Science Fiction Studies

#62 = Volume 21, Part 1 = March 1994

Bud Foote

Notes on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars

If all goes as planned—a hazardous enough assumption, to be sure—Green Mars (the second volume of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, not to be confused with the semirelated novella "Green Mars") will appear in this country at about the same time as this issue of SFS. (The British edition appeared earlier, which accounts for the fact that a book not yet on American bookstands has been reviewed here and there in SF mags since last November.) At the moment I write, therefore, one can only speculate about what Green Mars will add to Red Mars, and what will be added a year or so later by Blue Mars; and, furthermore, Red Mars is itself so long and so rich in so many ways that no paper of this length can do more than suggest some approaches to the first novel of the trilogy.

Having read the earlier work of Stan Robinson, we come to Red Mars with certain expectations. We have read the careful hard-core presentation of the life-support system of a starship in Icehenge, and we therefore anticipate a similarly careful treatment of the technology Robinson will hypothesize as desirable, first, for the establishing of a permanent colony on the red planet, and, second, for making the naked Mars inhabitable for Terran life. We get them.

We have read Pacific Edge, and we therefore expect ecological concerns. It is not simply an easy irony which makes those who would keep Mars as it is—stark, and dead, and beautiful—those who on Earth would be those most concerned with the preservation of the living environment: the aesthetes, the nature-lovers, the artists, the humanists. Those who wish to bring life, in all its peculiar and multiple beauties, to Mars are, on the other hand, the technicians, the scientists, and the engineers. There is no easy judgment to be made between these positions: both in Red Mars and in the earlier books, the appeals and the honesty and the beauty of both sides are presented with skill and passion.

It was Asimov, I believe, who noted that most SF is political, explicitly or implicitly: that postulating a new society of necessity involves a comment on our present society. Pacific Edge, an ambiguous enough Utopia, certainly gives us politics in abundance; and as soon as we enter the first part of Red Mars we are in the middle of a power struggle. Pacific Edge, like the rest of Robinson’s fiction—and like much of Le Guin’s—has a mainstreamish quality about it. Unlike Le Guin, Robinson has taken a certain amount of grief from some readers for this mainstreamishness: what sort of a SF novel is it, after all, we are asked, that spends so much time worrying about how many times the protagonist has hit safely in softball games, and what it is doing for his head?

In his concerns for the ecology, Robinson is very contemporary, but not contemporary SF, which puts some people off. In his concern for human struggles, interior and exterior, he returns to the example of the great SF writers of the nineteenth century; and in his scrupulousness about technological possibility, he belongs to the generic SF hard-core of the Campbell era.

We are barely into Red Mars, when a Swiss guide explains to tourists the structure of the dome under which the new city has been built:

"An outer membrane of piezoelectric plastic generates electricity from wind. Then two sheets hold a layer of airgel insulation. Then the inner layer is a radiation-capturing membrane, which turns purple and must be replaced...." (§1:8)

That is the sort of explanation which ought to be hard-core enough for anyone this side of Hugo Gernsback; but note how Robinson immediately turns the technology into metaphor, with one of the political players as his focus:

Frank reached out and pushed at the inner membrane... He poked the tent wall so hard that he pushed out the outermost membrane, which meant that some of his anger would be captured and stored as electricity in the town’s grid. (§1:8)

It is human motion which powers the colonization of Mars; it is human emotion which is turned into energy. Robinson returns briefly to chemistry, only to link the fragility of molecular structure with the affairs of the human colony:

It was a special polymer in that respect—carbon atoms were linked to hydrogen and fluorine atoms in such a way that the resulting substance was even more piezoelectric than quartz. Change one element of the three, however, and everything shifted; substitute chlorine for fluorine, for instance, and you had saran wrap. (§1:8)

Change one atom, or one person, and what you have is saran wrap; remove the human emotion from the equation, and you remove just that much power. (Robinson discusses this kind of metaphor in our conversation.)

If, as I have noted above, Kim Stanley Robinson seems in various ways to be simultaneously contemporary, Campbellian/Gernsbackian, and Wellsian, he is also, using a conventional if finely crafted prose, surprisingly New-Wavish. And he accomplishes this largely by nods at earlier literature of Mars. If a reader misses this fact earlier in the book, he or she will have their nose rubbed in it on page 19: Mars revolves, as chance would have it, in just a bit over the same time that Earth does: 12 hours, 39 minutes, 30 seconds. But the first colonists of Mars, dedicated and accustomed to the old 24-hour day, decide to keep it; and so at midnight, every day, the clocks all stop for thirty-nine and a half minutes. And what do they call this interval? You guessed it: The Martian Time Slip.

And isn’t that a nice family joke, the younger writer sweeping off his hat in a half-bow across three decades toward Phil Dick as if to say "Look, uncle, what I have done with your bad dream."

But most of us have learned to take Stan Robinson seriously, even and maybe especially when he is joking. And so we back up, hardly having started reading Red Mars, and start over again. But before we do that, we stop and think a bit, in both historical and symbolic terms, about those thirty-nine minutes.

