Spoilers through the first six parts of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars in this post; if you want to spoil beyond that, please label your comments accordingly. And for next week, let’s read the section called “Senzeni Na.”
After the heavy science and economics of the previous sections, “Guns Under the Table” feels like a real diversion, though a long-awaited one. Finally, we get to see Frank Chalmers from inside his own head for the first time since he engineered the murder of his oldest friend, his oldest enemy, the late John Boone. To a certain extent, Frank’s the Raskolnikov of the First Hundred, a murderer motivated by his commitment to shaping an ideal society who is unable to execute his grand plans, though in Frank’s case, there are larger forces against him than his own weakness (though that’s not an immaterial factor). But Frank’s also uniquely a product of American politics, and “Guns Under the Table” is a striking portrait of the emptiness of the politician.
I love the description of how Frank spent John’s first night on Mars in part because it’s such a typical DC scene. John Grisham could have written it in The Street Lawyer, if not for the Mars thing:
Still, on that historic night he found himself in a foul mood. He went back to his apartment near Dupont Circle and then went out and lost his FBI tag and slipped into a dark bar and sat there watching the TV over the bartenders’ heads, drinking bourbon like his father, with Martian light pouring out of the TV and reddening the whole dark room. And as he got drunk and listened to John’s inane talk his mood got worse and worse. It was hard to focus on his plan. He drank hard. The bar was noisy, the crowd inattentive; not that the landing hadn’t been noticed, but here it was just another entertainment, on a par with the Bullets game that one bartender kept cutting to. Then blip, back to the scene on Chryse Planitia. The man next to him swore at the switch. “Basketball’s gonna be a hell of a game on Mars,” Frank said in the Florida accent he had long ago eradicated. “Have to move the hoop up, or they be breaking their heads.” “Sure, but think of the jumps. Twenty-foot dunks easy.” “Yeah even you white boys’ll jump high there, or so you say. But you better leave the basket alone, or you got the same trouble you got here.” Frank laughed. But outside it was hot, a muggy D.C. summer night, and he walked home in a plummeting foul mood, blacker and blacker with every step; and coming upon one of Dupont’s beggars, he pulled out a ten-dollar bill and threw it at the man, and as the bum reached for it Frank shoved him away shouting “Fuck you! Get a job!” But then people came up out of the Metro and he hurried off, shocked and furious. Beggars slumped in the doorways. There were people on Mars and there were beggars in the streets of the nation’s capital, and all the lawyers walked by them every day, their freedom-and-justice talk no more than a cover for their greed. “We’re gonna do it different on Mars,” Frank said viciously, and all of a sudden he wanted to be there immediately, no careful years of waiting, of campaigning — “Get a fucking job!” he shouted at another homeless man.
That paragraph tells you everything you need to know about Frank and his limitations: even before he gets to Mars, he’s a hollow man, the limited creation of a system where there are only a few overvalued prizes to win. And it’s worse after he kills John, after he gets what he thinks is the position he wants, that of the most politically powerful American on Mars. In fact, the murder makes it worse, because it makes Frank’s whole life, not just his political work, a performance: “The subject of the treaty began to come up, and so Frank said, ‘How I wish John were here now. We could use him.’ And then: ‘I miss him.’ This kind of thing would distract Maya instantly. She put her hand over his; Frank scarcely felt it. She was smiling, her arresting gaze full on him. Despite himself he had to look away.”
It’s impossible to put up that constant performance without getting a little paranoid, as it’s obvious Frank does, even with Maya, who he wanted so badly, who was part of the reason he was jealous of John: “And at night shower him with kisses, until it was impossible to imagine that she did not like him. Which was intolerable. That it should be so easy to deceive even the people who knew you best. . . that she should be so stupid.. . . It was shocking to realize these things more strongly than ever before.” In the previous section of the novel, the Sufis joke that Frank is John’s nafs, his evil spirit, and John responds that he thinks Frank’s nafs just gets kicked a lot, and so the evil part of Frank’s brain is perpetually irritated, on perpetual overdrive. This whole section strikes me as an argument for the accuracy of that observation, but it’s a structural observation as much as it is a personal one. One of the weirdest persistent fallacies of American politics is the idea that you can both do political work on a high level for a long time and be any sort of normal, connected person.
