Kim Stanley Robinson has written a great deal of future history. Most of it centres around two things: the decline of the American capitalist empire in the early twenty-first century, and the rise of alternatives to capitalism in the solar system in the ensuing centuries. In a sense, then, his work is rather like the 1980s work of Bruce Sterling (think Schismatrix), albeit considerably more sophisticated and less pretentious.
The gist of his work is that the near future is going to be bad, because of capitalism, but after capitalism everything will be all right, because of technology. If this sounds simplistic, it isn’t — not altogether, because the only way that the technology can become unfettered is by getting rid of capitalism as an exclusive and overarching dominant concept — that is, by getting rid of what we now call neoliberalism, although Robinson’s ideas were formed in the 1970s and he doesn’t quite talk that way. He also isn’t particularly interested in postmodernism, even though he is interested both in art and in Fredric Jameson, the man who attempted to Marxise postmodernism (although he may have only succeeded in postmodernising Marxism).
But although the Creator has admired books like Icehenge and Pacific Edge and The Memory of Whiteness, all of which are set in this Robinsonian future history, the Creator never yet read the Mars Trilogy, Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. It was all just too much. The Creator used to fantasise about being a science fiction writer, and the problem with Robinson was that he was just too good to serve as a model; it was impossible to do as well as him, let alone better. And these three texts were supposedly the very best of them all. Let them alone, lest you become depressed. Anyway, there are other things out there to read.
Anyway, the other day the Creator was at a Bargain Books, which is the only place where one can obtain remotely affordable texts off-line, and came across a copy of Blue Mars. There was nothing else worth getting in the shop apart from ridiculously expensive South African ruling class propaganda, so Kim Stanley Robinson was a perfect means of counteracting this. But, having bought it, it seemed right to read it. And the Creator saw that it was good.
The trouble was that Blue Mars is the third volume in the trilogy, and a great deal of it was obviously heavily dependent on knowing what had happened in the earlier two. Vaguely remembering that there was a lot of Robinson in the bookshelf, the Creator went into the dark crevice where such books are kept, and discovered that Red Mars and Green Mars were side-by-side with all the Robinson books which the Creator had actually (more or less) read. The trilogy had been looming untouched for a decade. Perhaps the Creator had unconsciously been putting it all off until the last volume manifested itself.
OK, so what’s it about? Ostensibly, the colonisation of Mars. The Americans send a man to Mars. Then the Americans and the Russians get together and send a hundred colonists to Mars to set up things so that actual colonisation can get going. Presently the colonisation gets going, and that, of course, is where the trouble starts. By the end of Red Mars, the trouble is in full swing, because the corporations — “transnationals”, Robinson calls them — are taking over and using Mars both as a source of income and as a way of scoring off each other — corporate war by other means — and because profit and military power are involved, they grow increasingly intolerant of the hippy-dippy society which the scientists, engineers and psychologists evolved in the early decades of colonisation. And so something has to be done, and the corporations decide to kill off all the trouble-making colonists and start all over again with nice corporate clones and zombies who will do what they are told.
Green Mars deals with the failure of the corporate project. As might be expected, they manage to kill off just enough of the troublemakers to make the survivors bitter and resentful, and therefore the survivors are gradually able to keep the flame of resistance alive as Mars is flooded with drones — especially because the cheese-paring bean-counters whom the corporations put in charge invariably skimp on things like healthcare and social services, because this is the Great Frontier and everybody should be a Rugged Individualist, or else get nabbed by the corporate police and dragged off to the torture-chambers (and of course Rugged Individualism doesn’t apply to the bean-counters or to the billionaires who drop in from time to time to check that their investments are generating sufficient short-term profit at the expense of the people and environment of Mars. Anyway, in the end everybody gets pissed off enough to launch a revolution — which is only possible because the Earthies get a bit tangled up in a slight environmental problem they face — the sudden six-metre rise in sea-level as a result of the collapse of the whole Antarctic ice sheet.
Blue Mars is probably the most boring of the trilogy texts; having succeeded in winning independence from Earth, the Martians have to create a new society, and of course they fail; what they create is a collage of old societies, and meanwhile, because capitalism is defeated and discredited and hence humanity has the opportunity to achieve the goals which Marx wanted them to accomplish and which capitalism always stifled, there are new kinds of society and new technological systems appearing everywhere, and therefore there is no simple ownership of the mode of production, and therefore not even a Marxist can figure out what is going on. While nothing clear or coherent is happening, what is clear is that the future is as bright as the new fusion “gaslights” illuminating and heating the outer worlds, and as new as the asteroidal generation starships roaring off. to colonise new worlds and spread humanity’s genius and screwups to the stars.
So that’s the technological side of the trilogy, which is in itself interesting, with its tension between huge “Pharoanic” projects to provide Mars with the water, nitrogen and heat it needs to be terraformed, and the small-scale, “ecopoetic” transformations which are supposed to do the same thing, but in a nice way, of course. It all runs by machinery anyway; the question is only how big it is.
And who’s in charge, and what their motives are, and that raises all the human questions which are what makes the trilogy really interesting.
