Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Green MarsThis is science fiction with the emphasis on the “science”.

Robinson is either a polymath, able to weave countless obscure, genuine scientific concepts into his work, or he’s incredibly inventive, able to create plausible (though fictional) ideas into the narrative of his books.

Or maybe there’s a combination of the two at work.

For me his science (actual or imagined) tends to get in the way of story-flow. To others with a harder scientific leaning that is probably not a problem, but even though I have an aptitude for science (albeit not exercised for a while), as I read the book I long for more story and fewer scientific labels and references.

Apart from having familiarity with the many geological and botanical references used, it may be helpful to read the book with an atlas of Mars at hand. But then, I’d have to ask which places are genuine and which are fictional before trying to follow journeys along invented landmarks.

As I write this I’m about a quarter of the way through and on my second stint of reading it after already taking a few week’s break from the book. I’m being tempted to put it down again, but want to persevere for as long as I can. Hopefully I can finish it before the end of the year, but I suspect I’ll be turning to another book or two before I get there.

Along with the science, Robinson dives deeply into the likely politics of an earth suffering the stress of increasing population and decreasing resources, and a Mars with the potential to ease both. But who should make the decisions, who should be in control?
The nations who initiated the exploration and colonisation?
Or the commercial entities who have become more powerful and wealthy than nation states?
And what about the settlers, and subsequent generations of Mars residents, whose links with earth grow increasingly distant?

With this series (this is the second volume) Robinson demonstrated significant optimism in his timetable for the visiting and colonising of Mars. That optimism continues in the degree and speed of technological advancement portrayed in the books. To me the series’ main failing is giving its events dates, such as first man on Mars in 2020, and the beginning of colonisation in 2026.
The series could have been made more plausible by avoiding an out-dateable timeline.

Alongside this fictional account of man’s exploration and exploitation of Mars, I’ve been listening to NASA podcasts about the work being done in their space program with the intention of a crewed mission to the red planet. One of those podcasts in particular highlights the extreme difficulty of going to Mars, (Mars is hard, here’s why) that further emphasises the optimism of the author’s timetable.

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Reading Slowdown

I have three books under the heading “Reading Now” on my current “Reading List” page:

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, James Runcie
Green Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson
No Is Not Enough, Naomi Klein

sidney chambers.jpgThe James Runcie book has been there for several months. It’s a book of short stories and so far I’ve only read the first and wasn’t engaged enough to want to rush on to the next one. I leave it on my list because I’ll get a round to the next story eventually.

I got the book because I heard an interview with the author who is the son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury. The stories feature a C of E minister as the main character, who finds himself investigating suspicious deaths. The books were adapted into a TV series Grantchester,  which apparently takes a lot of liberties with the main character. The author mentioned in the interview, something along the lines that a real priest would have been thrown out of the church if he’d acted the way of the televised version.

Green MarsGreen Mars is the sequel to Red Mars, and continues the story of colonists on Mars.

In the series so far there have been some allusions to early America, leading up to the war of Independence; with the colonists growing to feel exploited by their home land (home planet) and developing a growing passion for an independent, self sufficient  new home, free of the exploitation of a distant colonial power.

I started this one several days ago, but have been distracted too much by other (non-reading) things to get far into the book yet. Maybe I shouldn’t have picked this one up straight after reading the first three volumes of the Dune series. Something a little less bulky may have been a better reading option than a 550+ page book midway through another sizable trilogy

noisnotenoughI started on Naomi Klein’s  No Is Not Enough because of some of those (political) distractions. I can only shake my head in disbelief at what has been going on in Australian politics, and I spent far too much time trying to keep up with the last few sitting days of parliament.  The cost of that has been my usual lunch-hour reading time.

Klein’s book shines a light on a lot of what is behind that current political situation from a North American viewpoint. Problems that aren’t restricted one particular nation, but are evident throughout the “western” world.

This book draws together the issues she’s written about in earlier books in greater detail. No Is Not Enough shows how all of those issues have become focused into a single point in the person and Presidency of Donald Trump.

However rather than merely add a negative voice of despair and opposition, Klein wants to look at positive answers to turn around the political and cultural systems that led to Trump’s political rise.

None of these books have maintained my interest enough to make me want to keep reading, so my progress through them has been slow, and my attention has been drifting towards other books. I suspect I’ll be finishing another book or two before I get to the end of any of these three. I’m already approaching the end of one about the manned Apollo missions of the late 60s – early 70s and have tentatively started another about the retrieval of the wreckage of the space shuttle Columbia after it broke up on re-entry in February 2003 (so long ago, how time flies!)

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Forty Signs of Rain

forty_signs_of_rain(cover)If not for my commitment to finish every book I start, I think I would have given up on this one.

So what was the problem I had with it?

Firstly, there was an extensive early section of scientific jargon, something seemingly about genetics and proteins and immunology, that might make sense to someone with insider knowledge, but I couldn’t follow what it was all about. A more concise usage could have given the required flavour, without completely dulling the overall  effect.

I have nothing against the use of scientific discussion within a book when used to enlighten, or to add a sense of authenticity to the story. I recently read and enjoyed the author’s  much larger book Red Mars, and wasn’t put off by the technical/scientific content that often went way over my head. That book engaged me through character and landscape and its overall sense of wonder. I could accept it’s technical elements as  texture to the story and not a distracting, unfathomable  intrusion.

In contrast to the “hard science”, there was a section about a stay-at-home dad working part time work for a senator, and struggling to balance the work and child-raising. While giving a more human, domestic aspect to the story, the early sections of this narrative thread didn’t engage or maintain my interest, and again I had to push myself to keep reading.

