Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Areotopia '99 (part three)

Aldiss, in the postscript, "How It All Began," which concludes White Mars:
Planets are environments with their own integrity.... The end result [of a terraforming project] could only be to turn Mars into a dreary suburb.... Mars must become a UN protectorate, and be treated as a 'planet for science', much as the Antarctic has been preserved--at least to a great extent--as unspoilt white wilderness. We are for a WHITE MARS!
Aldiss, in an interview with SFcrowsnest [all sic]:
"White Mars" was written because I felt the world needed a utopia whether they liked it or not.

In essence, it had been an ambition for years - nothing to do with Kim Robinson's trilogy. Setting it on a remote island had been done: see Thomas More and Aldous Huxley. I wanted a utopia to burst forth in the midst of Europe.

I tried Norway, which seemed a likely spot. But I feared that someone might nuke Norway if they tried it on. So Mars it had to be, There my utopia can be established: it's cooperate or perish on Mars.

The first thing to say is that his denial that his Mars is a response to Robinson's is simply unbelievable. I certainly believe that writing a utopia "had been an ambition for years"; anyone who has read Billion Year Spree knows that Aldiss worships that genre (it is amusing to note, incidentally, that for him "I wanted to write it" and "the world needed it" seem to be the same thing). But to issue a pamphlet stretching metaphors beyond the breaking point to allow for the use of the phrase "White Mars" one year after the conclusion of Robinson's "three colors" Mars trilogy, and then two years later to title the book that, is simply too provocative a move to be unmeaningful, particularly as the two main strands of Aldiss's novel--the question of whether or not to terraform, and the attempt to create a utopian society--are also the two main strands of Robinson's trilogy. If he is telling the truth, that his book has "nothing to do with Kim Robinson's trilogy"--or if he expected that people would not connect the two--then he is far more oblivious to the world outside of his own head than even I gave him credit for. As is, I think him merely disingenuous, or perhaps--and this would be to his credit--embarrassed.

To move on: I ask you to look at these two quotes, to compare them. I would not want to argue that a writer can have only one motivation in writing a particular book. But there is a huge contradiction here between, on the one hand, this apparent urge to defend Mars as a sovereign place, with a right to continue to exist as it is, against an imaginary version of Kim Stanley Robinson those who would try to change it, whoever they may be, and, on the other hand, this feeling that "the world needed a utopia," and, well, islands have been done, Norway's too close to stuff, I guess Mars'll do.

As far as Aldiss is concerned, if not for some logistical problems it might as well have been Norway. This book that takes place on Mars was written out of a desire to see a utopia "in the midst of Europe." Mars, as Mars, matters not a bit.

In fictional terms,* we can see that Aldiss's relationship to Mars is just as exploitative, just as disrespectful of its right to its Marsness, as that of the hypothetical terraformers--with the addition of the hypocrisy embodied in his issuing manifestos claiming precisely the contrary. Mind you, again speaking purely in fictional terms: exploitative urges, disrespect, and hypocrisy--and, especially, contradiction--are not necessarily bad things to serve as a foundation for writing. But they need to be acknowledged, explored. And Aldiss, as always, runs from contradiction, refuses to acknowledge negative aspects of himself, and tries to smooth everything over into homogeneity (itself a central part of the utopian urge, perhaps).

*The only ones, frankly, that can really mean anything when it comes to this kind of discussion--though when/if these fictions turn into reality, the attitudes laid out in fiction may well have an influence on how things go. Certainly it seems Aldiss thinks so.

A responsible writer, I think, would--must--explore this contradiction when faced with it. In fact, I don't think it's too far off to suggest that this is just what Robinson does in his "areotopia." It is at this point that Delany's comments on utopia may be illuminating, for it is precisely this fundamental aspect of sf which Aldiss does not seem to understand, which leaves him unable to read Robinson.

In the conflict between Robinson's Sax Russell, "green," and Ann Clayborne, "red," we can of course see the conflict between the believers in New Jerusalem (and, conversely, The Land of the Flies) and the believers in Arcadia (and, conversely, Brave New World)--sort of. On Mars, of course, The Land of the Flies (and Arcadia) is more properly The Land of the Thin, Cold, Poisonous Atmosphere, which complicates things immensely. Robinson, too, unlike Delany (or Auden), brings in ecological issues, which are of course of paramount concern; beyond that, the character of Hiroko Ai--so frequently off-stage, in hiding, missing, possibly dead--signals some of the ways in which Delany's four "mythic views of the world" play into one another, desiring as she does to usher in Arcadia by way of New Jerusalem.

