Icehenge is Kim Stanley Robinson’s second published novel. It was published the same year as his first novel The Wild Shore, the first part in his THREE CALIFORNIAS triptych. The subject of Icehenge is very different from The Wild Shore. It would be selling the book short to say it is a first step towards his popular MARS trilogy because Icehenge is a very good novel in its own right, but fans of the MARS books will find many themes in this book have returned in the trilogy.
On the north pole of Pluto a mysterious construction of ice is found, reminiscent of Stonehenge. Three linked novellas in Icehenge explore the origin of this construct. The first two novellas had been published before under the titles “On the North Pole of Pluto” (1980) and “To Leave a Mark” (1982). The first novella consists of the diary of Emma Weil. In an age where gerontological treatment has enabled people to live for centuries, memory has proven to be the weak link in the system. Many people keep diaries for the day when they will no longer remember the events they witnessed. Emma’s diary tells us about her days on a hijacked spaceship, her work as a life support engineer, and events during the Martian rebellion of 2248.
This rebellion will be brutally crushed, its very existence swept under the carpet by the powers that be. In 2547 this is not a situation archaeologist and historian Hjalmar Nederland will allow to exist much longer. Not relying on untrustworthy memories, he means to organize a dig at the site of one of the battles of the revolution to look for physical evidence. Emma’s diary is instrumental for his work, but also leads to an even larger discovery, the origin of Icehenge. In 2610 Nederland’s theory on the origins of Icehenge is widely accepted, but Edmond Doya is not satisfied with that explanation. He means to prove the monument is a hoax and comes up with some convincing arguments.
Robinson uses a number of very interesting themes but the one that, to me, stands out is memory loss in extremely long-lived people. In this story lifespans of up to five centuries are possible. As a result, pretty strict measures have been put into place to prevent overpopulation. Emma, who is 80 years old, has realized this is going to be a problem and starts writing things down. Hjalmar, who is 310 by the time he is allowed to pursue his ideas of the Martian revolution, has already experienced life as a sequence of several lives. With memory stacked upon memory, only the last ‘normal’ lifespan can be reliably recollected. His life before that may as well have been someone else’s. It’s a frightening concept. We base most of our decisions on previous experience, but what if those memories become unreliable? What if someone confronts you with something you may or may not have done a century ago?
The reader gets a taste of this over the course of the novel. After reading Emma’s diary, you’re pretty convinced you know what has happened, but Nederland’s histories and Edmond’s revisions cast doubt upon just about every part of the story. Nederland’s science seems solid and Edmond’s theories have an air of conspiracy around them that makes it hard to credit his findings. And yet, he may well be on to something, which in turn casts doubt upon the veracity of the statements in Emma’s diary. Who is right? Robinson leaves that for the reader to figure out. It puts what we think we know about the past in an interesting perspective.
The cover of my reprint edition proclaims that Icehenge is “The Award-Winning Author’s First Martian Novel.” When I first read it I did notice the themes Icehenge has in common with the MARS trilogy, but to proclaim Icehenge is the first MARS novel is a bit too much in my opinion. The focus of this novel is not on the colonization of the red planet, though many of the ideas Robinson would later use in the MARS books are used as a backdrop in this book. Political struggles on Mars or Mars-Terra relations do not dominate the story. The political realities of Icehenge’s Mars are, at least initially, more or less accepted by all the main characters, making it a darker future than where the planet ends up in Blue Mars. That book leans more towards utopia. Still, together with Pacific Edge and The Memory of Whiteness, it clearly shows Mars was on the author’s mind.
Written before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Icehenge is a bit dated in some aspects, such as its depiction of the Soviet Union, the status of Pluto, and the printing of information on paper instead of displaying on electronic devices.
Icehenge is a very well-constructed tale, designed to make the reader doubt, puzzle and think. It’s a good read for people who enjoyed the author’s MARS trilogy but it’s also a good place to start if you are not sure you’re ready for three large volumes of detail on the red planet. Personally I loved the descriptive passages in those books but quite a few readers seem to think it could have done with a little more editing. In Icehenge Robinson keeps that aspect of his writing a bit more in the background. Whatever your preferences, Icehenge is a fascinating read and I highly recommend it.