Utopias Module Week 11: Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars (1992) & Antarctica (1997)

* by Mr Andy Sawyer

Red Mars (1992)
Green Mars (1993), Blue Mars (1996), The Martians (1999)

Why Mars as a locale for utopia? ("It is real, and easily imaginable. Mars is where we might conceivably construct a utopia in the future.") (Edward James, Foundation 68, p. 66) Robinson's achievement "is to situate the creation of a utopia very firmly into an historical context." (72)

Bradbury's Mars recapitulates the "utopia" of small-town America. An escapist utopia. "We came up here to get away from things." ("The Luggage Store") What kind of utopia is Robinson's Mars?

"History is Lamarckian" (Arkady, p. 112) "Evolution is a matter of environment and chance ... history is a matter of environment and choice." "We must terraform not only Mars but ourselves."

Colonising a world implies -- means -- rethinking the nature of social relations.

Ann: "[W]e'll wonder why we feel so empty. Why when we look at the land we can never see anything but our own faces." (190) [A reference to Bradbury?]

How does metaphor underlie KSR's writing (and indeed all sf)? But Foote in Science Fiction Studies 62 notes how KSR has the structure of the Martian dome explained and then turns this knowledge into metaphor as Frank in frustration pushes at the membrane "which meant that some of his anger would be captured and stored as electricity."

Note also KSR and viewpoint. The story told through dialogue, debate, point of view: Arkady, Hirohito, Ann; scientists such as Sax and "fixer" characters such as Frank.

Sense of place (eg p. 171-2). Note the italicised descriptive "infodump" sections, p. 121 "spare, austere, ... stoic ... changeless ... sublime."

Terraforming vs preservation (211 ff). The fictional Mars as model for our own earth. What issues does KSR raise? How do his characters create stories from the tabula rasa of the Martian landscape? The tales of "Big Man"; but also the way his characters "become" folk tale: "We've been made into Johnny Appleseed." (p. 227)

The immortality treatment (p. 277-80): "This changes everything." Enables KSR to keep his characters through the long process of terraforming?

KSR (interview with David Seed, Foundation 68 (Aut 1996 pp. 75-80): "... I don't think utopias are useful to us when represented as isolated, static islands in history or in physical space. We ought to start thinking of them as a road of history, something we are working within, step by step. Then the road itself is called utopia, not the end destination, which after all doesn't exist since history won't stop." (77)

Both Red Mars and Antarctica are novels about place and history. But do they treat these themes in parallel or counterpoint? KSR in Bud Foote, "A Conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson": "Science fiction is the history we cannot know, the future history and the alternative history."

The "Martian Timeslip" -- a reference to other "Mars" sf, but note significant events which happen during that time: (p. 185, 269). Another example of the debate about time/history; stepping out of time into a significant "other" process?

Antarctica (1997)

A near-future ecological thriller.

Reworks the "ecotopia" elements of Red Mars: Antarctica as a model for the "real" Earth just as Mars is. But it is also, obviously, part of the "real Earth". (And was used, in the earlier novel, as a training ground for Mars.) It is a touchstone for Mars in Red Mars. (p. 110)

"Science fiction is the perfect angle to approach Antarctica. It is a science fiction artefact, like another planet -- a place you can't live unless you've got technological support." (interview in Locus, Sep 1997)

Chapter 1 opens with a sfnal title, echoed by sfnal references: "Snow ticking by like sand, too cold to adhere to anything. Titan, perhaps, or Triton, or Pluto. No chance of life." (p. 13) "as if while he slept the old Herc hap skipped through hyperspace, and was now flying over another planet entirely. Ice World." (p. 76) Also nb sfnal "dislocation": "He read books ... and now he could sit before the screen and read book after book, or portions of them, tracking cross-references through the ether." (p. 6)

But in some way the "ice ecology" is natural to humans: "the human brain grew from about three hundred cubic millimetres to about fifteen hundred cubic millimetres during the time when we were living the lives of nomads, carrying our homes across the surface of this world; and much of that growth occurred in ice ages, my friends, ice ages when even China itself was a kind of Antarctica." (p. 83)

Other sfnal elements include the technology (p. 200): Ta Shu's "black sunglasses which contained fibreoptic cameras and a phone to transmit his narration and 3-D video back to a facemask TV audience in China." But how science-fictional is this? How extrapolative is this technology?

Are we hardwired to a sense of place? Note the concepts of place, physical location in Robinson's other fiction. But does identity only come about through a fusion of this sense of place with a movement away from it into time or the shared world of ideas. X, in his reading, is connecting with other before his screen. The tourists connect with Scott and Shackleton through their replays of their expeditions (which are bound not to be accurate). Ta Shu's audience connects with what he is seeing through his sunglasses (see more sfnal use of this technique in Red Mars p. 55: Janet's video glasses, sending news back to Earth.)

What is signified by naming the protagonist X?

"This is the great war of our time!"
"Capitalism versus science?" (p. 299)
Science as a "utopian project". Also see Red Mars p. 402: "a scientific research station is actually a little model of prehistoric utopia." But also "It isn't being offered to [everyone]. And that means it wasn't a true utopia."

What is the nature of the utopianism here? If most sf, especially hard sf, takes a right-wing, pro-capitalist stance in its utopianism (see the "yankee trader" aliens in Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity, the mercantile trading systems of Poul Anderson, the right-libertarianism of Heinlein and more modern writers such as L. Neil Smith, The Probability Broach, 1980, recently reprinted), Robinson's stance is more evidently Left. Science is inextricably entwined with ethics, just as technology is with restraint. How far are the ferals a genuine model for living in Antarctica, or a model? Are they a direct doubling of Hiroko's splinter group in Red Mars?

In answering this question we might consider the concept of story. "The past -- all stories. Nothing but stories." (p. 219) or Robinson in Pacific Edge (1990) in which we hear the voice of the novelist (eventually, Tom Barnard) planning a utopian novel:
What a cheat utopias are ... engineer some fresh start, an island, a new continent, dispossess them give them a new planet sure! So they don't have to deal with our history. Ever since More they've been doing it: rupture, clean cut fresh start.


No. Utopia is the process of making a better world, the name for one path history can take, a dynamic, tumultous, agonizing process, with no end. Struggle forever. (Ch 4)
Utopia is process: see Tom Moylan, Demand the Impossible.

Note KSR's The Years of Rice and Salt (2002): an alternate history which explores a world without Europe.

See also:
Bud Foote, "A Conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson" in Science Fiction Studies, 62, pp. 51-60.
Bud Foote, "Notes on Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars" in Science Fiction Studies, 62, pp. 61-66.
Carol Franko, "Working the 'In-Between': Kim Stanley Robinson's Utopian Fiction" in Science Fiction Studies, 63.
Edward James, "Building Utopias on Mars, from Crusoe to Robinson" in Foundation, 68 (Autumn 1996), pp. 64-74.
Kim Stanley Robinson, "Green Thoughts" (Interview) Locus Aug 1992.
Kim Stanley Robinson, "Mars on Earth" (Interview) Locus Mar 1996.
Kim Stanley Robinson, "The Profession of Science Fiction, 34: Me in a Mirror" in Foundation, 38 (Winter 1986/1987), pp. 58-63.
Kim Stanley Robinson, "The Years of Rice and Salt" (Interview) Locus, Jan 2002.

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