12 July 2010

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy


        Three days ago, I finished Kim Stanley Robinson's Blue Mars (1996), the final novel in his Mars trilogy. I took nearly a year to read all three books, with breaks -- for various reasons -- between the first two, Red Mars (1993) and Green Mars (1994). For me, the Mars trilogy stands not just as one of the true masterworks of 20th-century SF, but also as one of the great achievements in 20th-century fiction regardless of genre.

        What follows is not a coherent argument about why I hold such a high opinion of the trilogy, but more a collection of thoughts on the books that should comprise a fairly decent picture of that opinion.

Three Books As One. The trilogy needs to be seen as a single whole, not unlike The Lord of the Rings. It's not just the consistency of the same core characters in the three books, or the central themes that run through and evolve during the series (colonialism, science and/as politics, memory and nostalgia, the powers and perils of human ingenuity, self-interests vs. community interests, debates about terraforming and economic systems, etc.), or the progress of about 200 years of internal and alternate history that tangibly affects the characters' lives. As a single whole, the trilogy maintains a persistent, unifying vision and tone, a particular feel or atmosphere -- centred in Robinson's evocation of the landscape, colours, conditions, challenges, and alienness of Mars.
        Also, simply, the trilogy constitutes one long story/narrative, and a story/narrative that closes its circle(s) by returning to its beginning at its end, in an act of narrative nostalgia, reader nostalgia, and character nostalgia, with all three elements changed in the journey from beginning to end and reminded of that change. By the close of Blue Mars, the weight of everything experienced by the characters and the reader since Red Mars feels immense, complex, intimate, organic, inspiring, sublime. Humanity has such potential for beauty and wonder . . . it need only overcome itself.

Walkabout. Around halfway into Green Mars, I began thinking of the trilogy as a distinctly "ambulatory" narrative. Characters constantly move about Mars: John Boone's solo navigation of the new world and its burgeoning cultures, or Nadia and Arkady's flight around the planet, in Red Mars; Nirgal seeing the world for the first time with Coyote in Green Mars; Ann and Sax, separately, exploring the untouched or increasingly alive parts of the planet in Blue Mars. There are many more examples, and together they all constitute a sort of baseline plot structure for the trilogy (at micro- and macro-levels). Robinson unfolds Mars to readers by repeatedly taking them on treks and trips and travels over the planet's entirety, above and below ground, in the air and on the seas, even occasionally into orbit. Most importantly, though, he does this through the individual viewpoints of a variety of characters who see and approach Mars with their own motivations, needs, uncertainties, hopes. So, Mars remains perpetually new and surprising; it keeps changing, physically and socioculturally.
        Doing this also lets Robinson create and develop what I call the "poetry" of Mars. Whether it's John Boone marvelling at the planet's craters and chasms and chaoses (Red Mars), or Sax and Maya picking out and naming the different colours of Martian sunsets (Blue Mars), Mars becomes an utterly fascinating and plausible and concretely detailed alien landscape -- with a beauty all its own, at local and individual as well as global and communal scales. So much of the vision and tone of the trilogy reside in this "poetry" of Mars, whether Robinson spends time carefully detailing the biological/chemical make-up of Martian rock and dirt or the procedures for altering Mars' atmosphere to make the surface breathable. This is how Mars acquires substance, substantiality. This is how Robinson provides opportunities for the reader to become invested in the world, the characters, the story.

Primal Scene. One of the main characters of the trilogy, Michel Duval, is the therapist/psychoanalyst for the First Hundred. His presence in the narrative allows Robinson to forge many intriguing links between psychological/psychoanalytic and scientific theories of and research into how the human mind, or the brain, works -- memory, aging, identity, personality, and so forth. These links acquire increasing relevance as the remaining (and gradually dwindling) First Hundred confront such issues in their second and then third century of life. Yet Robinson also takes advantage of this psychoanalytic current in the trilogy to forge a thematic link that connects the entire narrative together, which achieves great power by the end of Blue Mars.
        I'm thinking specifically of the murder of John Boone, which occurs as the opening movement of Red Mars (and, hence, of the trilogy overall). Robinson turns this event into a kind of Freudian primal scene: a key defining trauma that remains throughout the series to haunt and guide characters and events, especially as a persistent undertone to all of the political, economic, and cultural debates that gradually define Martian society. It is the first major incident of Red Mars. It motivates characters such as Jackie Boone (John's daughter, with Hiroko) during the Dorsia Brevia conference and second revolution, in Green Mars. Finally, it becomes by the latter stages of Blue Mars the return of the repressed and the forgotten as a means for characters such as Sax Russell to find resolution and catharsis near the looming end of their lives. Boone's murder (and its consequences) is another way in which the trilogy comprises a single, organic whole -- Robinson expertly employing it as a touchstone throughout that influences the development of individuals and of Mars.

