Humanity has been around as a species for about 200,000 years. Good job, guys! Pat yourselves on the back. The problem is that, even discounting the existence of bloodthirsty, upjumped apes too stupid to realize that their drive to power will eventually destroy the world, we don’t stand a great chance in the very long term. Earth has a bad habit of going through extinction events. There have been five major ones where about half the animal species on Earth died. Notice I didn’t say half the animals on Earth died – half the species on the planet disappeared. Even if we stand a good chance of going through a global disaster, it still wouldn’t be pleasant to be here when it hits. The “don’t put all your eggs on one planet” mode of thought has led to the colonization of other planets being of high scientific interest, both in fiction and reality.
Mars, which has a nominal atmosphere and plenty of frozen water, is one of our best options for settlement. It takes less than a year to send stuff (or theoretical people) to the red planet. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, that’s exactly what we do. It is written as a future history – a subgenre in which the author explores a possible future as a historian would – realistically and with minute attention to detail. In the chronology of the trilogy, the first thing that happens is that in the year 2026, the U.N. selects the First Hundred to send on a mission to Mars. Since the titles of the books in the trilogy are Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, I won’t be spoiling anything to tell you that their terraforming efforts are successful. However, with one hundred people in close quarters, there’s a lot of disagreement and conflict. This problem is exacerbated as Earth begins sending up more colonists to follow in the footsteps of the First Hundred. After a while, Mars is populated by dozens of competing interests. There are disagreements among the First Hundred scientists – terraform the whole planet or live in tent cities to preserve the primal environment, serve as an outpost to Earth or break away entirely, work only on science or try to create a brand new planet. On top of this, there are immigrants from all over Earth, all trying to hold on to their individual traditions and cultures and make a place for themselves.
Home sweet home
It’s an extremely important series on three fronts: science, characters, and politics. First off, every scientific discovery, experiment, or occurrence is explained. Robinson weaves proven and hypothetical scientific treatises into the narrative of the story with minimal drag – each explanation is closely associated with a necessary plot point. How do they achieve orbit once they get to Mars? Robinson tells you all about aerobreaking. How do they start seeding life on Mars? Robinson explains all the plant species they use and all the biological hacks and environmental modifications that increase the hospitableness of the planet. How do they deal with all the radiation exposure from the voyage over and from just being on the surface? Robinson explains how one of the biologists on the mission finds a way to scan for and fix DNA transcription errors caused by radiation. Incidentally, this process also doubles as a longevity treatment – with genetic damage being one of the main factors of aging, this treatment halts the age of those who undergo it at a perpetually spry 70ish. Characters that live for a millennium give Robinson a lot of time for character development. From the character standpoint, the trilogy is extremely ambitious. It follows the lives of dozens of people, a large number of which are POV characters. Many POV characters are fully realized, and even those that aren’t very well fleshed-out are still more than just skin and bones. Reading about events from the perspectives of many different characters over the course of the three books and 200 years of the series leads to a very close, subtle understanding of the inner workings of many of them and of all the psychological variety that exists across the human species. Having all of these extremely opinionated and well-realized characters try to settle a world together leads to my favorite part of the series – political conflict.
The politics of the Mars trilogy is where Robinson really shines. Unlike the ideal politics of the Culture or the complete wiping out of the old order in the MaddAddam trilogy, the Mars trilogy presents the realistic, gritty, step-by-step rise of a new and humane society out of the ruins of the old exploitative order. The major conflict that develops in the series is that of the new Martians against corporate interests back on Earth. The situation on Earth declines significantly, to the point where transnationals (companies that transcend nations – phase two of our current multinationals) control everything and have bought out the U.N. Mars represents a huge opportunity for profit, so outside forces start treating the Martians’ home as just another economic interest. The series has very little good to say about Earth, where corporations currently own many politicians and in Robinson’s future simply own whole countries outright. When trying to settle on what economic system to follow, one of his characters rails against the old order on Earth:
That is what capitalism is – a version of feudalism in which capital replaces land,
and business leaders replace kings. But the hierarchy remains. And so we still hand over
our lives’ labor, under duress, to feed rulers who do no real work.
The beautiful thing about this quotation is not that it calls out capitalism for what it is – an easy way for the powerful to exploit the weak, a hierarchy in which if you do not have a job, you starve, a system in which the productivity of the worker enriches the rich while leaving scraps for everyone else – but that it was said in the context of rational argument between multiple people trying to decide on the best way to run an entire planet. At one point in the series, the colonists convene a Martian analogue to the Continental Congress. Pages and pages are dedicated to all the conflicts, shouting matches, and debates that are involved in forming a viable government. There’s a common saying about politics that no one wants to see the sausage being made, but Robinson applies the same exactitude and detail of his scientific explanations to the politics of the series. He takes us through the entire process, from slaughtering the hog to grinding the meat to stuffing the casing. His point is that, without being intricately involved in the sausage-making, you can’t ensure that what you end up eating isn’t a bunch of pigshit.
As far as recommending that you read this, it depends on what kind of person you are. It is to the era of space colonization what War and Peace is to the Napoleonic era: massive in size and scope (nearly 2000 pages), tracing the paths of a heap of characters through the events of the story, making a Big Statement about culture and politics. My caveat is that above all, it is a book of detail – the minutiae of the lives of all the characters, accurate and long scientific descriptions, pages filled with parliamentary procedure – for some readers, this is a huge strength that will capture their imagination and passion, for others it is a huge weakness that will bore them to tears. I’ll admit my eyes kind of glass over whenever Robinson describes Martian geology in intricate detail. The important thing about this series with regard to science fiction is that, as a future history, it doesn’t just show us the horrible end our stupid selves trigger or the ideal future we somehow make it to (Fallout 3 and Star Trek,respectively), but charts a possible course correction for our current disastrous path and expounds upon it using an epic plot and interesting characters.
Image credits: Wiki and IMDB.