Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Out of deference to the man and to the awards, I give the book a solid five stars. As science fiction, it was pretty annoying. It cloys so close to the way that things actually are and likely will be that all of the inaccuracies in scale grate on me. He should have known that nothing like this can happen in the time frames given, especially as most of the plot regards politics as those play out in the new world on Mars and then reflect back home on earth.
His scale for politics is as compressed as are the timelines for equipping and populating Mars. His renown for this book rivals Elon Musk's wealth. Both are absurd, in one sense. In another they are very real. I mean deserved.
Of course Mars should be used as a spoiler, a foil for how humanity may transform. But in order to keep the work within the novelistic form, of course he must leave humans as we are; full of foible and prejudice and stupid ideas that we hold onto for dear life. Full of stupid enthusiasms for driving and flying and travel (guilty!).
It's an old book by now, and I should give it a break. It's been a long time since I immersed myself in science fiction, and maybe I've grown old as well. I remember being utterly immersed in new and fantastic realities, though the creatures there also couldn't escape their fundamental protagonist/antagonist identities. Only Ursula K. Le Guin ever tried, I believe, to get inside the skin of an evolved and transformed humanity. Horrors, but maybe Margaret Attwood as well. Is my problem with the masculine vision then? Probably so.
But still, the book by far deserves its acclaim. As to Elon, well, you have to afford him kudos as well for seeing through the new economy based on Surveillance Capitalism to one that still requires physical embodiments for purchase. The new economy assesses by enthusiasm for a kind of corporate vision, making bets on smoothness of execution. It still boggles my mind that vast General Motors, which was once the avatar of our economy ("As General Motors goes, so goes the nation") and which "owns" such sprawling physical and human infrastructure, should be worth so much less than Apple, or Tesla now, I guess including its spaceshot fantasies.
So Elon wants to go to Mars. He sometimes despairs of earth's future. And yet he has imagination enough here on earth only to build better cars. He's betting on our staying pretty much exactly the same people as well. Of course we have to go somewhere else if we want to change. We're incapable to transform the way we live here on earth. Nobody can imagine it.
At least Kim Stanley Robinson tries! He's moved back home from Mars, as far as I can tell, and there's integrity in that.
So in my memory, the best science fiction authors bet on a more spiritual transformation. What Kim Stanley Robinson continues to offer (I've only lately been turned on to him) is a polymath read of everything relating to what he writes about, which seems to include almost everything. Politics, religion, a perfectly wonkish vocabulary in the sciences and the dogged discipline to see his massive narratives through.
It would be hard not to recommend him. And yet my inspiration comes from other directions beyond power and bombs and technology generally. My imagination would change us by processes of enlightenment that these things have offered us. Our enthusiasms would have to turn more in the direction of lives lived differently, rather than only in other times and places which project the here and now.
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