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.

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