Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is a monumental sci-fi classic.
It’s also kind of a slog.
With no central narrative arc beyond the ongoing political, economic, and ecological evolution of human settlement on Mars and a rotating cast of narrators whose lives on the red planet range from the mundane–hydrologists, yay!–to the, well, also mundane–desert nomads driving around rovers, yay!–the colossal 700,00o+ word opus never quite aspires to page-turner status.
Reading it, you come away feeling qualified to join NASA as a geologist should we ever get our collective shit together and actually settle a second planet.
And that is what the book is ultimately about: getting our shit together as Homo sapiens…well, rather as Homo martial. Throughout the novels, Robinson evidences his exhaustive and expansive research by dwelling on the minutiae of Martian geology and climate. It’s an ultimately fascinating kind of Utopianism tied to the reworking of the surface of Mars as a kind of ur-metaphor for shaping society.
The Mars Trilogy’s politics are based on a what-works practicality set against the tabula rosa of a new world. His characters squabble over the direction of this new society, eventually settling into a new constitution that ingests the best from Earth’s history with a keen understanding of the forces that have threatened human freedom and dignity throughout, whether they be economic injustices or cultural anachronisms.
Robinson offers a way forward beyond the privatization and spiraling inequality that plague post-Liberal Western society and posits a fresh start on Mars as a way that humanity can, as a whole, reinvent itself. A kind of new city upon the hill to replace the worn-out idealizations of America.
The Earth Robinson describes, wracked by ecological catastrophe and ruled by vast, competing trans-national corporations seems oddly prescient of the world we actually face in the twenty-first century (the last book, Blue Mars, was published in 1996). So many of his characters are ultimately scientists that the entire enterprise could be characterized as a scientific remaking of society–society remade as science. Empirical. Pragmatic. Testable. Open.
Given the retreat into ignorance so on display in contemporary American society–where people dismiss science as “fake news” and apparently flat Earthers are an actual thing–it’s a particularly appealing utopia to gaze at longingly. Robinson’s ultimate theory is that as society progresses, the new paradigms always come into conflict with the old, and indeed whole eras of history are defined by such tensions.
In his hypothesized future, capitalism as a transitional mode between feudalism and democracy gives way to new, more just economic modalities. It seems reasonable to believe that we have reached or are nearly reaching the useful limits of capitalism. Yes, it has created great wealth, but after being co-opted by regimes like today’s China, it can no longer claim to be the channel into a broader liberalism of Fukuyamian promises and globally it is more and more a driver of extreme inequality–enough to rival any past aristocratic systems.
What, then, beyond it? Robinson’s Mars safeguards the commons, denying private ownership of land or resources and allows competitive economics and markets to be driven by co-ops, banishing the massive trans-nat corporations to Earth where they slowly wither.
It’s a lot to hope for, but in the book, one of the powerful forces that helps the Martians establish their independence and protect their special society is a giant corporation called Praxis, led by an polarizing visionary CEO who believes the world order of and by corporations must give way to something better. He aids the Martians in their search for that better something. Robinson seemed to be anticipating the era of the tech paragons of the Internet age like Jobs, Bezos, Zuckerberg…
Did I mention that Elon Musk wants to go to Mars?