated”) colonies. The pacing gets a bit weird after this. There are endless passages about dust and ice as the scientists terraform Mars, pumping as much heat into the environment as possible (also off-putting to read about, given present challenges). In the background, Arkady agitates among the new immigrants while the transnational companies tighten their grip on earth. These off-scene maneuverings come to a head in what ends up being a failed revolution.

This is where the novel fails in its tasks as political fiction. First, our main characters have surprisingly little to do with the "main" events of the book. They drive around Mars in their Jeeps and ponder the implications of their pharmaceutically-induced immortality, bemoaning that there are really too many immigrants coming to Mars. Some are a little sympathetic to Arkady’s movement, but their support seems lukewarm, disinterested. Second, the political actions and reaction don’t feel relevant to our world, and are thrown into the plot with little connection to each other. In one of the few scenes in which we witness a point-of-view character impacting events, Frank convinces the President of the United States of America to stand up to the multinationals because it would be embarrassing for him not to. And Washington is swayed! What was the rebel’s plan, how did they develop it, and why did it fail? These questions aren’t really answered.

From my brief summary of the story here, it might sound like a complete failure of a novel — but I actually don’t think so. It does actually have a cohesive emotional arc. The underlying issue with Red Mars is that the backbone of the story has very little to do with its premise. At its heart, Red Mars is about the dynamics of a group of a hundred people required to work together out of necessity and proximity — like colleagues or homeowner association members, but in Space. The structure of the story reflects this: the book opens with a critical scene where one of the First Hundred arranges and executes the assassination of another of the First Hundred, the climax of a power struggle built over decades. Next, we flash backwards, learning how the First Hundred came to get to know each other, how they formed their first friendships, romances and allegiances. Next, we see how cracks form, developing into the feud that leads to the assassination. Much of the (slow, dust- and ice-filled) middle of the book is driven by the tension of some of the First Hundred looking for a faction that has gone no-contact, and how they deal with the feelings of regret and rejection. The climax of the novel is not the revolution, but of the First Hundred uniting again, surviving together in the chaos caused by Arkady’s rebellion.

When I thought the novel would be about forming a new society on Mars, I wondered at the choice of point-of-view characters. Why do we not see the perspective of someone on Earth, perhaps someone in the Global South, particularly at the mercy of the transnationals, and able to access neither Mars nor the pharmaceutically-induced immortality? Why do we not see through the eyes of a new immigrant to Mars, struggling with the lack of infrastructure and the oppressive laws of the transnationals, eager to join Arkady's movement? Why are our only point-of-view characters these older, white, privileged First Hundred scientists that care more about science and each other than forming a new society on Mars? Because it’s not a story about forming a new society on Mars, it’s a novel about the friendships and competitiveness of adult professional societies.

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