The First Man On Mars, John Boone, is one of the First Hundred, the unacknowledged ecopoetic legislators of the world called Mars. Virtually all of the story is told through members of the First Hundred, who witness the gradual transformation of Mars, which happens according to their wishes or against their wishes, depending on whether they are Reds who want to keep Mars pristine and inhabitable only inside pressurised buildings, or Greens who want to turn Mars into a second Earth (no prizes for guessing which side wins, although it is the Reds who often appear the more interesting figures, apart from the autistic scientist-hero Sax). The First Hundred can witness the development of Mars (which spans two centuries) thanks to the convenient invention of a life-prolonging DNA auto-repair treatment — although this means that they live to become both mythic heroes and to witness the death of almost all of their dreams, and to become crotchety oldsters in a world of youth, the world of the “Accelerando” which Robinson represents as the speeding-up and perfecting of humanity’s mission to dominate the solar system and itself.
Boone, however, the mythic American hero of the frontier, is killed right at the start of the first volume of the trilogy, by thugs egged on by another American — a Mission Control administrator jealous of the celebrity status of astronauts — who believes that he can turn Mars into an American paradise if only the problematic Boone were out of the way. So for the rest of the book, as the reader follows Boone’s blundering attempts to understand what is going on and formulate an appropriate liberal response to the radical circumstances of terraformed, corporate-dominated Mars, it is already written that Boone will fail, and the catastrophe of 2061, the failed revolution against the capitalists, is already written into the book from the beginning.
But the revolution wins in the end — the revolution for freedom, that is; freedom from not being punished for interfering with corporate interests, freedom to develop your own lifestyle, but not freedom to keep the water down in the aquifers, or the carbon dioxide in the icecaps; that freedom is lost along with 2061, when the massive civil war shatters what remains of Red Mars and leaves the corporations who win the war paradoxically free to dump nitrogen from Titan to beef up the atmospheric pressure and fly space mirrors to reflect heat onto the planet. (The mirrors are eventually moved away after the Revolution and become Venetian blinds for Venus, cooling it down until the atmosphere freezes out.) The whole intellectual conflict, between individual freedom and social restraint, and between political need and economic necessity, and between the way we used to do things in the good old days and the way these uppity young troublemakers want to do it now, is beautifully played out and makes the text probably the most interesting and sophisticated science fiction sequence ever written.
Technically and historically, of course, it’s not about Mars at all; it’s about how we could turn the human race, on Earth or anywhere else, into a bunch of happy campers, all well-fed, relaxed and living the way we want to be, if only we could get capitalist acquisitiveness out of the way. It’s apparent throughout the text that there’s always plenty of resources — generated by robots which can build anything to any amount at any time. Only greed and envy keep the resources from being spread around. Technology and social science and democratic debate can resolve all problems.
Yes, but will they? The depressing thing about the book is that it’s twenty-five years since Red Mars was conceived, and we ought to be going to Mars by now; the First Hundred set off in 2020 on the Ares. Boone ought already to have returned by now to the last hurrah of American governmental space imperialism. He hasn’t, and we aren’t doing any of this. We don’t even have fusion power, which is absolutely essential for the bulk of the projects which are bustled through space.
Nor have we got the cash and the impetus to go into space. Instead of gigantic Energias boosting space shuttles two at a time into orbit, the Energia and the space shuttle have both been closed down and there is no sign of any serious replacement. This is partly because Robinson assumes that the end of the Cold War would also mean the end of the arms race, the end of global conflict, and therefore the military and aerospace industries are obliged to plug for a huge space boondoggle in order to preserve their corporate identity — one of the first corporations to dominate Mars is Armscor, which of course no longer exists in our real world except as Denel, a stumbling relic of apartheid South Africa’s techno-fetishism. But Armscor died because the global war machine opposed its competition; Robinson simply underestimated the corruption and self-destructive nature of capitalism, being a traditional Marxist who, like his mentor Fredric Jameson, has a poisoned, guilty admiration for what capitalism was (but seems to be no longer).
Robinson, indeed, also has a Good Capitalist, a man who recognises that the world cannot continue going to hell in a handbasket forever, that sooner or later the handbasket must arrive in hell, and rather than have that happen, decides to throw in his lot with the enemies of corporate capitalism and trust that he can do a deal with them by working along with the Martian resistance to corporate capitalism. It is, of course, possible that people might pretend to do that sort of thing, but in fact the experience of corporate capitalists working with revolutionaries in South Africa is not exactly encouraging. Meanwhile, Robinson’s corporate capitalist is something of a combination of Egon Musk and Howard Hughes — suggesting that Robinson is desperately buying into capitalism’s own fraudulent image of the risk-taking, edge-living entrepreneur. We don’t see much of that stuff in the real world.
Robinson’s wonderful world of a new bright future does include trifling sacrifices which have to be made for freedom — like the corporate warriors who reprogram city environment maintenance systems to hyperoxygenate the atmosphere under the domed cities. In one spectacularly horrible scene, some of Robinson’s heroes find themselves facing this crisis, and when a fuse is lit their living bodies burn like torches (Robinson helpfully reminds us of what happened to the early Apollo astronauts in an oxygenated space capsule). But this isn’t the problem. The problem is that this future isn’t going to materialise. We aren’t going to Mars, and we aren’t even going to build Mars on Earth. What we seem to be building instead is a cesspool filled with barbed wire.