Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Areotopia '99: White Mars by Brian W. Aldiss via Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy (part one)

Kim Stanley Robinson begins his remarkable Mars trilogy with that favorite sfnal device, the all-italics passage which places itself somewhere, undefined, outside the story proper. Such italicized passages will recur, covering drastically varied ground, at regular intervals throughout the entire trilogy, but this first one functions distinctly as an introduction.

It covers "the history of Mars in the human mind" (greatly compressed, naturally, and just as naturally including and eliding based on easily-deducible conceptual prejudices), from its likely prehistoric significance as one of the brightest lights in the sky (and one of those with the oddest behavior, periodically reversing direction), to Giovanni Schiaparelli and Percival Lowell's canals, to the Martian civilizations of early sf, to the thrilling but lifeless revelations of Mariner and Viking, through all of which

...Mars has never ceased to be what it was to us from our very beginning--a great sign, a great symbol, a great power.

And so we came here. It had been a power; now it became a place.

With this one deft move, Robinson places himself dually in the tradition of sf--beyond even the immediate familiarity to the sf reader of the typographical convention. First, he invokes, if not by name, a great bulk of that tradition by referring to "the story we all know, of a dying world and a heroic people, desperately building canals to hold off the final deadly encroachment of the desert," which naturally calls to mind everyone from H.G. Wells to Edgar Rice Burroughs to Stanley G. Weinbaum to Leigh Brackett to Ray Bradbury...some of whose names, among others, we have just seen if we have examined the map of Mars in the early stages of its settlement which occupies the pages before this introduction. Second, with that statement, "it became a place," Robinson engages explicitly with an aspect of sf noted in some of the more perceptive comments from sf criticism (with which Robinson, himself an occasional critic, is surely familiar). I'm thinking now particularly of those of Joanna Russ:
Mundane, realistic fiction often carries its meaning behind the action, underneath the action, underneath the ostensible action. Science fiction cancels this process by making what is usually a literary metaphor into a literal identity.
and Mark Rose:
In realistic fiction, setting tends to be primarily a context for the portrayal of character... The phenomenon of landscape as hero is particularly common in science fiction, where the truly active element of the story is frequently neither character nor plot but the world the writer creates.
By engaging with these ideas so directly, Robinson is signalling his awareness of both the traditions and the metatraditions in which he is working.

(The Russ quote is from her introduction to To Write Like a Woman; she has written about this issue elsewhere but I chose this for its brevity. The Rose is from his introduction to Science Fiction: A Collection of Essays, a volume he edited and which has value beyond its intended introductory purpose by virtue of Rose's interesting comments in his introduction.)

If by his "now it became a place" Robinson both places himself within the sf tradition and pretends to remove himself from it (by claiming to be telling the real, i.e. non-sfnal, story of Mars), then this is just all the more exciting--and he knows that, though we are already with him, we simultaneously don't buy it for a moment (which situation is itself reminiscent of Russ's observations about the shifting suspension of disbelief we encounter in reading sf). What we are reading is new and exciting, yes, but it knows what sf is, it knows that sf is literature, but of a different kind than most of what that word usually describes, and it knows that it is, itself, sf.

The case is different with Brian W. Aldiss, whose exhaustingly-betitled White Mars or, The Mind Set Free: A 21st Century Utopia (written "in collaboration with Roger Penrose") was published in 1999--three years after Blue Mars--and was surely intended to be read in the context of, as a response to, the prominence of Robinson's trilogy in the sfnal landscape of the 1990s (though Aldiss has weakly denied this, as we shall see later; I don't buy it for a second). In his usual fashion,* he has gone out of his way to make the dialogue in which he enters himself seem grudging, beneath him--and so despite responding directly to a work in the main line of the genre, Aldiss as always goes out of his way to place himself not in the tradition of sf but rather in the stodgy depths of what Russ has described** as "some 'respectable' tradition...whatever makes SF look harmless, ancient, respectable--and not itself."

