There will be spoilers through the first three sections of Red Mars in this post and in comments, so venture there at your peril if you’re concerned about that. If you want to spoil beyond those sections in comments, go ahead, but label spoilers as such. The first part of this book club appears here. For next week, let’s read “Homesick” and “Falling Into History.”
The first two sections of Red Mars have to do a lot of heavy lifting and they feel like it—not only are they outlining a lot of very complex political and scientific arguments, but you’ve got to look at them through Maya’s eyes, which is not always a pleasant or sympathetic place to sit. So in a sense, “The Crucible” is a relief as we shift from Maya to Nadia, probably my favorite character in the books, and from the craft of leadership to the tangibility of engineering and architecture. And in shifting from the world of ideas to the world of things, we actually get a much more powerful emotional sense of what’s at stake as the First Hundred try to decide whether they will begin aggressive efforts to change the Martian atmosphere and climate.
One of the things this section does beautifully is juxtapose the mechanical and the whimsical—it makes Nadia’s jazz habit a perfect metaphor for her experiences. It’s there from the moment Nadia starts unpacking the town that is hers to reassemble: “The tractor itself was a real pig, with 600 horsepower, a wide wheelbase, and wheels big as tracks…They took off and rolled slowly toward the trailer park—and there she was, Nadezhda Cherneshevsky, driving a Mercedes-Benz across Mars! She followed Samantha to the sorting lot, feeling like a queen.” Those moments when Kim Stanley Robinson contrasts her tool kit to King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, or when Nadia explain to Arkady that being on Mars is like Louis Armstrong finding his way to the Hot Five, are just so wonderful in a writerly sense—Nadia’s constantly improvising, and she can do it because of her solid technical background.
Music isn’t the only reference to the past that Nadia finds as she builds her town. It’s there in the architecture:
She recalled vaulted ruins she had seen years ago on Crete, at a site called Aptera: underground Roman cisterns, barrel-vaulted and made of brick, buried in a hillside. They had been almost the same size as these chambers. Their exact purpose was unknown—storage for olive oil, some said, though it would have been an awful lot of oil. Those vaults were intact two thousand years after their construction, and in earthquake country. As Nadia put her boots back on she grinned to think of it. Two thousand years from now, their descendants might walk into this chamber, no doubt a museum by then, if it still existed—the first human dwelling built on Mars! And she had done it. Suddenly she felt the eyes of that future on her, and shivered. They were like Cro-Magnons in a cave, living a life that was certain to be pored over by the archaeologists of subsequent generations; people like her who would wonder, and wonder, and never quite understand.
And even in the water: her colleagues build a Greek temple out of blocks of ice after they finally discover water that’s accessible on the surface of Mars.
But one of the most interesting things about this section of the novel is the extent to which Nadia, who relies so heavily on reference points and grace notes from her past as a source of joy, makes the leap into something new. It’s a move she’s able to make only one Ann gets her out of Underhill, and when Ann shows her something she can’t touch in a situation where she’s not building anything:
Stars were popping out everywhere, and the maroon sky shifted to a vivid dark violet, an electric color that was picked up by the dune crests, so that it seemed crescents of liquid twilight lay across the black plain. Suddenly Nadia felt a breeze swirl through her nervous system, running up her spine and out into her skin; her cheeks tingled, and she could feel her spinal cord thrum. Beauty could make you shiver! It was a shock to feel such a physical response to beauty, a thrill like some kind of sex. And this beauty was so strange, so alien. Nadia had never seen it properly before, or never really felt it, she realized that now; she had been enjoying her life as if it were a Siberia made right, so that really she had been living in a huge analogy, understanding everything in terms of her past. But now she stood under a tall violet sky on the surface of a petrified black ocean, all new, all strange; it was absolutely impossible to compare it to anything she had seen before; and all of a sudden the past sheered away in her head and she turned in circles like a little girl trying to make herself dizzy, without a thought in her head.
When she comes back to Underhill, Nadia sees her own work differently, at least temporarily: “It had the disordered, functional, ugly look of Chelyabinsk-65 or any of the rest of the other Stalinist heavy-industry cities in the Urals, or the oil camps of Yakut.” She’s not the only one who’s living in contradictions. This would have been a really easy section of the novel for Robinson to just have left as a statement of support to the Red position, especially given the subterfuge the Greens, or at least some of them, commit to jumpstart terraforming in the windmill expedition. But I’ve always appreciated that just as Nadia is surprising herself in this section, Robinson decides to have Sax Russell surprise her, and us, by employing poetry and philosophy rather than science to win an argument with Ann:
“The beauty of Mars exists in the human mind,” he said in that dry factual tone, and everyone stared at him amazed. “Without the human presence it is just a collection of atoms, no different than any other random speck of matter in the universe. It’s we who understand it, and we who give it meaning. All our centuries of looking up at the night sky and watching it wander through the stars. All those nights of watching it through the telescopes, looking at a tiny disk trying to see canals in the albedo changes. All those dumb sci-fi novels with their monsters and maidens and dying civilizations. And all the scientists who studied the data, or got us here. That’s what makes Mars beautiful. Not the basalt and the oxides.”
It’s all very self-conscious, of course: the beauty of Mars in this novel only exists for us in Robinson’s writing. But the reason Nadia’s such a powerful and enduring character is that she lives in a space in between the physical world and the world of ideas. Just because the beauty of Mars exists only in our minds doesn’t mean that beauty isn’t powerful and important. And as she thinks after she and Arkady begin their affair, “feeling so serene and happy that she had to remind herself that the floating sensation was probably just Martian g. But it felt like joy.”