Over the last several thousand years, a good bit of the intellectual energy of our species has gone into trying to make mathematical sense out of the timekeepers the universe has given us. The lunar year and the solar year just will not fit conveniently together, and that fact gave our ancestors not only fits but a lot of good mythic material. Prechristians knew perfectly well that 28 went into 365 thirteen times and a bit; hence the very old rhyme,

How many merry months are there in the year?

There are thirteen, I say.

But thirteen is a terrible number; for all sort of reasons, astronomical, theological, and mathematical, twelve is much more to be desired, and so the old rhyme was modified to read "There are but twelve, I say." And all of that makes what might be called a Terran time-slip.

Worse still is the fact that the rotation of the Earth and its circuit around the sun just won’t come out even. Now we have a formula which will work for several thousand years, which gives us a time-slip of a day every four years, except when the year is evenly divisible by 100, except when the year is evenly divisible by 400. But this solution is messy and somewhat offensive. Things are supposed to come out even, we think, echoing Judah Asimov at the candy-store cash drawer.

Humans keep pounding on the universe, demanding that it come out even, finding that coming out even demands more and more complicated systems of thought, shifting scientific paradigms every time the slips get too much to bear. If the history of science tells us anything, it is that shifts in paradigm are coming thicker and faster all the time. Most of us manage to live, somehow, in four different systems: the pre-Copernican ("The sun rises in the east and sets in the west"), the Newtonian, the world of Heisenberg and quantum theory, and the world of Hawking in which black holes may leak naked singularities and anything may happen, any time, and make total hash out of all our mathematics.

It is clear that the biggest part of the lives of the characters in Red Mars, like most of our daily lives, is lived in the sensible world of the pre-Copernican and the Newtonian. That world is Premodern, as Heisenberg is Modern and Hawking is Postmodern. But as we think about the calendar and timekeeping through human history, that struggle to reduce the universe to comprehensible mathematics, we recognize that nothing is ever going to come out quite even, that even in the middle of a history of the conquest of Mars which pays enormous attention to the scientific and technical realities of the whole business, there is going to be the occasional reality-slip in which, for just a moment, the nightmarish and schizophrenic world of Phil Dick flickers into being.

But let’s go back to the beginning of the book. The reference to Phil Dick makes us wary, makes us wonder: to what extent is this book going to be recursive, to use Anthony Lewis’s term? (I’m going to restrict my comments, very largely, to the very first section of the book, "Festival Night," because the book is so vast in its range that there is material there for dozens of papers; and if the Green Mars and Blue Mars to come live up to the promise of this book, graduate students and untenured assistant professors will bless the name of Stan Robinson for decades to come.)

Consider the introduction to "Festival Night"; it consists of two pages, apparently drawn from the speech which John Boone is giving to his fellow colonists as the narrative proper begins. "Mars was empty before we came," he says. "We are all the consciousness Mars has ever had" (§1:2).

A couple of years ago, at the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts convention, I dealt with Stan’s novella "Green Mars" in which, incongruously, in the middle of climbing Olympus Mons, a couple of characters begin discussing Jean-Paul Sartre and his notion that we change the past by what we do in the present. Since the past exists only in our memories and our records and in the relative importance we attach to different segments of those memories and those records, the past of a devout Marxist is going to be quite different than the past of a convicted Christian.

And therefore, going back to the speech of John Boone, the past of Mars is whatever present consciousnesses make it. As Sartre says,

The past is...the past of something or somebody.... There is not first a universal past which would later be particularized in concrete pasts. On the contrary, it is particular pasts we discover first. The true problem...will be to find out by what processes these individual pasts can be united so as to form the past. (88)

John Boone goes on to appeal to all the stories that have ever been told about Mars and all the names it has had—Nirgal, Mangala, Auquakuh, Harmakhis—from the Ice Age down to our present. Through his mouth, Robinson invites us to see the multiple symbolism of his use of color (almost an echo of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books):

Yes, for thousands of years Mars was a sacred power in human affairs; and its color made it a dangerous power, representing blood, anger, war and the heart.

[But] then the first telescopes gave us a closer look, and we saw the little orange disk, with its white poles and dark patches spreading and shrinking as the long seasons passed. (§1:2)

Just as Hawking’s world-view encompasses that of Heisenberg, and Heisenburg’s that of Newton, and Newton’s that of Ptolemy, so Boone’s new story of Mars is made to encompass all the stories told about Mars all the way back to Ice-Age campfires. Fossil stories they are, as the names for Mars are fossils:

perhaps it is not surprising that all the oldest names for Mars have a peculiar weight on the tongue...they sound as if they were even older than the ancient languages we find them in, as if they were fossil words from the Ice Age or before. (§1:2)

But some of those fossils, we are given to understand, come to life rather like the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, one of the past pasts of Mars is evoked in terms which are obviously meant to apply to the colonists whom Boone is addressing:

the best Earthbound images gave Lowell enough blurs to inspire a story, the story we all know, of a dying world and a heroic people, desperately building canals to hold off the final deadly encroachment of the desert.

