Blue Mars

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It took me two decades, but I finally did it. I read the final volume of Kim Stanley Robinson's landmark Mars trilogy. I had read the first two volumes, Red Mars and Green Mars, in college but then life got in the way and I never managed to start the third book. I do not often make New Year's resolutions but this year, I resolved to finish the trilogy. After so many years, I was concerned that I would not remember any of the characters or events of the first two hefty stories and the third volume would be nebulous and inaccessible. Kim Stanley Robinson adeptly reintroduces his loyal readers to the key members of the First Hundred, the original colonists of Mars, and of the pivotal moments of the previous two volumes, weaving in references to the discoveries, the betrayals, the revolution. Before too long, I was deep into book three, living on Mars with Sax and Ann and Michel and Maya, worrying with them about the future of their new home planet and the society they created.

The longevity treatments have successfully extended the lifespans of the First Hundred and those who followed them, with many of the original colonists living more than two centuries. Back on Earth, overpopulation and a great flood send hoards of immigrants fleeing to the new Mars with its forests, oceans, and clean air. So what happens when population booms and the elderly are living long lives in defiance of nature and not passing on like they are supposed to? Now you have a crisis of culture and ideology as well as population. Blue Mars explores these themes along with the environmental question of whether it is right to propagate to new planets in the name of human survival. As with the previous novels in the trilogy, chapters are presented from the perspective of alternating characters, giving readers an equal exposure to the variety of scientific ideas and socio-political philosophies that haunt the people driving the future of the planet. In addition to members of the First Hundred, readers also hear from their children, themselves now advanced in age thanks to the longevity treatments. They are Martians with full lifetimes lived as the first humans native to a planet that is not Earth and they have very different goals from their parents, conflicting ideologies for their planet.

During this time, we also learn that mankind has now successfully established colonies on other planets as well as Mars and that there are outposts in the asteroid belt. The scope of the story grows beyond just the conflict between Mars and Mother Earth as now multiple planets, each with their nationalistic pride and needs, compete for resources in a solar system that, due to improved interplanetary travel technology, is rapidly shrinking in size. It is analogous to the consequence of commercial air travel on Earth in the mid-20th century. When it takes less than a day to travel to the other side of the world when it used to take months, the world shrinks dramatically and cultures homogenize.

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite authors as I have stated in my articles on Shaman and Aurora. He explains enough of the science--or invents it--that the story sounds plausible and he then surrounds that science with developed characters with whom I find myself relating in so many ways. His science fiction stories are not just a speculation of wild possibilities. They are human stories at their core. The best stories are and Robinson's stories number among the best I have ever enjoyed.

Aurora

Reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2013 novel Shaman (which I discussed here back in June 2014) reminded me of how much I enjoy Kim Stanley Robinson.  I was browsing YouTube one lazy weekend morning last Spring when I stumbled upon this video of Kim Stanley Robinson discussing the concept of his forthcoming novel, Aurora:

In eight minutes, Robinson had me chomping at the bit. His description of a multi-generational spaceship constructed with multiple biomes representing the major ecosystems of Earth fired my imagination in a way I had not experienced in a long time. The two months I had to wait until the book’s release felt long but finally July 7, 2015 arrived. I bought a copy at my local Barnes & Noble during my lunch break and began reading it that same evening. I cannot remember the last time I was so excited about a book that I bought and started reading it on release day.

There are some books one can read just for fun and other books that, like the works of Kim Stanley Robinson, require effort. That is part of what I enjoy so much about his novels. While they are not pulp science fiction, they are approachable. Robinson stops just short of being too difficult to comprehend or at least ponder. It is as though he expects his readers to possess above-average intelligence and rewards us with stories that challenge us to dream big.

When the story begins, the spaceship is already en route to Tau Ceti, a star system 12 light years from Earth. Because it will take a couple hundred years for the ship to reach the Tau Ceti system, the population of the ship at the beginning of the story is composed of the children of the children of the original travelers. That thought blew my mind. Imagine living your entire lifespan within the confines of a starship having never stood on real ground, having never breathed non-recycled air from a real atmosphere, and having never traveled to another country in a manner that did not involve simply opening the door from one part of the ship to another. How congested that environment must have felt.

As with all of the Kim Stanley Robinson novels I have read, the characters in Aurora are wonderfully realized. They are people with dreams and fears, ideas and doubts. They have goals that do not always align with the goals of others and the conflicts that arise are written in such a human way—quite the trick considering a computer is writing the narrative! How often do you hear readers complain that the characters in a particular novel or film do not talk the way people actually talk or do not behave the way real people would behave in stressful situations? You will hear none of that from readers of Aurora. Kim Stanley Robinson is masterful in his portrayal of the sociological and political machinations of people and populations.