And the scale on which Frank is doing politics is unprecedented: he’s trying to negotiate for one planet’s future with another, something he’s doing under enormous pressure as Terra falls apart with the hope of Mars as an escape valve, something “the rich and poor nations of Earth were struggling over it as they were over everything else. The rich had the money but the poor had the people, and the weapons were pretty evenly distributed, especially the new viral vectors that could kill everyone on a continent.” And the influence of money in this international political game is at an unimaginable scale, too. Corporations, in this world, have mushroomed beyond anything we can imagine today: “Subarashii and Armscor and Shellalco were each bigger than all but the ten largest countries or commonwealths, and they really put out the funds. Money equals power; power makes the law; and law makes government. So that the national governments in trying to restrain the transnats were like the Lilliputians trying to tie down Gulliver.”
The role of the transnational corporations and their transformation into metanationals capable of handling the functions of entire nations and nation groups is one of the few things I wish we got more of in this book, and that I wish we were on Terra to see*. We never really understand the internal decision-making processes or cultures of these companies very well, and I sometimes think that showing readers some of that in a realistic way might make the arguments Robinson’s main characters make a bit stronger.
The thing that makes this section not just another run-of-the-mill complaint about the corrupting influence of power, and the falseness of politicians, and the impact of money in politics is that sense of scale. It’s not just that Frank’s going to run into the limitations of a deadlocked Senate: it’s that politics will end up being a flimsy little thing next to revolutionary efforts to start society over on Mars. Companies aren’t buying lawmakers in this story: they’re being brought in to manage entire nations. Frank’s not necessarily a fool, things are just too big for him to see more than part of the elephant. The question is whether other people actually see at a higher level enough that they’ll be able to succeed in building a new world where Frank’s efforts to negotiate one will inevitably fail:
“What do you want?” Frank said. “What do you imagine will happen if everyone here slips away into the highlands?” Arkady grinned. “Why then we will make a human life, Frank. We will work to support our needs, and do science, and perhaps terraform a bit more. We will sing and dance and walk around in the sun, and work like maniacs for food and curiosity.” “It’s impossible,” Frank exclaimed. “We’re part of the world, we can’t escape it.” “Can’t we? It’s only the blue evening star, the world you speak of. This red world is the only real one for us, now.”
Following the discussion of Sufism and the areophany last week, it’s interesting to see the very relevant and not at all abstract question of what Islamic progressivism looks like and women’s role in Islam take a prominent role in this section. And just as the role of transnats is constantly in the background without much context, so is the tossed-off aside that all of these events are going down in a world where Israel destroyed Beirut, in what one character describes as a move towards destroying pan-Arabism:
“The destruction of Beirut was a disaster for progressive Arab culture,” another man said. “It was the city where intellectuals and artists and radicals went when they were attacked by their local governments. The national governments all hated the pan-Arab ideal, but the fact is we speak one language across these several countries, and language is a powerful unifier of culture. Along with Islam it makes us one, really, despite the political borders. Beirut was always the place to affirm that position, and when the Israelis destroyed it, that affirmation became more difficult. The destruction was calculated to splinter us, and it did. So here we begin the work again.”
With hindsight, the prediction that Israel might have gone after secular pan-Arabism looks sort of quaint. Instead, the West got freaked about the prospect of a renewed Caliphate, and we have a couple of wars as a result. But Frank’s lecture to his hosts about the way they treat women reads fairly precisely out of our contemporary debates:
Frank ground his teeth, and when Al-Khal began pontificating again he said, “What about your women?” They were taken aback, and Al-Khal shrugged. “In Islam men and women have different roles. Just as in the West. It is biological in origin.” Frank shook his head and felt the sensuous buzz of the tabs, the black weight of the past. The pressure on a permanent aquifer of disgust at the bottom of his thinking increased, and something gave, and suddenly he didn’t care about anything and was sick of pretending he did. Sick of all pretense everywhere, the glutinous oil that allowed society to run on in its gnashing horrid way. “Yes,” he said, “but it’s slavery, isn’t it?” The men around him stiffened, shocked by the word. “Isn’t it?” he said, helplessly feeling the words bubble up out of his throat. “Your wives and daughters are powerless, and that is slavery. You may keep them well, and they may be slaves with peculiar and intimate powers over their masters, but the master-slave relationship twists everything to it. So that all these relations are twisted, pressured to the bursting point.”
There’s something interesting about the limitations to Frank’s outburst of honesty, or of his release on his hold on his general disgust for everything. The only thing that it really ends up accomplishing is an acknowledgement that his hosts know what he did to John Boone, and to them: stirred up anti-Muslim sentiment, incited a Muslim man to kill his old rival, and then let the community he’s now staying with take the public fall for his manipulations. And it’s a veiled acknowledgement. Frank can’t really make a clean breast of it, of John’s murder or any of the smaller wrongnesses he’s committed. Once you’ve gone hollow, you can’t fill yourself up again.