Young Geoffrey (ed_rex) wrote,
Young Geoffrey

Other Worlds, Other Times

There are great books and there are books which truly speak to a reader; books one can admire and respect, and books one loves - books that become, as J.R.R. Tolkien put it when talking about what he wanted to achieve with The Lord of the Rings, "secondary creations", worlds within the world, as it were, worlds into which a sympatico reader can disappear, as if visiting a foreign country. And when a text is rich enough, the reader can return again and again, always finding something new in the familiar.

Kim Stanley Robinson's brilliant and sometimes very strange Mars Trilogy is one secondary creation with which I fall in love each time I re-visit it.

My latest encounter with Robinson's Mars was in large part a reaction to the frustration, if not quite disappointment, I felt while reading his new novel, Sixty Days and Counting. I had been waiting impatiently for its release for about a year and am still not quite sure what I think of it. But it did inspire me to return to Mars and so that is what I am thinking of now, as I look back on the laughter, the occosional tears and the vast and deep scope of the ideas with which those books are impregnated.

I said the trilogy is a strange one, and so it is. His prose, though almost always written their-person omniscient, nevertheless has a conversational, almost sing-song quality to it; it reminds me (if one can be reminded of something one has never heard) of what I imagine it might have been like to hear Homer telling the Odyssey by the light of a campfire. Robinson shows us and tells us what his characters are doing and thinking and feeling, but he also discusses those thoughts and actions, almost like an internal monologue.

At once distancing - because the readers knows it is Robinson telling the story - it serves at the same time to draw the reader right into his characters' heads, into their minds and bodies. In the Mars books, which take place over a span of some two hundred years, each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, each of whom sees Mars in different aesthetic, philosophical and political lights. In some ways, reading a Kim Stanley Robinson novel is like wandering through an erudite party and spending one hour with this person, then another hour with someone else entirely.

Even more unusually, particularly for a genre novel, while Robinson sometimes approaches portraying his characters as heroes, none of them are that simplistic; and Robinson's sweep is so broad, the reader is constantly reminded that the world is much bigger than the narratives of the people upon whom he chooses to shine his authorial light.

In Red Mars, the first novel of the trilogy, this is particularly evident.

Red Mars opens with the assassination of John Boone and closes (or almost) with the heroic death of his killer, Frank Chalmers. After the introduction, we flash back to Antarctica, where the first colonists are undergoing their final selection for the first permanent mission to Mars. From there, the narrative moves linearly, the first 40 or so years, culminating in a failed revolution against the Terran authorities.

Boone and Chalmers, along with the laughing anarchist Arkady Bogdanovich, the construction-loving engineer Nadia Chernyshevski and the (apparently) stereotypical nerdish physicist Saxifrage Russel, were the focal characters to whom I was mostly drawn in the first book. And Robinson killed three of them off, leaving me to wonder - my first time through - how in the world he would manage to hold my interest over the next two novels, for Boone and Bogdanovich were also the characters I liked the most. (The first time I read it, by the time Boone was killed I had more or less forgotten that I had already known his fate, and his death hit me with full dramatic impact.)

What also makes the trilogy strange, at least when compared to most science fiction, or popular literature generally, is how political Robinson's novels are. Most of the Martian colonists are there because they want to start anew, they want to build a better, saner society than the one they left behind forever.

Robinson understands that politics is not just about elections, or back-room maneuvers, but that politics is a part of life, like philosphy and even aesthetics. Whether we act consciously on our politics and philosophies or not, they influence everything we do and how we do it and Robinson does not shy away from asking the hard questions - how do we life? How should we live? How can we live, given the realities of physics and culture and the inevitable conflicts of interest between one set of goals or desires and another or another?

The Mars could be said to be "about" the colonization of another planet, but say it is only about that would be like describing my bedroom as being about my wall of books while ignoring my bed, or the table for my lap-top or what the building in which my room is situated is built of.

Red Mars ends in a failed revolution. Green Mars ends with a succesful revolution. And Blue takes the very brave pop-fiction chance of exploring the aftermath of that success. Now that we've won, what do we do next?

Part of Robinson's answer is that life is not like the simplicity of a hockey game, that one never "wins" in the terminal sense of the word. Life goes on, conflicts happen and something that seems settled can - 20 years down the road - suddenly re-emerge, probably in a new form, but still a problem to be solved, or at least, to be dealt with in one way or another.

Another part of his answer is that life is to be lived. Even while his characters spend a lot of time dealing with the Big Questions - with morality, with ecology, with politics, with economics, with science and philosophy - they also live. Robinson's characters spend a lot of time partying, celebrating, travelling and living in the moment. As a writer it is both a strength and a weakness. To almost any reader, there will be sections that will bore or annoy - "Who cares about Nirgal's run with the ferals? Let's get back to what matters!" - but one of Robinson's purposes seems to be to show life lived; not just the high points of drama, but also the sheer strangeness of existence, should one be willing to make the effort to pay attention to the quotidian, day-to-day elements that make up all of our existences.

Finally (for now - I suspect this post will prove to be only a series of notes for a longer, more focussed piece on why these books matter so much to me), I must note that there is a note of sheer joy that runs through all of Robinson's books like a symbiotic virus, colouring all of it with a wistful yet celebratory, maybe Zen-like, prayer of thanks for the fact that we are alive at all. No romantic revolutionary, Robinson nevertheless believes that we can make of our lives and world(s) something much better than we so far have.

Read these novels. Think about them, feel them. And maybe go on to think about the world we live in today and what we might do to build a better tomorrow. There is no law of nature or physics that says we must kill one another, or destroy our environment; if we can imagine and make real the Holocaust, we can also imagine and make real a world without hunger or war. Kim Stanley Robinson Mars trilogy is a better place than most to use as a starting point for seeing the real world in a new light.
Tags: kim stanley robinson, mars trilogy, politics, review, science fiction

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