It was a great story. But then Mariner and Viking sent back their photos, and everything changed. Our knowledge of Mars expanded by magnitudes, we literally knew millions of times more about this planet than we had before. And there before us flew a new world, a world unsuspected. (§1:3)

But, Boone goes on to say, even after the arrival of colonists on the planet, the old stories keep reviving themselves, like "elusive little red people, always glimpsed out of the comer of the eye."

They are, he says, "an attempt to give Mars life, or to bring it to life." And here it has to be noted that this whole introductory section, the speech of John Boone, is a deliberate echo—Robinson has confirmed this in conversation—of, and contrast to, the introduction to one of the best-known Mars stories, C. L. Moore’s "Shambleau" (1933):

Man has conquered Space before. You may be sure of that. Somewhere beyond the Egyptians, in that dimness out of which come echoes of half-mythical names —Atlantis, Mu—somewhere back of history’s first beginnings there must have been an age when mankind, like us today, built cities of steel to house its star-roving ships and knew the names of the planets in their own native tongues— heard Venus’ people call their wet world "Shaardol" in that soft, sweet, slurring speech and mimicked Mars’ gutteral "Lakkdiz" from the harsh tongues of Mars’ dryland dwellers. You may be sure of it. Man has conquered Space before, and out of that conquest faint, faint echoes run still through a world that has forgotten the very fact of a civilization which must have been as mighty as our own. There have been too many myths and legends for us to doubt it. (7)

These myths, these legends, these stories, all—in Sartre’s terms—parts of the past pasts of Mars are told, Boone says, to give Mars life, or to bring it to life.

But giving Mars life, and bringing it to life, are the central concerns of the book. As in the novella "Green Mars" and as in Icehenge, as we have already noted, the colonists are divided into those who would leave Mars as it is—red, and lifeless, and barren, and majestic in a way that no Earthly landscape can be majestic—and those who want a green Mars, gradually filling up with genetically tailored flora and fauna which will slowly push back the deserts which threatened the pathetic and heroic Martians in Percival Lowell’s past past of Mars.

Like many of the writers of the Golden Age, Robinson is himself a great reader of SF; and he says that before beginning the trilogy he went back and read heavily in the literature. Red Mars gives the reader an almost continual sense of itself as artifact, in its declaration that it is a story encompassing past stories which, in turn, encompass still older stories. The enraged Arab, Selim, mutters about "the Koran or Camus, Persepolis or the Peacock Throne, references scattered nervously among non sequiturs," (§1:11) and we are once again back to Philip K. Dick. Boone says,

what they didn’t realize was that by the time we got to Mars, we would be so changed by the voyage out that nothing we had been told to do mattered anymore...we became fundamentally different beings. (§1:4)

And we are reminded not only of Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles but also, less happily, of Pohl’s Man Plus. The underground colony which preceded the domed city was called, we are told (§1:18), Underhill, and all of a sudden, out of the comer of our eye, there is Bilbo Baggins, like an elusive little red native. Nadya (§3:118) is Nadya Nine-Fingers, an echo of Frodo. In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Gods of Mars (§13:206-08), John Carter flies his airship straight up a shaft, amazing everybody; and so does Hiroko in Red Mars (§2:60). And it just goes on and on: people will be digging references out of this book for decades. If Robinson’s short fiction reminds us of Dubliners in an SF mode, Red Mars, beneath its deceptively conventional surface, is as recursive and rich in allusion as Ulysses.

And, like Portrait of the Artist, Red Mars is, among other things, a manifesto. At the end of "Festival Night," Frank Chalmers, who has had Boone killed so that he may assume power over the colony, says to himself, in words that seem to come from the author himself, looking back over the accumulation of Mars fiction of the past several hundred years, "Now we’ll see what I can do with this planet" (§1:22).


Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. NY: Doubleday, 1950.

Burroughs, Edgar Rice. The Gods of Mars. Chicago: McClure, 1918.

Dick, Philip K. Martian Time-Slip. NY: Ballantine Books, 1964.

Lewis, Anthony R. An Annotated Bibliography of Recursive Science Fiction. Introduction by Barry N. Malsberg. Cambridge, MA: NESFA Press, 1990.

Moore, C.L. "Shambleau." (Weird Tales, November 1933). The Best of C.L. Moore. Ed. Lester del Rey. Garden City, NY: Nelson Doubleday, 1975. 7-32.

Pohl, Frederik. Man Plus. NY: Random House, 1976.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Gold Coast. NY: TOR, 1988. Part of the so-called Orange County Trilogy, along with Pacific Edge and The Wild Shore.

—————. Green Mars. NY: TOR, 1988. A TOR double with Arthur C. Clarke’s Meeting with Medusa; first published in 1985. A novella, not to be confused with the forthcoming Green Mars which will be a sequel to Red Mars.

—————. Icehenge. NY: Ace, 1984.

—————. Pacific Edge. Norwalk: Easton, 1990. Also NY: TOR, 1990.

—————. Red Mars. NY: Bantam, 1993.

—————. Remaking History. NY: TOR, 1991.

—————. The Wild Shore. NY: Ace, 1984.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Baines. Secaucus NJ: Citadel Press, 1977. First published in Paris by Gallimard, 1943.



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