Other parts of the story were about the political and commercial wrangling required by scientists to carry out their work – influences and hindrances that may even prevent worthwhile science from progressing. Commercial interests pick up and discard according to perceived profitable outcomes with years of research and slow progress being cast aside to pursue more immediate possibilities of financial gain.

What has been reluctantly tolerated as  frustrating bureaucratic reality, in the day to day politics of practicing science,  inevitably becomes crippling when science is faced with a crisis that  has no regard for political or commercial ideologies. *

I’d read through a lot of the book before I found that it was part of a trilogy and that all three parts have been compiled into a single volume (updated and abridged) under the title Green Earth.

Before I bought this single volume of the first book, I already had Green Earth on my “wishlist” with an online book seller and didn’t realise that Forty Signs was part of it, otherwise I would have bought the compilation and not this first book.

I bought Forty Signs of Rain because it was supposed to be about climate change.  Disappointingly, climate change seemed at best a peripheral issue through most of it, only becoming more important towards the end.  But now, knowing it is the first part of a trilogy, I can see the book as an introduction or a prelude instead of a novel in its own right. It also helps me make sense of a relatively short book’s apparently slow narrative progress.  That same pace in a larger book could be more acceptable.

Above I mention the heavy loading of scientific jargon in a section referring to “genetics and proteins and immunology”. Within this book that section seemed to have no narrative purpose and to me it seemed like padding – or as if the author was feeling his way along a path that he decided to abandon.

Could that episode have later relevance in the later parts of the trilogy? That’s a question I could ask about several other loose threads in the book that don’t seem to have purpose or lead anywhere.

Now the questions I need to ask are – should I treat this as a one-off, mostly disappointing novel and forget the rest? Or should I take the chance and carry on with the rest of the trilogy with the expectation of it all working better as a longer story ?

If the latter, do I turn to the newer abridged compilation (which may have removed some of the more tedious aspects) or do I try to find the original editions of the remaining two separate books?

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*        Note, this book addressing climate change was published in 2004 – and today, 15 years later, ideology is still trampling over scientific reality when it comes to climate science.

 

Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson

red marsI borrowed Red Mars from the library maybe twenty years ago. I don’t recall much, but I must have enjoyed it because during the next few years I bought the two sequels, Green Mars and Blue Mars in hardcover when I found them being sold cheaply, but for some reason didn’t get around to reading them.

I kept looking for a hard cover edition of Red Mars to complete the set, but didn’t hold out much hope.

While visiting the Galaxy Bookshop, a science fiction specialist in Sydney, I saw on their noticeboard a wanted ad, in which someone was trying to get a hardcover copy. Many years later I saw one in a second hand book shop in Narrandera, NSW. It was an American first edition and from memory cost around $300.

Earlier this year I finally found an affordable copy for myself, a British first edition at a small fraction of the cost of that US book – basically it was less than the price of a new release and didn’t reflect it’s apparent rarity.

In addition to copies of each volume of the trilogy, I also have book of short stories, The Martians, using the same characters

It’s not surprising that Robinson won some of the top science fiction awards for this series of novels. He creates a complex near-future society in the process of colonising Mars, looking at the technical, political and sociological challenges faced. I think he pulls it all together magnificently, with exceptions that I mention later.

A major theme is the conflict arising within a new colony when the colonists interests begin to clash with the interests of the colonial powers who sent them. Should the new colony on Mars exist to be exploited by the home planet? Or should they start to make their own way, free of the engrained mistakes of earth’s history and politics?

We have been sent here by our governments and all of our governments are flawed, most of them disastrously. It’s why history is such a bloody mess. Now we are on our own, and I for one have no intention of repeating all of Earth’s mistakes just because of conventional thinking. We are the first Martian colonists! We are scientists! It is our job to think things new, to make them new.

Part of the appeal of books like this – and I found Robinson did it well throughout Red Mars – is conveying a sense of awe, of the majestic, an encompassing experience of the unimaginable scale of a journey through space and the arrival at another planet.

And then experiencing the alien landscape of that planet, with features of a size far exceeding anything on earth.

* Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system, 25kms high with a footprint that would cover the majority of France.

* Valles Marineris, a system of canyons  stretching for nearly a quarter of the planet’s circumference, 4,000 kms long, 200 kms wide and as deep as 7 kms, dwarfing the Grand Canyon in the USA.

And then there’s the technology required to get there – and to ensure survival upon and after arrival.
It takes significant skill to convincingly describe all of that, as well as imagine the kind of  social structures that would emerge to make it work, considering the options of maintaining or challenging the expectations of a parent society on a planet far removed by both distance and experience.

But to me the timeline of the book is a minor let-down.

In Red Mars, The first colonists head for Mars in 2026 six years after John Boone was the first man to set foot on the planet. The timetable for such achievements was even ambitious for the year the book was published in 1992, so specifying the years for those things to happen perhaps wasn’t Robinson’s wisest writing decision. So far I’ve seen no reason why specified dates (especially those not so far into the future) were necessary.

I also found that the progress of development on mars seemed to happen far too quickly. Within a couple of decades, several cities and industrial complexes have been built, connected by a variety of transport options: trains, airborne dirigibles, and road traffic; and there are constant and regular arrivals from earth to the new colony, exacerbating unease among earlier colonists who see the society they had hoped to establish being corrupted by the greed of their former planet.

I recall watching that first moon landing in 1969, and hearing commentators predicting the first manned mission to mars by the mid 1970s. Instead, the progress made in the Apollo moon missions was abandoned, and only in recent years has anyone started to seriously speculate again about the possibility of a mars mission.
With that kind of history, the outlook of a 1990s book speculating about a 2020s Mars landing and almost immediate colonisation seems excessively and unrealistically optimistic.

“Song” 23 of my “31 Songs”.