When the First Hundred arrive on Mars, they find a beautiful red planet that’s all but untouched by humanity. What should they paint on this amazing canvas?
The question turns out to be very political, and the discussion of politics in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars perhaps begins with ecology. The relationship between people and their environment is introduced when the Martian settlers consider whether they should change the red planet to suit human needs. Ann Clayborne maintains that they should change Mars as little as possible. After all, science is about observation. Sax Russell, on the other hand, argues that “science is creation” and that they should begin terraforming Mars as rapidly as possible because it “adds life, the most beautiful system of all.” Sax’s arguments win over the Hundred.
But what about culture and economics? Charismatic Arkady Bogdanov argues that Mars represents a new start. John Boone largely agrees with Arkady, though he feels that one builds a city on a hill by keeping what was best in the old world rather than starting from scratch. Frank Chalmers, meanwhile, believes in real politics: because the First Hundred depend on Earth for most of their supplies, they cannot detach themselves from the Earth’s corrupt politics. There will not be a new start on Mars, and when Frank hears people like John and Arkady dreaming about a revolution detached from the politics of Earth, he is disgusted by his fellow scientists who don’t realize that they:
are so ignorant! Young men and women, educated very carefully to be apolitical, to be technicians who thought they disliked politics, making them putty in the hands of their rulers.
The scientists would do well to take Frank’s advice since Earth has many problems and many politically savvy rulers. Largely stripped of resources, Earth now has few governments who command as much power as the transnational corporations. Both the human population and income inequality have grown on Earth, which is why the First Hundred soon find themselves surrounded by other settlers who smother their dreams in business ventures. It turns out that if you’re looking to get away from people to create a new world, you probably shouldn’t have gone to Mars.
When their journey is viewed from Frank’s perspective, many of the Martian settlers sound incredibly naïve. Perhaps they are, but I still preferred their company to Frank’s. When the settlers discover a longevity treatment, Arkady once again is convinced that a new start is possible because a longer life:
will certainly cause a social revolution. Shortness of life was a primary force in the permanence of institutions, strange though it is to say it. But it is so much easier to hold onto whatever short-term survival scheme you have, rather than risking it all on a new plan that might not work — no matter how destructive your short-term plan might be for the following generations. Let them deal with it, you know. And really, to give them their due, by the time people learned the system they were old and dying, and for the next generation it was all there, massive and entrenched and having to be learned all over again.
Well, Arkady’s vision does not come to pass here. When news of the longevity treatment reaches Earth, it creates a greater demand for resources, and Mars is the closest place in the universe to harvest them. Further, as the First Hundred grow older, they begin to feel the weight of their personal history. The history of the species seems overwhelming and just as inescapable as Earth’s political turmoil. Then again, while Arkady’s political vision may seem wishful, his ability to dream of a better world is always welcome and even encouraging. Frank, though a capable administrator, is disturbingly empty. What kind of person are you if you look at the universe and imagine nothing more than real politics?
Red Mars often reads as a fall from grace, but while other science fiction authors might draw our attention to the fallen nature of humanity, our toil and conflict here derives first from ecological imbalances. Science fiction novels that allude to the Garden often follow a predictable utopian/ dystopian arc that seems to dismiss the push for a better society as a fool’s dream. Here, however, it seems as though a much better society than ours is possible if we can achieve ecological harmony. If there is a tragic weight in this novel, it is that our urge to create from a position of imbalance is destructive. Perhaps our dreams of Mars should be postponed until we can realize a dream of equality and sustainability on our own planet.
Originally published in 1993, and winner of the Nebula and BSFA Awards, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars remains one of the most relevant science fiction novels I can recall reading. (I suppose that may sound odd given that the novel is about Mars, but it’s nevertheless true.) Recommended.