The most fascinating aspect of this novel is the exploration of language. The majority of the novel is narrated by the ship’s computer. Encouraged by one of the ship’s crew to practice narrative style, the ship begins the story in a very simple manner, almost as though a child were writing the story. As the ship learns about narrative style, the narrative style of the book transforms. There are long passages early in the novel where the narration involves large blocks of information that, which factually accurate, may not be important to the story because the ship does not know if what it is narrating is important or how it fits into the story it is telling. The ship's musings on the flaws of human language, of metaphors and simile, add some welcome humor to the story. As the ship’s narrative skill improves, the novel itself becomes a gripping and sometimes heartbreaking tale of mankind’s journey to a distant star system in search of a habitable planetary body.

In the end, the story is about humanity’s interaction with its environment. It is a beautiful story and while it did not go where I thought it would go, I enjoyed it immensely. Kim Stanley Robinson has proven once again that he is one of our finest authors of speculative fiction.

Shaman

Thoughts on Kim Stanley Robinson's Shaman

I have seen Kim Stanley Robinson’s books in the science fiction section of my local bookshops for decades going back to the days when I worked in one of them.  His readers are accustomed to Robinson’s intelligent and thought-provoking prose about the far future. 

Shaman is very much about the long ago past and after reading this 2013 novel, I do not understand why it is labeled Science Fiction.  The book even says Science Fiction right on the spine above the imprint label.  There is a little bit of hocus pocus, but it is nothing so out of this world as any mystical goings-on you might find in a story about a tribe of Native Americans.  There is more paranormal wackadoo going on in Dan Simmons’ Black Hills and it is labeled Historical Fiction.  I know Kim Stanley Robinson is known primarily as an author of science fiction, but I do not understand why that means this work of historical fiction ends up on the SF shelf.

Taking place over a period of a few years, Shaman is the story of Loon, a young apprentice shaman living with his prehistoric tribe during the Ice Age.  We join Loon as he is a boy on the verge of manhood, beginning his shaman wander, a rite of passage during which he is stripped of everything including clothing, and told to disappear into the wilderness and not return until the next full moon.  What follows is a tale of survival told the Kim Stanley Robinson way.  His words are a paint brush.

The pace of the story is slow, much like the pace of Loon’s life.  Devoid of the hustle of the modern world, Loon and his tribe exist just to survive.  They are not worried about their 401(k), getting to a sales meeting on time, or navigating through gridlock traffic.  These humans are practically still just animals.  They hunt, they eat, they breed.  They maintain a connection to nature by naming themselves after birds (Loon, Hawk), plants (Heather, Moss), and rocks (Schist).  They recognize and appreciate their place in the ecology, unlike modern man who has paved over nature and replaced tree lines with skylines.  I enjoyed experiencing the simplicity of the ancient world through Loon’s eyes.  There are certainly harrowing moments that elevated my pulse, but I found Shaman to mostly be an exploration of early mankind’s life, like watching a well-produced documentary.

Robinson explores the cyclical nature of life, the passing of years marked by the seasons, the passing of days marked by the path of the sun across the sky.  He puts great effort into detailing these cycles and their importance to Loon and his Wolf Pack.  I found it almost hypnotic.  His setting is so crystal clear that even now, a week after finishing the book, I retain a vivid image of the woods in which Loon and his pack live, the river nearby, the tufts of snow on the ground late into Spring.  The seasons do not mean much to industrial man, but early mankind’s entire lives revolved around the seasons.  Summer was bountiful with rich hunting and gathering opportunities.  Autumn was a time to begin storing food for the long Winter.  The Hunger Spring was the worst, when food stores were low and wildlife had not yet returned so hunting was poor.

In a prehistoric society, the people told stories to retain their history and build their culture.  These stories were passed down through the generations.  The Wolf Pack’s shaman Thorn spends much of his time trying to teach his reluctant apprentice Loon the value of these stories and the importance of getting the details right.  I found myself wondering how much the stories might have changed over so many years, like a multi-generational game of Telephone.  In the Internet Age, information is at our fingertips.  Prior to the Internet, I could go to a library and read any number of volumes of scholarly information.  None of that existed thirty thousand years ago.  History was verbal.  This is how legends are born.  One person tells a story, the next embellishes a little, the next embellishes further.  Before we know it, we are sitting around the village bonfire listening as our shaman tells us the story of a man so strong, he killed an invulnerable beast with his bare hands and now wears its pelt as a trophy.  Loon’s own story is narrated by a seldom seen third party.  Is this the real tale or has it been sweetened to enhance the listener’s experience?

I thoroughly enjoyed Shaman and think even more highly of it as I continue to ponder it days after reading the final page.  Robinson can always be counted on to impart knowledge in an entertaining form and with Shaman, I feel as though I have been given a well-researched glimpse into a world I would not normally think about.  It is not science fiction though.  Not even a little bit.