Hard Science. The Mars trilogy represents, maybe, a watershed moment in the ability of hard SF to tell utterly compelling, human, and important stories steeped in the post-industrial empiricist, materialist, and rational worldview that informs the politics, economics, and society of what one might call the "developed world" or "the West" (or similar such, admittedly problematic, designations). A criticism I have seen of the trilogy targets sections of "infodumps" as taking attention away from the narrative, as Robinson liking to display all the research he did for the books. I disagree on both counts.
        Regarding the narrative, I found myself often completely enthralled by Robinson's ability to make the science matter, because he presents the science through the viewpoints of specific characters -- such that he exposes the reader to the range of sciences that affect the terraforming of Mars, but that also affect the political and economic shape(s) of Martian society. Nearly all the central characters are scientists of some sort (and geniuses to boot), and Robinson makes science fundamental to how they see and change Mars, as well as to how they live their lives through relationships or political decisions and the like. Moreover, Robinson shows that science is not static but dynamic, creative, argumentative/biased, even at times fallible. So, the "infodumps" do not detract from the narrative, but ultimately are essential threads in the narrative's fabric.
        Regarding the research, by the close of Blue Mars, I came to see the science (and economics and politics) that Robinson makes so fundamental to the characters and events of the trilogy as a vital means by which his Mars acquires the substantiality I mention above. Robinson gives Mars an incredible concreteness, a truly tangible plausibility. He does so by taking the reader into the minutiae of nearly everything about and on Mars, and then by always giving that minutiae a human and/or sociocultural context. Also, simply, I came away from the trilogy feeling like I learned something, or many things. I am not a scientist, and I claim no special affinity for mathematics, but I believe I now have a fairly decent notion of how the various sciences we use on Earth would play a part in interplanetary colonisation (accounting for advancements since the mid-1990s, of course). Thus, I wonder if the Mars trilogy stands as a kind of benchmark for the aesthetic power and relevance that hard SF can achieve ....

Utopia. An important consequence of Robinson's adherence to a fundamentally technoscientific viewpoint relates to what one might call the politics, or ideological investments, of the trilogy. These politics are effectively utopian, and somewhat exhilarating for being so. Mars gives Robinson the opportunity to imagine humanity eventually getting things right, overcoming Earth's massive economic and class divisions, environmental degradations, political corruption(s), and so forth. Robinson also establishes -- and makes an argument for -- science as the basic means by which getting things right can be realised. One can agree or disagree with this faith in science as an agent of sociocultural change, and so with Robinson's politics, but the trilogy's utopianism proves, well, uplifting.
        In particular, Robinson reinforces the plausibility of his Mars by showing how his characters steadily see themselves as Martians, especially the generations born on Mars (represented most prominently by Nirgal): they want to and will do things differently from Earth -- economically, culturally, politically, environmentally. Martian society is never a perfect utopia, for that would mean stagnation (as we have known from Thomas More onward). As well, Robinson ensures that the reader always knows of the conflicts and debates constantly at play in Martian culture, especially the tension(s) between self-interest and communal goals/needs. Still, the overriding vision is utopian, and here the trilogy forcefully demonstrates SF's ability to offer new, alternative ways of understanding humanity, to function as a critique of and commentary on humanity.
        (In a recent review of Red Mars, Adam Whitehead of The Wertzone suggests that Robinson's "political sympathies are . . . one-sided" with respect to the pro- and anti-terraforming debate in the novel, and he seems uncomfortable with the "feeling of a political bias in this first volume." Robinson's politics are quite clear throughout the trilogy, but I don't see this as a weakness in or strike against the books. Rather, the politics are part-and-parcel of what the central characters experience as they become Martian and develop a fraught relationship with Earth. Robinson tells the story from the viewpoints of the revolutionaries, the rebels, and their efforts to make a better world: in this way, he unabashedly puts his argument right in front of the reader, which I appreciated and found refreshing, provocative.)

