Red Mars: Part 1

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars is a study, in large part, of nation building. The idea is simple: we (the world) wish to colonize mars; how do we go about doing it? In the course of answering this question by way of simply taking a series of characters through the construction of the new mars order, literally, from the ground up, several ‘hot button’ utopian issues are brought to light and debated. These include such things as terraforming, systems of government, and, to a lesser extent, religion or systems of belief.

I was especially interested in the terraforming debate, as I thought it was the most (and necessarily) deeply explored in terms of real debate, and also because the situation for it was so appropriate. When the colonists land on it, Mars is literally a tabula rasa: a blank slate waiting to be written upon…or not!

Ann is the strongest proponent of leaving Mars in its native state, while Sax takes up the opposite extreme position of wanting to literally devastate the natural state of the planet in order to expedite the possibility of humans inhabiting it as they do Earth–that is, creating a viable atmosphere and bioengineered organisms which are selected to thrive in the new environment. Of course, the Golden Mean position, or something close to it, materializes as the course of action at first, perhaps not in the least because of what I thought was the most devastating argument against Ann’s position: Mars, untouched, remains “dead.” Humans are life, and, as such, their actions bring the possibility of (albeit engineered) indigenous life to the planet.

One thing that I liked (and disliked) about the book was the way the POV switched from character to character. I liked this because I found Nadia to be a fascinating person, and I disliked it because I thought Maya and John were dry. I was so turned off by Maya’s position of “authority” when all we really saw her doing, particularly in the first half of the book, was having sex with different men. Perhaps this is Robinson’s belief about the “true” nature of power–and I suppose it’s interesting in that it goes both ways–for instance, when John sleeps with Maya for the first time in several years, he only does so at first because he wants to show his clout over Frank because Frank had eariler insulted John’s jobs, calling them unimportant. “Tonight Frank would be reminded what real power was made of” (280). Nevertheless, overall I found Maya to be offputting, and John to be flat.

However, I must say that as a topian novel, I did like that the situation was rendered complexly. As we know from our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, nation building is hard, costly, and fraught with cultural contingencies. In that regard, it was cool that Robinson took care to make Mars a multinational place…though did the Arabs and the Asians *have* to be so stereotypically cast as the “bad” guys? It was almost like I was watching a Disney movie in this regard. You know, the classic criticism of Disney is that they perfectly reinforce practically every story binary that exists? The good guys wear white, and are aryan. The bad guys wear black and are usually dark skinned and dark eyed (think: Jafar in Alladin, Gaston in Beauty and the Beast). So, was it any surprise that John is the American hero, while Frank is the dark, burly, brooding evil mastermind? That Maya would be the pursued, while Nadia would be the architect and sisterly go-between?

I’m thinking of writing my 2nd paper on Heidegger’s “fourfolds” and using it as an analytic lens through which to interrogate the “nation” of Mars. So, stay tuned for that. I’m not nearly as familiar with Heidegger as many others in the program, but I’ll try to do my best and explore the issues I see, and hopefully my interpretation will at least make some sense, and will prove to be a fruitful way of examining some of the issues the book brings up.

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