*This and other similar judgments are largely based on my reading of the opinions Aldiss puts forward in his "history," which is not a history, of "science fiction," which is not science fiction, Billion Year Spree: a dreadful book, though with some useful concepts; it at least has the virtue of introducing the idea of Mary Shelley as a foundational influence on sf--a move Aldiss himself described later (alas, I cannot remember where, and I paraphrase) as "striking an unintentional blow for women's lib." Clearly.
**Not, to be clear, in reference to Aldiss. The quote is from a pithily damning letter to
Science-Fiction Studies, published in 1973 under the title "Four Complaints."

Aldiss's novel, search engines suggest, was not well received, and it is perhaps uncharitable of me to add, more than a decade later, to the abuse. However, I do think that a consideration of the goals of these two works, Aldiss's and Robinson's, can perhaps be revelatory of some of the struggles of the genre, particularly in its contemporary aspect. I don't know if I'll be able to do any of this revealing, but I will try.

I don't feel it necessary to give synopses of these books. Both deal with the colonization of Mars in the relatively near future, and with the struggle of the settlers to establish--or not to establish--a just society on that planet. Both works, or at least their characters, are nakedly didactic. Beyond that, I will bring up details as they become relevant.

The last page of White Mars, which follows an utterly unnecessary "Appendix by Dr Laurence Lustgarten" (for real), laying out the fictional "United Nationalities Charter for the Settlement of Mars" that we've already seen essentially all of anyway, is another appendix, headed "How It All Began," with the subheading "APIUM: Association for the Protection and Integrity of an Unspoilt Mars." It is signed at the bottom

Brian W. Aldiss
President, APIUM
Pamphlet distributed January 1997
Green College, Oxford, England
"Plans are already afoot," it begins, enraptured with its own collegiate Britishness,* "to send human beings to Mars." This is in itself manifestly wonderful, Aldiss goes on to say, but there is "an assumption that the Red Planet can be turned into something resembling a colony, an inferior Earth." He goes on to argue against the terraforming of Mars, using lovely rape metaphors and following them up immediately by saying that the planet must "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!"** (Exclamation point, capitals, and racist implications original).

*Have I mentioned yet that White Mars is "Dedicated to the Warden and Fellows of Green College, Oxford"? No, really, it is.
**In case you are wondering: no, Aldiss does not seem to be aware that while an unspoiled Antarctica is indeed primarily white, an unspoiled Mars is, well, not.

Please don't mistake me: I agree, to the extent that it is possible to agree with writing as grotesquely muddled in its form and premises as this. I think that, in the unlikely event that humans ever get to Mars, it would be a travesty to try to change it, to try to terraform it. When Aldiss says that "Planets are environments with their own integrity" and that the "end result" of terraforming "could only be to turn Mars into a dreary suburb, imitating the less attractive features of terrestrial cities," I think he's right, though my conception of what these "less attractive features" are is likely different from his.

Apart from Aldiss's genteel racism and misogyny, though, there is still much that bothers me about this pamphlet. The larger issue (larger than what follows in my essay, not larger than racism and misogyny) is that by implicitly positioning it as a blueprint for what he seems to think is the only responsible path, not just for the "real" future but for all sfnal futures, Aldiss seeks (as he has sought for all the six decades of his career) to severely impoverish the field in which he ostensibly works. This can perhaps be made more clear by focusing on the "smaller issue," the more specific one of Aldiss's obfuscated but nevertheless clear use of this pamphlet, and from there the whole novel, as a "response" to Robinson's trilogy (APIUM certainly couldn't have been a response to immediate real-world concerns; did anyone in 1997 seriously believe colonization of Mars was imminent?)--it was after all distributed one year after the publication of the last volume of the trilogy, and you can feel the moisture of Aldiss's sense of his own cleverness dripping of the page when he answers Robinson's Red Mars and Green Mars and Blue Mars with his own "WHITE MARS!".*

*Because of the way my life is arranged I do a lot of my reading in public, and let me tell you it was extremely embarrassing to be seen holding a book with those words plastered across the cover--far more embarrassing than to be seen with, say, this.

