Sunday, April 12, 2009

Revolutionary road on Mars

I must say that when I first encountered Michel Duval and understood him to be a psychologist, well, like White I didn't quite dismiss him, but I set him apart from the other hard scientists. I have to say too that his willingness to go off with Hiroko without a struggle, without questioning her motives viz his position on Mars further undercut his ethos. This after his good work intervening in Maya's life, and giving us insight into the various personalities –what he calls humors (White 580). Nevertheless I not only liked, but agreed with his assessment of Maya's love life. She wants both John and Frank. She doesn't want to have to choose between the two of them. And when Frank tells her she cares only for herself, he is probably right. Blame it all on the intricacies of her upbringing, the place of the men in her life in Russia, and her new found power of sexuality becomes a tool she fashions and deploys for her own needs. No wonder the Egyptians refer to her and her kind as "bitches," and indeed, compared to the Arabic women, she seems that way.

The issue of Terraforming becomes so divisive for reasons I can't quite understand. Isn't the whole purpose of invading Mars to make it habitable? Or is it the approach to terraforming that the first 100 are at odds with? The constant complaints about the temperature, or ecology, etc, should, I think be taken care of through terraforming, a view Sax supports. Unfortunately, Ann Clayborne is of the view that mankind does not have the right to change entire planets therefore Mars should be left in its original state. Hiroko, on the other hand, wants change and she goes about to create her own kind of change through Areophany. Aha, the webs humans weave!

Without proper planning, it seems to me that Mars is taking on the very nature of Earth, that necessitated the exodus in the first place: overcrowding, poor or lack of services lead to disgruntled Martians who resort to sabotage, attacks, murder.

I liked Robinson's narrative style; while he had an omniscient narrator most of the story, his alternative protagonists/antagonists relationship help readers see the story unfold through different lenses. When Frank takes over the narration, we see his mind at work, we develop some sympathy for him when he takes on the Arabs, only for them to take him down. It may be his occasional self-deprecation that draws us to him, but that scene with Zeyk and his wife is quite humiliating. But, it helps usher in the idea of Utopia: Nazik proclaims that Mars is for the Muslim women "there is much that is changing here, changing fast. So that this is the next stage of the Islamic way. We are…The hadj to utopia" (420). I like Nazik. Zeyk may think he is putting on a show for Frank, but Nazik's sassiness displays an underlying power from within. The clearest way she does this is when she is looking for the correct word to describe her new found freedom, Zeyk drops the word utopia, but she doesn’t take it. She finds her own expression, "the Hadj to Utopia" (420).

I was quite intrigued by the culture wars, so to speak. Frank thinking he knew all there is to know about Arabic cult re and that he could therefore speak to it. Feeling a part of yet apart from simultaneously the Arabs and the Americans in Amex. In contrast to the Arab rovers, the occupants of the Amex seem uncouth, uncultured, and here without a cause.

Clearly, the conflicts in Red Mars are tied to the human and physical changes to Mars, in particular : to preserve Mars (Ann Clayborne) or not to by radically terraforming (Hiroko).
The other common cause for concern are the resources of Mars; the strained resources on Mars spur political and interpersonal tensions, which build up to a revolution. And with it comes destruction. The casualties: the space elevator along with several Martian cities.

Then of course there are the one hundred, the victims of anti-revolutionary forces associated with UNOMA. Those who survive assassination flee to the hidden colony in the polar ice cap.
The bottom line seems to be that humans cannot flee their history, their selves. They may have viewed Mars as an empty landscape, a clean slate, a tabular rasa on which to inscribe themselves, but they had baggage and they brought it along with them. Their true selves have always been with them be it in Russia, the US, Japan, Egypt, Japan, wherever it is they came from. They cannot suddenly discover who they are just because they are on Mars. Look at Maya; the Arabs and their relations to women; Fran, etc. As well, the theme of identity is explored but never settled, perhaps only to reveal how unstable identity can be. Look at Michel and his seduction.

