Book Review: Blue Mars

By Kim Stanley Robinson

I actually finished this book about a week ago but I wanted to think about it a bit before I wrote anything.  There’s a ton going on in these books and I wanted to let the ideas roll around in my head for a bit.

Blue Mars is the last book in the Mars Trilogy, and while it was kind of a slog in places, and some of the characters I wasn’t so excited about, I’m glad I did read through the end.  I’m not going to spoil it, but I thought he tied up some of the main characters’ stories nicely, and he focused on two of my favorite characters (Sax Russell and Ann Clayborne).  He also spent a lot of time on some of my less favorite characters, mainly Maya Toitnova.  Oh well.

I guess my biggest issue with the second and third books in the Mars Trilogy could be explained by historical context.  The series was published between 1993 and 1996, so roughly a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and only a few years after Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history.

Maybe it was too early to know what effect the fall of Communism would have on the west.  Maybe it’s still too early.  I was only 14 years old in 1991 and I wasn’t thinking about this sort of thing so it’s really hard for me to imagine a time when Robinson’s ideas were ever considered viable.  Looking at the world as an American, they don’t look viable now.

Robinson’s proposal is for a dual economic system- a gift economy between people who are acquainted, and a market economy between larger communities.  The Mars that he envisions looks like socialism with a market economy for certain goods.

I should say right now, I don’t understand economics very well.  I also suspect that most economists don’t either.  Because it’s complicated and unlike real sciences, there is human will at work in any economic transaction.

I’m not ideologically in favor of any particular economic system, I’m in favor of what works.  I’m not really sure what that is.

That being said, what we have in the USA at this point in time is- Free Market most of the time or Free Market ALL of the time. One thing I learned from living a long time in a foreign country is that society and language limits what we can imagine to a far greater extent than we could realize on our own without ever leaving our own society.

Again, I don’t have anything against the free exchange of goods, but how do I evaluate a proposal for something so out of what I can imagine as a member of this society?  I can’t.  I find it interesting, but I can’t really say for sure what it means.  Does that mean my imagination is limited?  Yes, but probably no more than most.

And while I’m on the subject, it’s really hard, looking at today’s world, to imagine we’ll ever have the political will to truly attempt something like the colonization of Mars.  I don’t know if humanity is headed for an extinction level event in the near future due to climate change or ocean acidification (or something else we haven’t noticed yet), but we’re certainly not setting up a great future for ourselves at the moment.

Mars seems to be a place where idealists like Robinson, or on the other end of the spectrum Robert Zubrin*, get to play out their ideal worlds.  I’m going to come down on the side of Robinson here and say that if humans ever do try to colonize Mars, it will be the result of some sort of multi-national or UN led project.  Or US led.  Maybe back in 1993 there was a bigger chance for this sort of thing to happen.  In 2014?  We’re lucky we were able to send a robot up there.

The other big idea he proposes in these books is a genetic treatment that allows people to live far past the usual 80 or so years.  By the third book characters are well in their 200s.  It’s an interesting idea, but I felt like it would be better done in a stand-alone book.  Here it kind of just feels like a plot device he to allow him to  keep using the same characters in a sweeping trilogy.

And I have to admit that I’m kind of sick of trilogies in general.  They’re up there with zombies and superheroes in terms of played-out ideas.  Writing a trilogy seems to make a writer feel like the story has to be EPIC and the Mars Trilogy feels like that in places.

That being said, I got a lot out of reading the books.  The first book is definitely the most entertaining, but even the second and third books bring Mars (and parts of the rest of the solar system) to life in a really inspiring way.

 

Next up- Abaddon’s Gate is in the mail!  Can’t wait!

*Though I generally avoid anything written by libertarians, I read Robert Zubrin’s How to Live on Mars.  I’m not a scientist or an engineer, but the ideas for an early Mars colony seemed really well researched.  If you can tolerate global warming denialist asides and some clunky (and pretty creepy) sex jokes, it’s not a bad read.

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