But the thing is, or one thing is anyway, that this idea he seems to have--that Robinson in his trilogy advocates for terraforming every bit as uncomplicatedly and every bit as irresponsibly as, say, Robert A. Heinlein advocates for war in Starship Troopers--is just utterly bizarre and, well, wrong. Beyond the fact that real-life terraforming, unlike war, is at best a vague long-distance possibility, this simply is not what Robinson has done. The debate and struggle between the "Greens," who want to terraform Mars and are led in different ways by the physicist Sax Russell and the environmental systems designer and mystic Hiroko Ai, and the "Reds," who think that Mars itself has a sovereign right to stay untouched and are led, unwillingly at first, by the geologist (or rather areologist) Ann Clayborne, is perhaps the animating force of the entire trilogy; a substantial chunk, perhaps the majority, of Blue Mars consists of Sax's attempts to understand Ann's perspective and then to apologize to her for what he's done to the planet--and then their combined attempts to reconcile what's been done, what can't be undone, to what would be ideal.

To be sure, Robinson devotes quite a lot of loving detail to the process of terraforming, to the changing landscapes: some of the most breathtaking passages in the trilogy deal with emerging beaches formed by the new oceans, or with the stages of the developing plant ecosystems (Sax, and I, were particularly taken with Martian krummholz), or with the way the colors of the sky change over time as the atmosphere thickens and its composition changes. Words associated with this process (subliming, katabatic wind, polynya...) become in the narration almost as much a magical incantation as the multilingual chant of the names of Mars in the Areophany, a central part of the Martian spirituality that grows up over the course of the novels, is for some of the characters. But, too, as perhaps indicated by the Areophany (which is shared in by many of the Greens and the Reds), he devotes similar loving attention to the alienness of Mars, its coldness, its lifelessness, its Marsness. Ann's trip to the pole with the engineer Nadia Cherneshevsky in the early days, say, and Nadia's horror on returning to the settlement, seeing for the first time the ugliness of what she had helped build, had considered neutral, is taken every bit as seriously as any of Sax's work:

"...plumes of smoke...billowing into a flat-topped mushroom cloud...the litter of frames, crates, tractors, cranes, spare-part dumps, garbage dumps...the big mounds of raw regolith next to the cement factory...It had the disordered, functional, ugly look of Vanino or Usman or any of the Stalinist heavy-industry cities in the Urals, or the oil camps of Yakut. They rolled through a good five kilometers of this devastation...Nadia too was shocked...this had all seemed perfectly normal before the trip, indeed had pleased her very much. Now she was slightly nauseated..."
The inevitable progression of the titles themselves, Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, could be taken as a sort of triumphal manifest-destiny march of progress...or it could be taken as an inexorable descent into the ruination of the planet-as-it-was...or it could be taken simply as a value-free statement of what, sfnally speaking, happened. If we take the fact that the terraformers "win in the end" as a sign that Robinson wants to convince us that this is the way, we have read only one of the many stories Robinson has written us. The key is that Robinson, to the extent that he presents a judgment of the terraforming project at all, presents a judgment that is ambivalent.

But there is no room in Aldiss's black and white world for ambivalence.

He truly seems not to understand that books can do anything other than mechanically endorse their contents. Well, actually, that's not entirely true--Aldiss himself, if no one else ever, is allowed irony. Of course in his clumsy hands irony always turns into sarcasm, and even sarcasm turns out to be too refined and winds up as condescension. Aldiss does not write books: he deigns to write books. Consider the tiresome metacomments he relishes putting in the mouths of the characters in this work of utopian sf: "Predictions are for amusement only." "There we venture into the realms of science fiction. I can't comment on that." "All utopias have their sell-by dates, you know."

Anyway, the point is that if he interprets the Mars trilogy, as he seems to, as propagandistically agitating for the headlong colonization and terraforming of Mars, he has catastrophically misread Robinson's work. The problem is actually much more severe than that: for he has in fact catastrophically misread science fiction as a whole.

More on that, and other issues, surely to come.

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