‘Red Mars’ Book Club Part I: Escape Velocity

The rules for book clubs are the same as for recaps: there will be spoilers through the first two sections of Red Mars in this book club 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 two sections in comments, go ahead, but label spoilers as such. All set?

Kim Stanley Robinson has to do an incredible a amount of heavy lifting in the first two sections of Red Mars: introduce a huge cast of characters and the loves and animosities that will bind and divide them for decades, provide background context on the rationale and support for the settlement, and lay out a number of very complex political debates. Fortunately, he has two central metaphors that wrap up all of those problems: escape velocity and terraforming.

On a technical level, achieving escape velocity and starting their trip to Mars is the easiest part of the mission. As a metaphor, it raises a larger, perhaps unanswerable, question. As Robinson puts it “What kind of Dv would it take to escape history, to escape an inertia that powerful, and carve a new course? The hardest part is leaving Earth behind.” Whether or not to terraform — to deliberately alter Mars’ atmosphere in order to make the air breathable and soil arable — is a more immediately relevant question, and one that the characters will battle over fiercely, even as they start experimenting with things like architecture and their approach to work assignments. One of the things I like about this book is that things don’t align easily. We meet Frank Chalmers at a moment of high cynicism, angry over the implication that the colonization of Mars was a purifying experience. “The truth was the trip to Mars had been the functional equivalent of a long train ride,” he reflects. “Not only had they not become fundamentally different beings, they had actually become more like themselves than ever, stripped of habits until they were left with nothing but the naked raw materials of their selves.” But even though Frank’s suspicious of the idea that coming to Mars had an alchemical effect on the First Hundred and those who followed, he’s motivated by the desire to have control over the planet’s future, and the transformations that will follow. He’s simultaneously someone who appreciates the linguistic possibilities of Arabic for Mars — “Arabic had a larger vocabulary for this landscape: akaba for the steep final slopes around volcanoes, badia for the great world dunes, nefuds for deep sand, seyl for the billion-year-old dry riverbeds…People were saying they might as well switch over to Arabic and have done with it.” — while also manipulating a Muslim man into murdering John for him and stoking anti-Muslim sentiment to make the coverup more plausible.

Arkady, by contrast, is an idealist pain in the ass. It’s not that he’s wrong to insist that the colonists will have the power to make decisions independent of earth once they get to Mars, or that social experimentation is a good idea. It’s just that the ways in which he goes about proposing revolution is maximally disruptive, meant to make his fellow colonists uncomfortable. Until, of course, the moment when he turns to hugely traditional means to calm them during a moment of crisis:

Arkady went to a terminal and called up Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, picking it up in the third movement, when the village dance is disrupted by storm. He turned up the volume, and they floated together in the long half-cylinder, listening to the intensity of Beethoven’s fierce tempest, which suddenly seemed to enunciate perfectly the lashings of the silent wind pouring through them. It would sound just like that! Strings and woodwinds shrieking in wild gusts, out of control and yet beautifully melodic at the same time — a shiver ran down Maya’s spine. She had never listened to the old warhorse this closely before, and she looked with admiration (and a bit of fear) at Arkady, who was beaming ecstatically at the effects of his inspired disk jockeying, and dancing like some red knot of fluff in the wind. When the symphony’s storm peaked, it was difficult to believe that the radiation count wasn’t rising; and when the musical storm abated, it seemed like theirs should be over too. Thunder muttered, the last gusts whistled through. The French horn sang its serene all-clear.

That tension, the question of whether you can build a new society with old tools, with old emotional and cultural touchstones for support, and the question of whether you actually want to build a new one, are huge. It’s impressive that Robinson manages to lay out that dilemma, and give us crazy relationship drama all in the same relatively compact space, and to make none of it overly dry.