White Mars by Brian W. Aldiss science fiction book reviewsWhite Mars by Brian W. Aldiss

While rereading Kim Stanley Robinson‘s MARS trilogy, books I consider to be among the very best in science fiction, I came across various references to White Mars; Or, The Mind Set Free: A 21st-Century Utopia (1999) by Brian W. Aldiss, written in collaboration with prominent physicists Roger Penrose. Robinson’s utopian vision of a terraformed Red Planet is not something everybody would see as ideal or even morally acceptable. In the MARS trilogy Robinson pays a lot of attention to the discussion between what he calls the Reds, a faction opposed to terraforming the planet and convinced of its intrinsic value, and the Green faction who would exploit the planet and make it more hospitable to human life. Aldiss (and Penrose) wrote White Mars as a reply to Robinson’s vision of utopia portrayed in his MARS novels. The debate about how to set up a utopian society on Mars is the single most important topic in this book. As a nod to his source of inspiration, Aldiss even names a street after Robinson. After having read White Mars, I can’t say I am terribly surprised by the relative obscurity of this book. The philosophical argument may be sound, but as a work of literature Robinson’s novels are far superior.

Since this novel is a reply to Robinson’s work I find it very difficult not to see it in the light of the MARS trilogy. In fact, when I first heard about the novel I questioned the wisdom of trying to cover ground Robinson had already so thoroughly explored. No matter how unfair it may be to compare books of different authors to each other, White Mars practically begs for it. I’m not sure how much sense this review will make if you have not read Robinson’s novels. You have been warned.

A few decades from now, humanity has established a permanent presence on Mars. The harsh environment makes it necessary to hide under domes, always having to be careful with supplies of air and water. A consortium known by the acronym EUPACUS, to which almost all of the economic powers on Earth have contributed, manages the huge undertaking of colonizing the planet and the programs to send a few privileged people up to Mars. Until fraud, corruption and mismanagement on a massive scale are discovered, that is. The consortium collapses and the economic crisis that follows makes sure nobody will be travelling to Mars in the near future, so the people on Mars are stranded. The colony is more or less self-sufficient by now, but most of the colonists were counting on a short stay on the Red Planet, so being cut off from Earth is nothing short of a disaster. Others see an opportunity. Under the guidance of the visionary Tom Jefferies, the first steps are being taken towards a utopian society.

The approach to the colonization of Mars present in Robinson’s Red Mars (1992) is quite different from what we find in Aldiss’s White Mars. In Robinson’s vision the initial stages of colonization are very much oriented towards exploitation of the planet, setting up part of a conflict that will run throughout the trilogy. Aldiss immediately takes a different route:

“All environments are sacrosanct,” Anstruther declared. “The planet Mars is a sacrosanct environment and must be treated as such. It has not existed untouched for millions of years only to be reduced to one of Earth’s tawdry suburbs today. My strong recommendation is that Mars be preserved, as the Antarctic has been preserved for many years, as a place of wonder and meditation, a symbol of our future guardianship of the entire solar system — a planet for science, a White Mars.”

The speeches made at the General Assembly are not quite as rousing as the debate between Ann Clayborne and Sax Russel if you ask me — something that turns out to be a problem in much of the novel.

Conceptually, I guess you could say the hand of a master is present in this novel. The collapse of the institute that organizes space travel to Mars and the financial crisis that follows are eerily familiar to the event surrounding the collapse of Lehman Brothers for instance, an event that took place nine years after this book was published. I guess Aldiss felt that in order for his utopian society to have a chance it needed to develop in isolation — something that would never happen if Earth had anything to say about the matter. So far at least, he is in agreement with Robinson although the details differ considerably.

Adiss does not just concern himself with what society should look like though. He makes a link with physics which, I assume, is where we can find part of Penrose’s input. It is a good thing I had just brushed up on quantum mechanics while reading Ted Kosmatka’s Divining Light or a lot of it would have been right over my head. In fact, quite a lot of it still was. The search for what we think of as the Higgs boson, very much in the public eye given the results of CERN, is still ongoing in the novel. Aldiss and Penrose speculated that the Large Hadron Collider, construction of which started in 1998, would not find a particle in the traditional sense and that the mystery of how particles attain mass would remain. The way things are going now, it looks like CERN will observe, or perhaps already has observed, a Higgs boson. In 1999 this was by no means certain though. In the novel, what we think of as a particle is described as a smudge, the parameters of which can only be more narrowly defined by installations capable of even greater energies than the one unleashed by the Large Hadron Collider under conditions that cannot be found on Earth. Mars is the ideal location, provided humanity does not disturb the planet too much. In effect, this research blocks attempts at terraforming — a second practical obstacle besides the financial one.

The question of the Omega Smudge (or Higgs particle if you will) is linked in the novel with the question of human consciousness. The subtitle of the novel is The Mind Set Free: A 21st-Century Utopia and how to achieve this is the focus of many a discussion. I must admit that although I could follow the speculation about physics for the most part, the connection with consciousness remained nebulous to me. The link between the Omega Smudge and human consciousness is used to answer one of the most intriguing questions about Mars: is there life on the Red Planet? As it turns out, the answer is yes, but not in any shape or form ever imagined by scientists. Perhaps the most interesting aspect about this life form is that it appears to be responding to human presence on the planet. Have humans disturbed its unusual ecology?