It is not my desire to mechanically assign the four points of Delany's Audenian compass to elements of Robinson's trilogy.* Such assignments would be boring and pointless, and would ultimately fail in the face of the ever-increasing disjunctiveness of Robinson's symbolic structure.** For now, suffices to say that one of the values of Robinson's trilogy is that it is aware of the multiplex nature of reality and of experience, the multiplicity of perspectives, and of truths. As such, what political statements it includes (and it includes many) are infinitely more powerful, and infinitely more wise, than any of Aldiss's one-sided, top-down proclamations. One gets the sense that the issuing of such is not exactly what Aldiss intends to do, but his stodginess and elitism is such that he does not allow himself to complicate his narrative, or his own opinions, enough to allow for anything else.

*Though now it occurs to me to wonder what Robinson's character Michel Duval, so fond of his interlocking alchemical squares as ways of explaining the world and its people, might do with this particular framework.
**This particularly sfnal technique, so brilliantly utilized in the trilogy, of using characters with highly schematic symbolic aspects in extraordinarily disjunctive combination, will most definitely be a subject of later posts.

There is much more that could be said about these two works. I have not touched much on the role of women in either; neither is perfect, though Robinson (apart from his deeply problematic, near-sadistic treatment of the character Zo in Blue Mars) is vastly preferable, as he at least recognizes that the equality of women would result in an utterly transformed society (or perhaps, in certain very specific cases, vice versa). An almost hilariously telling passage in Aldiss is the one where he omits the phenomenology of pregnancy even more thoroughly than he omits the phenomenology of space, or of Mars:

I went to the hospital, where I had myself injected with some of Tom Jefferies's DNA. My womb was grateful for the benevolent gravity and I delivered my beautiful daughter Alpha without pain one day in 2067.
The entire experience of pregnancy takes place here in the space between a period and a capital M. After this, baby Alpha is simply on the scene, having no impact whatsoever on how Cang Hai leads her life--despite the absence of any system for raising children communally.

Meanwhile, a bizarre scene of near-rape is far more disturbing than Aldiss, who treats it almost as a digestif to conclude thirty straight pages of expository dialogue,* thinks it is.

*Another topic on which there will surely be more coming: massive unbroken sections of exposition are usually, to me, among the most thrilling parts of sf novels, and are indeed one of the wonderful things that the genre allows (or even encourages) which other genres do not: a sort of lyrical didacticism. Meanwhile, Aldiss, who spent a large portion of Billion Year Spree pooh-pooing the very notion of didacticism and ridiculing classic sf for its clunky exposition, engages here in some of the worst-handled, most utterly uninteresting, slogging, page-after-page-after-goddamn-page exposition I have ever read.

There is much more, much more: the treatment of race (again far from perfect in either, again much more palatable in Robinson who, despite his occasional lapses in the direction of stereotypes such as the inscrutable Asian, at least doesn't include imagery playing on the threat of white women's defilement in a "How It All Began" statement); the treatment of capitalism (ideologically fairly sound, as far as I'm concerned, in both, though deeply naïve in Aldiss); of metaphysics and religion; of expansionism. But I'm sure I'm not the only one who's getting tired of this essay (unless of course I'm the only one reading it!), and anyway despite appearances it really is not my goal to just make an itemized list and check off "Robinson better, Robinson better" on each one.

Because while in fact Robinson's Mars trilogy is enormously better than White Mars on any axis along which you could care to compare them, the significance of this is not limited to a battle between two works. What we have here is a dramatic representation of many of the central problems of sfnal practice.

To be sure, vast swathes of contemporary sf refuses even to come anywhere near these issues, content to twaddle itself into big-selling irrelevance with Sexy Lady Space Cop Book #17 or the ongoing saga of a quirky cast of begoggled characters banging gears together in an all-white version of Victorian England in which women magically have never been oppressed (but sure are sexy!), but for that portion of the genre that is not content to do so, the problems which Robinson engages with, which Aldiss largely fails to engage with, must be acknowledged.

It's been so long now, and I'm writing this late enough at night, that I have no idea if I've succeeded in elucidating any of these problems. But hell, I've got a whole blog ahead of me if I haven't, right? If nothing else I hope these thousands of words have at least raised some points for later discussion.

P.S. Don't read White Mars.

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