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.
Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Review of I Wish I Was Like You by S.P. Miskowski

Even 23 years later, I remember 1994 and Kurt Cobain's death. I experienced that moment as a kind of inside out personal crisis. I felt ashamed by his death. As though his exit in someway indicted my own teenage miseries. "I wish I was like you," goes the verse in 'All Apologies,' "Easily amused." I felt as though a check I hadn't remembered writing had just been cashed. 


SP Miskowski's book, named after the first half of that line, is in the words of another reviewer, a novel that shouldn't work. The narrator is unlikeable, unreliable, and dead. The plot is almost entirely told as a flashback and long sections of the novel concern the inner processes of the writer. The daily grind to summon up enough self-esteem to carry a sentence to its logical conclusion is a real struggle, people, but it ain't exactly riveting.

But the thing is, this novel works. It is one of the best things I've read all year and a real achievement in weird ficti…

What I Read in 2017

The third in my series of year-end lists is literature. As in past years, I've divided this post into two categories: Novels and short stories. Each of these stories made 2017 just a bit brighter for me and I hope this list includes at least a writer or two new to you.


Novels:
I Wish I was You by SP Miskowski: This was the subject of a review earlier this year. The way I feel about this novel, the tragedy of a talented person crippled by anger and regret, transformed into a monstrous avatar of wrath, has not really left me. Beyond the perfection of its prose and its preternatural subject matter, I feel like this is one of the best evocations of the mid-nineties I've seen published. There's something about this book that lingers with me long past the concerns of its plot and characters. I guess what I'm trying to say is this work moved me. 2017 would have been a lot dimmer if I hadn't read this work.New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson: Robinson writes next-level sp…

Review Grab-bag

If find myself pressed for time this month and absolutely overwhelmed by the various media I'd like to tell you about. 

First up. I watched Guardians of The Galaxy Volume 2, okay? So you can get off my back. And? I loved it. About as much as the first one, honestly, give or take a joke or two. What it misses in novelty and sheer comedy (this is a percentage thing: there are more jokes and fewer of them completely land) it more than makes up for resonance and, you know, feelings.

It's actually damn impressive that the first movie 1) got made in the first place 2) worked as well as it did. There are five characters I doubt many had any reason to care about and by the end of the first flick, you loved them.

Total surprise.

So that's the first film. The second film surprises by taking all of this very, very seriously and finding ways of making you care about such diverse topics as the attempt of a green and purple sister at reconciliation over the purple one's cybernetic mu…