Festival Night

Note: These posts are not meant to be plot summaries, but commentaries. While we do not go out of our way to spoil, hints if not spoilers about later chapters and even books are occasionally discussed. We recommend reading this post after you have read the parts we are discussing.

Mars has meant many things to humans across time and space.

Kim Stanley Robinson reminds us of some of these different meanings in the chapter that begins his Mars series.  The reddish glow of the planet, visible from Earth, was anciently perceived to be stoking the base human predilections for anger, jealousy, violence and passion,  a bloody, warring influence on humans. More recently, with advances in technology that allowed the human eye a closer inspection of the planet, Mars became a threat, the home of a potential alien invader. Today, for many, it is the next frontier, a new opportunity for exploration and a potential future habit for humanity.

Certainly this is where Robinson’s enthusiasm must emerge. For, amidst all the other details — the scientific foundation for permanent life on Mars, the geographic and geologic landscape, the character arcs  and plot twists — the very core of this series revolves around the opportunity to build a permanent human settlement that is far enough away from Earth so as to be partially free of the direct influence of an advanced, global neoliberal capitalist hegemony still dominating the mother planet.

With the onset of the human colonization of Mars, the old meanings are  sublated by the arrival of humans on Mars. As Robinson writes, “(Mars) had been a power; now it became a place. ” This, however, does not mean that the old meanings are lost but subsumed as  smaller parts of a larger, emerging, and not yet totally determined whole. The place is still an unfinished project and the old meanings play a role in the process of colonization on Mars.

In fact, in the transition from a power to a place, Mars becomes a place of contested power. Many of the qualities some ancient humans once blamed on Mars are embodied in Frank Chalmers. He, among many others, brings the timeless human characteristics of anger, jealousy, violence, domination and war to bare on Mars.

For Frank is a realist. No matter where humanity ends up, they can never escape themselves. Everywhere they go they must necessarily bring with them those qualities they once attributed to the planet Mars. And so Frank not only believes these characteristics to be true of humanity, he manifests them on Mars. Always scheming, always manipulating, Frank’s machiavellian impulse is laid bare in the dramatic climax at the end of the part one, with the assassination of John Boone.

Boone, on the other hand, is a frontiersman, an explorer of a new planet that represents a new beginning for human settlement. His idea of Mars is as a blank slate, an invitation to build human society afresh, free of the embedded trappings of Earthly values, institutions, and interconnections. Thus his political vision is quite simple: prevent the import of Earthy influence and allow Mars the opportunity to develop organically.

To Boone, Mars is like a fresh canvas awaiting the first brush strokes that will begin to define the painting. A nascent human community exists but its form is not yet determined.

If anything, Boone bares the closer resemblance to Robinson’s own idea of a red Mars as a utopian opportunity, not simply as an overdetermined final product but rather more importantly as potential to imagine radical alternatives. As Boone and Chalmers talk for the final time, Boone claims to have no master plan. His priority seems simple:  preserve Mars as a place free of the dominant Earthly ideologies, be they economic, religious or political, as a place free to become something different.

But, whereas Boone seems a rather whimsical character, realizing how important an opportunity is offered by Mars without being totally conscious of what that opportunity is, the  indeterminancy of Mars, socially, politically, economically, is essential to Robinson’s imagination of the political utopia he envisions emerging on the planet. Thus, for Robinson, the blank slate and fresh canvas metaphors do not quite capture an essential characteristic of Mars as red Mars: its potentiality. They suggest the importance of new beginnings but that is only part of its importance.

If a red Mars is best represented as an opportunity for utopia, the the taoist notion of the uncarved block better captures the essence of a red Mars. Just like Mars, the uncarved block has the potential to be carved into just about anything. But, carve it into a colony to serve Earth and it becomes nothing more than a resource to be exploited by another planet. The importance of the taoist idea of the uncarved block, and what differentiates it from the other two metaphors discussed earlier, is its appreciation of the loss of indeterminacy. As the series progresses, and as certain aspects of Mars’ potential are actualized, something is lost in the process. There is something special about unfulfilled potential, something glorious about the unformed, even if the idea of permanent potentiality seems out of reach. A block of wood, once cut and cratered by the knife can never again be uncarved. In losing its ability to inspire alternatives, Mars loses its potency as a utopian opportunity.

As the series develops, much of the political project is consumed with carving out a political system that can sustain the emergent collective consciousness of Mars as world all its own.

The challenge of breaking free from tradition, routine, institution, ideology etc., for a total split from culture, politics and spirit, is an old one. How do we maintain the spirit of the uncarved block even as we chip away it, carving rules and regulations, and processes and places of power, marks that might never be completely erased, and certainly not without carving ever deeper grooves. How do we build into our systems of interaction fundamental principles of justice, consensus, sustainability, and equality, especially knowing how the idiosyncratic nature of humanity will manipulate and push these systems to their absolute limit?

As part one draws to a close, we find Frank Chalmers thinking over the murder of his old friend John Boone.  “Now we’ll see what I can do with it,” he says to himself, hoping he’ll be able to take control over the direction of the planet himself. But the idea of red Mars proves too strong, even for Frank, and in overcoming him the nascent martian civilization overcomes the influence of the ancients.

John Boone may be dead but his vision of Mars as an opportunity lives on, an idea without a body, without a form, forever unfulfilled.

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