When I read science fiction, I prefer to read hard science fiction. Where authors aspire to be accurate with their depiction of reality. The laws of physics are not broken. Energy is conserved. Technology is not just magic with another name. There’s nothing I love more than a science fiction book with good science.
The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson is hard science fiction at it’s finest. The series—Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars—tells the story of humanity settling on Mars. It begins in the near future with “the First Hundred” on they their way to settle the red planet, and ends almost two centuries later.
Robinson clearly did his homework. The books are incredibly well researched—sometimes annoyingly so. While I loved the attention to detail, I did have to slog through the odd dry chapter featuring long descriptions of martian geology. Which, it turns out, has it’s own name, areology.
The books alternate between the perspectives of a handful of characters—each of them playing a unique role in Mars’ history. With each character, we get a deep dive into the topics and issues that they find interesting. For Ann Clayborne—a geologist-come-areoligist from the First Hundred—it’s the untouched geology (areology) of the planet that fascinates her. For Sax Russell, it’s the drive to terraform Mars as fast as possible. For John Boone, it’s the challenge of synthesizing all the incoming cultures into a single, unifying martian culture.
It can sometimes feel like there is no plot. Many of the chapters read like self-contained stories—some more interesting than others. Ann takes a trip to the polar cap. Arkady and Nadia get lost in a dust storm. Nirgal buys some land and takes up Martian farming. But peppered throughout them all, you get to see the history of Mars unfold. Cities form, science advances, cultures evolve. There is a continuous struggle for power as Mars evolves from “new world”, to “wild west”, to self-governing entity with its own political interests.
While it is excellent science fiction, The Mars Trilogy is also excellent political fiction. Robinson takes the political and social what-ifs very seriously. What if humans colonized Mars? How would the future of politics, culture, and economics play out?
The trilogy has a utopian bent. But Robinson does not gloss over the complexities of progress. Giant meta-national corporations mostly play the the bad guys, but capitalism is not painted as pure evil. Revolutions fueled by shared interests fracture along ideological lines. Moderate political groups are warped by history into extremism. The world Robinson paints is not black-and-white.
In Green Mars, a major narrative arc is the attempt to create a Martian constitution. It’s interesting how the novelty of humanity on Mars puts unique constraints on feasible government structures. It reminds me that our governments here on Earth went through a similar process when they were formed—responding to their own constraints. During the constitutional brainstorming, one character highlights the American government as an example:
“The shape of the government they made reflects the distrust these groups had for each other. Small states came in afraid they were going to be overwhelmed by large states, and so there’s a Senate where all states are equals, and a House where the larger states have their greater numbers represented. The structure is a response to a specific problem, see? Same with the three-way checks and balances. It’s an institutionalized distrust of authority. The Swiss constitution has a lot of that too. And we can do it here.”
The political what-ifs get more interesting as history progresses and science and culture interact. What if genetic treatments could extend life to 200 years? What if travel time between the planets was reduced by orders of magnitude? What if an overpopulating Earth starts to envy all the unclaimed land on Mars?
Reading The Mars Trilogy makes me want to see these what-ifs answered in real life. Sax Russell—the not-so-archetypal scientist of the books—sums up my feelings well when, in a conversation with Ann Clayborn, he says, “Sometimes I get so curious. About the history we’ll never know. The future after our death. And all the rest of it. Do you know what I mean?”
But it was Ann’s reply that really got me thinking. About our life here on Earth, the uncertainty of the future, and the world(s) we’ll leave to our descendants. “Better to die thinking that you’re going to miss a golden age, than to go out thinking that you had taken down your children’s chances with you. That you’d left your descendants with all kinds of toxic long-term debts. Now that would be depressing. As it is, we only have to feel bad for ourselves.”
I hope that, by the time I’m on my death bed, I can have Ann’s attitude about future that I’ll be missing