Change is painful and it is costly. Mars will be transformed at a price. And that price is always already present in the people's history.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The planet Mars

"I don't think we should pay any attention to plans made from us back on Earth" (58) Says Arkady. When pressed as to why, he responds, "Buildings are a template for society" (59). They imply social organization, which in this case means keeping two entities: Russian and American separate. Buildings, he elaborates, have a grammar, they express values, "I don't want someone in Moscow or Washington" telling me I should live my life (59). And so I am left wondering, which is it going to be: independence or interdependence (from mother Earth)?

These views expressed by Arkady seem to encapsulate the dilemma of writers of sf. Here they are attempting to create a brave new world completely unencumbered by the social ills of this world only to recreate those ills in their ideal worlds. Over and over again, the novels we have read seem to aim for a better world, but are unable to escape the burdens of the world they wish to escape. This does not say much about the sustenance of Utopias, now does it? Arkady has a point, after all, like Frederick Jameson observes, Red Mars is for and about scientists. "Pages upon pages offer a host of topics that qualify as hard science" (393). Most of it is imaginative science, but science nonetheless, which is why it is absurd that these inhabitants still define one another along ethnic lines. Shouldn't the inhabitants be defined by this sort of nationality of scientists? We are told that this lot is carefully selected from around the world (dominated by Americans and Russians, but still) they are the forerunners to Mars' colonization. We expect more of visionaries, carefully screened visionaries—the "collectivist protagonists" (397)— for this rather important mission.

The divisions are sharp, but distinct. Leaderships falls "naturally" to the blond, John Boone. Frank Chalmers seems to have as much right as anyone, but is described as "dark" and not considered a natural leader. He is also cast rather suspiciously as if he has something up his sleave and is not to be trusted. And the women, Nadia and Maya, they have their positions as scientists, as leaders, in their own right, but might as well be cogs in the sexual wheel that runs the experiments. Their presence introduces a complex set of relationships as Maya and Nadia, for example, take up positions of leadership and negotiate integrated living arrangements in the spaceship, while offering a metacommentary of the story. Nadia feels good to be needed. Maya, meanwhile is playing catch with two men. The Japanese scientist, Hiroko, is not taken into the fold as easily as the others. She is still considered Other...different. What happened to Arkady's observation that they are all equals here? Not if Nadia is to be believed. Maya, so needy and so self-absorbed will stop at nothing to draw attention to herself.

Politics are very much a part of the game, never mind Sax' s claim that this is "a scientific station" (60). And as usual, America wants to take charge, except, as Arkady claims, Americans are "reactionary" and less interested in helping solve the problems of the world. Robinson could be writing this book against the backdrop of the world economic crisis in 2009. As America desires to hold on the leadership position it has held, its apathetic attitude toward solving the global economy, the environment, international trade, war on drugs across the US-Mexican border remains constant. America's response is described by Arkady as "reactionary," and unfortunately it is still regarded that way in many circles.

While this exchange occurs before the new occupants of Mars have taken up their residence on the red planet, events in the chapter Festival Night have already demonstrated the tragedy of bringing social ills, in this case, envy, jealousy to Mars. John's death seems parallel to that of the biblical Abel, who falls at the hand of his brother for no reason other than envy. A paradise lost, in both cases. Then again the way Jameson sees it, the text is only supposed to represent the state not produce it (409). Perhaps that's why even though Red Mars is not Utopian, it explores issues such as terraforming, longevity treatments, scientific advancements, methods of resistance, etc., issues that allow us to envision a world different from our own.

At any rate, Jameson explores the relationship between sf and the Mars trilogies. I like his distinction between science fiction and scientific fantasy. It seems to me that a bulk of the novels we have read till now belonged to the latter category rather than to that of sf (as per Jameson's definition). I could be wrong, but that distinction has certainly helped clear up some nagging doubt I have harbored over the course of the course.

As the the collectivist protagonists settle in on Mars, 'That's life on Mars" (104) becomes a refrain much like, "young people nowadays." They set about constructing, building, taking geological samples, cleaning, etc. It look like the routine would drain Nadia of all life until the expedition, where seeing non-red solid, and something akin to earth seems to jolt the life inside of her. The are fixing to get life going on Mars.