The way this lifeform (I won’t spoil the story for you by giving too much detail) is described strikes me as a little far-fetched. Then again, who knows what alien life might look like. What I didn’t like about this element of the story is that Aldiss uses it to throw up another barrier against the development of the planet — the third major practical obstacle against terraforming, that most likely is not present on Mars. At this point I began to wonder if Adiss had lost faith in the strength his own argument.

White Mars is quite a challenging novel. People who like hard science fiction certainly have something to sink their teeth into here. Nevertheless, I liked Robinson’s books a whole lot better, mostly based on more literary arguments. Many people have trouble with the MARS books because of Robinson’s tendency to loose himself in lengthy descriptions of landscapes, science or interior monologues. For me that is part of what makes these novels so good. Robinson makes you experience Mars as if you are standing on the planet yourself. I never felt a single passage was a plain infodump. With Aldiss, I do get that feeling a lot. He even has one of the physicists lecture the other characters (and by extension the reader) in a rather condescending way about the progress of the search for the Omega smudge. It often feels forced into the narrative and doesn’t always contribute to the development of the characters. There is also quite a lot of material that is written in such a way that a reader who isn’t all that interested in the subject discussed will have a hard time working their way through these sections. Personally, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it boring but I know plenty of readers who wouldn’t hesitate to do just that.

There we hit on a second problem with White Mars. Most of it is told from the perspective of Tom Jefferies (read: Thomas Jefferson) and his adopted daughter Cang Hai. Aldiss fails to give these two characters, or a number of secondary characters, their own voice. The entire book is written in a rather monotone, almost formal style that is more suited to an academic work. This works for some of the more technical scenes, but the debates that take place amongst the stranded humans — debates about how to best develop their utopian society, touching upon their deepest, most sacred ethics and beliefs — seem unrealistically tame. Consider also that the people sent to Mars are generally highly educated and accomplished in their fields, not people who let others do their thinking for them. It is not that there isn’t disagreement, but not on the scale you’d expect and certainly not as intense. Jefferies’ way to utopia (mind you, he doesn’t always get to do things his way but still more often than not) is apparently the only logical path?

Some of the arguments made a lot of sense. They manage to do away with a lot of historical ballast that is holding humanity back on earth. On the other hand there is quite a lot of ivory tower blathering going on in White Mars — people engaged in highly philosophical arguments when their very existence on the planet is quite tenuous at best. Somehow I don’t really see a group of human beings reaching some sort of consensus quite that easily under such stressful circumstance. Jefferies has neither the authority nor the (military) strength to back up his attempts to form a utopian society. In a true utopia he wouldn’t need either, of course, but certainly early on in the novel, they are nowhere near that point yet. It is a far cry from the passionate debates at Dorsa Brevia in Green Mars (1993) and the constitutional congress covered in the early stages of Blue Mars (1996), to the point where it even made me wonder if Robinson, one of science fiction’s most notorious optimists, is actually more cynical about human nature than Aldiss and Penrose.

With White Mars, Adiss and Penrose have delivered a fairly impenetrable counterargument to Kim Stanley Robinson’s MARS trilogy. Maybe Aldiss is right in saying that Robinson dismissed the ‘Red’ (or I guess Aldiss would call it White) argument for humanity’s treatment of the planet but he doesn’t present it in a particularly engaging way. Without the connection to Robinson’s work, I don’t think I would have thought it worth my time. While White Mars is certainly intellectually challenging I found the prose rather stiff and incapable of conveying the passion Jefferies must have felt about creating a new society. The characterization is pretty uniform, each of the character delivering their part of the tale in a detached and almost academic style. White Mars is clearly the work of a great intellect (or maybe I should say two great intellects), but we are not seeing Aldiss at the top of his abilities here.

Published in 1999. A breathtaking vision of a utopian future on Mars by one of science fiction’s most renowned authors. In the middle decades of the twenty-first century, the corporate powers on Earth have established a thriving colony on Mars as an alternative to life on the overpopulated, war-torn, ecologically ravaged home planet. But when the economy of EUPACUS—Earth’s collective industrialized nations—collapses, all contact between the two worlds abruptly ceases, and the Martian pioneers are left to fend for themselves. Led by Tom Jeffries, a philosopher and a visionary, the colonists now face a twofold challenge: No longer supported and subsidized by Earthbound interests, they must somehow form a working planetary alliance to create a new society based firmly in freedom and fairness for all while at the same time eliminating war, hunger, hatred, environmental abuse, and other former scourges of humanity. But first and foremost, they must survive. Brian W. Aldiss, a Hugo and Nebula Award–winning Grand Master of Science Fiction, presents a vision for the future that is startling, uplifting, and endlessly exciting. Written in collaboration with noted mathematician and physicist Roger Penrose—and with essential input from international law expert Laurence Lustgarten—Aldiss’s remarkable White Mars opens a window onto a relentlessly thrilling and gloriously possible tomorrow.


  • Rob Weber

    ROB WEBER, a regular guest at FanLit, developed a fantasy and science fiction addiction as well as a worrying Wheel of Time obsession during his college years. While the Wheel of Time has turned, the reading habit that continues to haunt him long after acquiring his BSc in environmental science. Rob keeps a blog at Val’s Random Comments.