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.”