Spoilers through the first seven 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 finish the novel.
It’s intriguing to consider why Kim Stanley Robinson tells certain parts of the story of Mars through certain people. Obviously, some members of the First Hundred are more involved with certain seminal events in Mars’ history than others—it wouldn’t make sense to have Vlad, for example, narrate the treaty negotiations with Mars that’s told from Frank’s perspective. When it comes to a more generalized event like the revolution, though, we could have come back to Maya’s perspective, or Ann’s, or gone into Sax’s head as his work is ruined, accelerated, becomes accident rather than design. But I think it’s fitting that as her work’s turned to instruments of murder, that the story returns to Nadia—and turns her from a creator into a destroyer.
At first, the revolution is a chance for Nadia to demonstrate her value all over again, and on a much larger scale than she did among the First Hundred. She, who built if not Mars, but the things that made it possible for people to survive on Mars, is now struggling to save the planet, harnessing not just her own capabilities but the raw material of Mars itself:
There were no robots on hand, but Nadia had found she could start an operation with as small a seed as her programs, a computer, and an air miner. That kind of spontaneous generation of machinery was another aspect of their power. It was slower, no doubt of that. Still, within a month these three components together would have conjured obedient beasts out of the sand: first the factories, then the assembly plants, then the construction robots themselves, vehicles as big and articulated as a city block, doing their work in their absence. It really was confounding, their new power.
It’s true that Nadia, unlike many of her colleagues, has something useful she can do. But she also has incredible stamina. And she’s in a convenient ideological position. Ann and Sax may disagree on how humans should live on Mars in the future (At one point, Nadia and Ann can actually joke about it: “’An interesting experiment,’ Nadia said. ‘But hard to model,’ Ann said.”) But what Nadia can make possible is the one thing they both want: to keep living on Mars without dying. And she can feel most directly the cruelty of seeing construction, astonishing human feats, turned into weapons of war. There’s no question that Ann and Simon, who have a son on the elevator when the cable comes down, have a more personal stake in the destruction being visited on Mars. But it’s Nadia whose expertise, whose devotion to construction as a means of bringing people together, of making life not just livable but beautiful, whose project on Mars is most indicted by the transformation of the elevator from a connection into a weapon. Nadia’s the one who can see the cable’s essential nature is changing: “And so they could see that as the line had crossed the sky, the burning graphite had stripped away first, leaving an incandescent double helix of diamond, flowing majestically out of a sunset sky. All a gravestone, of course, the people on it already dead at that point, burned away; but it was hard to think of them when the image was so utterly strange and beautiful, a vision of some kind of fantasy DNA.”
And so there’s something incredibly cruel about the fact that construction, the thing that earned Nadia her role among the First Hundred, the thing that bonded her with Arkady as they talked about the impact of infrastructure on social norms, about dyeing bricks to bring color into their new world, ends up being the thing that kills him. When the transnats puncture the tents, Arkady, the man who looks like fire, like Mars incarnate, actually burns to death. There’s nothing left of him for Nadia but the wrist tag that helps identify him—and, as it turns out, the ability to destroy Arkady’s own most impressive physical creation, Phobos. And it’s doubly tragic that in carrying out that destruction that Nadia has her ultimate appreciation of Arkady’s understanding of Mars:
She thought of Arkady and of a thousand years, and hissed. They had quarreled so in recent years, mostly about politics. Your plans are all anachronism, Nadia had said. You don’t understand the world. Ha! he had laughed, offended. This world I understand. With an expression as dark as any she had ever seen from him. And she remembered when he had given her the transmitter, how he had cried for John, how crazy he had been with rage and grief. Just in case, he had said to her refusals, pleading. Just in case. And now it had happened. She couldn’t believe it. She took the box from her walker’s thigh pocket, turned it over in her hand. Phobos shot up over the western horizon like a gray potato. The sun had just set, and the alpenglow was so strong that it looked like she was standing in her own blood, as if she were a creature as small as a cell standing on the corroded wall of her heart, while around her swept the winds of her own dusty plasma. Rockets were landing at the spaceport north of the city. The dusk mirrors gleamed in the western sky like a cluster of evening stars. A busy sky. U.N. ships would soon be descending. Phobos crossed the sky in four-and-a-quarter hours, so she didn’t have to wait long. It had risen as a half moon, but now it was gibbous, almost full, halfway to the zenith, moving at its steady clip across the coagulating sky. She could make out a faint point of light inside the gray disk: the two little domed craters, Semenov and Leveykin. She held the radio transmitter out and tapped in the ignition code, MANGALA.
The first attempt is over. The question is whether the First Hundred and everyone else can build a world of their own when the things they thought were secure prove to be so tremendously vulnerable.