One interesting quirk about Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars is that it begins only two months on the calendar after the end of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. If you’ve ever read Bradbury’s tales, you may remember the messages of distress that the colonists received from Earth. There was an atomic war, and millions were dying: “COME HOME. COME HOME. COME HOME.”
If you do remember that line, then you also remember what they did. It didn’t matter that virtually all had paid their own way to get to Mars. It didn’t matter that they had worked hard to build new lives there. Nor did they stop to think of the dangers they’d face on their return. Earth needed them, and that was enough. These people could have been cast from Mayberry. They never forgot home.
The characters who explore Robinson’s Red Mars have never been to Mayberry. Earth is overpopulated and rapidly running out of resources. It’s under such conditions that humanity sends one hundred carefully selected men and women to colonize Mars — “the first hundred” as they are called.
The first hundred begin a successful colony with bases planted across the planet as well as on Phobos, the larger of its two moons. They are kept adequately supplied by Earth, and nearly every technical problem has a quick solution. The colony seems like it’s off to a good start.
But there are divisions right from the beginning. Some want Mars to remain as it is while others want to dig right into terraforming. The U.N. quickly approves and terraforming begins. Earth sends more colonists by the thousands. More time passes — years, in fact. The colonies aren’t quite self-sufficient yet, but they’ve built their own cities and industry, pursued research, and continued with the long process of terraforming Mars.
The richness of technical detail is superb. You can really get a crisp feel for having lived on Mars, and having traveled across its varied landscape. The terraforming and other geologic impacts on the planet enhance this experience. I only wish I could say the same thing about the characters.
Did I say they were “adequately supplied” by Earth? Change that to adequately funded. There is never a shortage of supplies and equipment, including huge rovers and zeppelins, and everything generally seems to work. We are periodically reminded that Earth is struggling. It is polluted and dangerously overpopulated, and yet the colonists get everything they need. And just when Earth’s investment looks like it’s going to begin paying off, the colonists begin to openly resist.
You might ask, resist against what?
Well, if you read the back-cover blurb you’d think the big fight they were brewing was going to be over terraforming. Taming the environment requires introducing biological materials, and that will certainly spoil any chance to verify the existence of past or present indigenous life. There are discussions over this, even heated ones, but that’s quickly rendered moot after the process begins. There’s more than that going on here.
As Arkady (a member of the first hundred) explains, ”There are people who loved the feel of life as a scientist primitive, so much that they will refuse to give it up without a fight.” That’s right: The simple people back on Earth are starving, and these elite think they’re entitled to remain in the loftiest of ivory towers while the humble taxpayers keep shipping them supplies without thought of any commercial returns.
It’s bad enough that they have this attitude for themselves. The most rebellious factions encourage newly arrived corporate workers to disappear, thereby turning Mars into the worst investment in history. This attitude is rationalized away as one that only hurts the executives at the greedy multi-nationals back on Earth. Having been written before Enron’s collapse, we can forgive KSR for not anticipating who it is that really winds up paying for this mess, but the characters’ disdain for the people back on Earth is grating.
We saw a rebellion foreshadowed at the beginning of their journey when Arkady first began to preach independence from those who funded them. John Boone, the leader of the first hundred (and the first man on Mars), then cautioned that they’d continue to need more supplies. That seemed to settle the matter for the time being.
Still, as the years progress and disparate groups arrive, the colonists think about how Mars should be managed. They developed an ideal of eco-economics where, as Boone describes, ”Everyone should make their living, so to speak, based on their real contribution to the human ecology.” As tempting as it is to brush this off as another variation on communism, there’s a larger problem here. This was where John Boone (and apparently KSR) most clearly misses his own point. What was their contribution to society? They’ve taken billions of dollars of other people’s money, and even now continue to leech off of humanity just to create a world for their own interests. This isn’t even communism. It’s theft. And all this goes on while reminding us that Earth is struggling.
It is as though a FedEx flight crew decided to take their jet on an unscheduled vacation with a cargo bay full of perishable materials: “Yes, we know that people need their packages delivered, but we’d like to explore elsewhere for a while as scientist primitives.”
It gets worse. These ingrates are homicidal. John Boone is nearly killed in a sabotage incident. The situation eventually escalates into terrorism of September 11th proportions.
As you might guess, I’ve been a little too hard on these characters. They’re not really cast as unfeeling people. I actually like many of them, including Arkady. Their problem is that they are straining to support a general theme, and that’s what makes them less than human. It’s what made them forget the people back home.
Bashing capitalism isn’t an uncommon theme in science fiction. Our genre spans a wide range of ideals, from socialism to libertarianism, and it can do them all very well. It can also fail by turning villains into straw men. And don’t bother arguing with these protagonists. They can’t hear you.
Kim Stanley Robinson has shown us a Mars that we can feel with our fingers and then textured the society with ideals out of a political campaign speech. I am still removing the paper fibers now embedded in my wall.
Copyright © 2003 by Randy Beck