A Portrait of the Scientist. As the trilogy progresses, particularly in Green Mars and Blue Mars, one of my favourite (and, I suspect, one of Robinson's favourite) characters becomes Sax Russell, for he goes through perhaps the most significant change in terms of his approach to Mars and his understanding of his self. He develops into a sort of scientist-poet, or poet-scientist. From the leading mind behind (and sometimes villain of) terraforming in Red Mars, over the course of Green Mars and Blue Mars he shifts through being a political radical to an icognito double agent to the epitome of the scientist curious about everything, all the while moving toward a balance between the wonder of a terraformed Mars and the wonder of an untouched Mars in its natural state.
        Sax evolves into an increasingly important point-of-view character precisely for these reasons, I think: he represents the optimism of science and its ability to make a better world, to discover practical solutions to problems; he represents the dynamic, creative powers of science; he represents science's inquisitive fascination with the world and with humanity. In Blue Mars especially, Sax weaves together science, politics, economics, environmentalism, language/linguistics, metaphor/simile/analogy, sociology, psychology into a progressively self-reflective awareness of Mars, of others, of himself. At times, I imagined Robinson reaching almost a trance-like state in writing parts of Sax's chapters, capturing the breathtaking movement of a mind making intuitive connections between, say, the finer points of neuroscience and the finer points of the self. Some of the trilogy's greatest passages aesthetically appear in Sax's chapters, particularly as he acquires a more aesthetic perspective on Mars.

Poetic Moments. Speaking of aesthetics, I will remember several moments of true artistry in the books. Adam Roberts, in The History of Science Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), suggests that the best of SF since the 1950s is characterised by what he calls "poetic moments," by "striking and beautiful images" (186-87), in film and in literature. Robinson fills the trilogy with such poetic moments.
        I think of Nadia's epiphany of the incredible beauty of humanity, physically and intellectually and emotionally, during the Dorsia Brevia conference in Green Mars. There is Michel back in Provence, returning to the olive tree grove and the old cottage, and reflecting upon memories lost and selves forgotten or left behind, in Blue Mars. I remember the rapture of John Boone as he travelled around a mostly uninhabited Mars, often for weeks on his own, exclaiming at the grandeur of Mars' geography, enraptured by what he saw, in Red Mars. There is a young Nirgal running around the lake of Zygote in his meditative lung-gom-pa stride, in Green Mars. I think of Ann out on her own high, high above the datum on Olympos Mons and discovering lichen where, really, no life should be and, in a fervent change of heart, encouraging the lichen to live, live, in Blue Mars.
        I could cite further examples, from majestic to minor poetic moments, and together they would all speak to how fully realised are Robinson's characters and setting, to how much the trilogy is at its heart an envisioning of the human potential to accomplish -- and be aware of -- the remarkable. Perhaps most remarkable of all, then, is Mars, or at least the Mars painted by Robinson: initially red and barren and harsh, then green and living and pregnant with potential, then finally blue and flourishing and familiar.
        Without the poetry, without Robinson's artistry, I'm not sure the trilogy would stand as a masterwork of 20th-century SF. The poetry binds together everything in the trilogy and gives it all meaning, makes it all inspiring and plausible -- for the sum of the whole is indeed greater than the individual parts. As well, Robinson's artistry (on all levels, from plot to character to setting to theme and so forth) convinces me to count the trilogy among the truly extraordinary works of 20th-century fiction in general -- for it reminds me that a book can indeed change me and show me the beauty of humanity.


Steven Crook said...


I found your analysis of the books, which I love, very interesting, and have linked to it here:


Best wishes,

Steven Crook

A Question Of ITIL said...

Great writer!
2312 is coming out this week! It promises to be amazing!

Upcoming4.me May SF/F new releases

Eric Hogan said...

I was struck by the underlying optimistic view of a potential future of humanity should science and the "scientific method" become a guiding, controlling influence on politics and world development.

Robinson has an uplifting vision of real science, not the pseudoscience of today. Academia currently is so infected by the virus of commerce, that it has turned science into a mockery of itself. The result is "science" has become just another channel for propaganda, rather than an idealized pursuit of "truth".

The grandeur of Robinson's vision has driven and even haunted me ever since reading these books, and so I went looking for a thoughtful analysis of these elements, and thus found your review.

It has been several years now since you wrote this piece, and several years since I read the books. I hope that even after all this time you might see this comment because I wanted to offer my heartfelt appreciation for this article.

You hit all the notes that I hoped would be considered, and encapsulated Robinson's vision wonderfully. Perhaps more importantly you reawakened the wonder at the scope and poetic tenor of these books.

Your thoughts on the "info dumps" was particularly intriguing, and in a way validating for me. This is an aspect of reading hard science fiction that I don't think recieves enough consideration, for like you, after finishing the series, I feel confident in having at least a generalists view of a wide range of scientific subjects.

This is no Dunning-Kruger Effect, one isn't left thinking they are experts in the sciences involved. One does come away with a revitalized appreciation for the capacity of rigorous, rational, open-minded thought to uncover "truths".

So thank you for your coherent and evocative summation of the importance of this series to literature and reminding me how fun, and uplifting it was to read them.