Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars Trilogy”—comprising Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1994), and Blue Mars (1996)—is one of the most praised and awarded science fiction works of all time. Together, the three volumes envision the colonization and terraforming of Mars to make it a second home planet for humans. This scenario presents many opportunities for the exploration of a variety of science fictional technologies and motifs. Perhaps more importantly, it presents numerous opportunities for the exploration of social, political, and economic ideas, all within the context of human intervention in the climate of an entire planet. Many of the colonists realize that this new planet represents an opportunity for human civilization to make a fresh start and to transcend the mistakes of the past on earth. Thus, anything and everything having to do with the functioning of human societies is up for debate. The trilogy has been described as “totalization on a grand scale” by Fredric Jameson, who declares that it will surely become “the great political novel of the 1990s and the place in which the interrelations of the various radical or revolutionary groups have been most vividly rehearsed for our own time” (Seeds 65).
The “Mars Trilogy” is indeed political science fiction at its finest. It is both science fiction and political fiction on a grand scale, dealing with numerous scientific concepts and technological breakthroughs, as well as a wide variety of social and political issues. Environmentalism, however, is probably the central issue. The project of terraforming Mars to have an environment in which humans can live comfortably raises a number of questions concerning the impact of humans on the environment of earth—which by the time of the trilogy’s events has been rendered nearly uninhabitable due to irresponsible human activity. These questions deal not just with making a healthy environment for humans, but with respect for nature; many of the political disagreements in the book concern the extent to which humans have a right to modify the natural environment of Mars to their own liking.
As Lindsay Thomas notes, the emphasis on the terraforming of Mars is important because it points out that our response to climate change needs to involve more than a piecemeal series of reactions to crises as they occur. Instead, Thomas suggests, the “Mars Trilogy” recommends an active program of climate management so that the climate can be guided in desirable directions, not simply kept as it is. Thus, the point is not to somehow remove all human effects on the environment, but to minimize negative effects and possibly even institute positive changes. The debates and disagreements in the trilogy over just how to terraform Mars reflect how complex this process might be, acknowledging that there will inevitably be disagreements about how and what type of human intervention in the climate is best. And, of course, there will be difficulties along the way, no matter how enlightened our policies. For Thomas, “the Mars trilogy provides a model of how to effectively manage these processes of change as ongoing rather than as discrete disasters that we must continually contain, over and over again. It shows us how to keep living on amid catastrophe, and, more importantly, how we might continue to experience the break between our world as it is and the different worlds to come” (178).
The terraforming of Mars involves a number of large-scale, ambitious projects that can be taken as a turn away from such projects that began in America with the Reagan administration and that has certainly gotten considerable worse by our own 2020s, when many Americans seem to believe that any ambitious project is unachievable, an attitude that has rendered America seemingly incapable of carrying out large projects—such as universal health care or free higher education—that have, in fact, already been successfully carried out in other “advanced” nations with comparative ease. Robinson’s visions of the astoundingly grand projects that are undertaken as part of the transformation of Mars serve as a reminder that the kind of imagination that led to the building of the interstate highway system or the landing of a man on the moon can still help us to achieve great things once thought impossible.
Of course, on a more modest level, the terraforming of Mars simply reminds us that human activity can transform a planet, providing a highly believable rejoinder to claims that climate change on earth is just a natural phenomenon that was not caused by humans. But Robinson also makes the point that, just because humans can change the climate of Mars in specific ways doesn’t mean that they should. Much of the trilogy is a sort of political thriller involving debates over the kinds of transformations of Mars should be pursued, ranging from leaving the planet virtually in its natural state to making it something of a second earth—without the pollution and overcrowding that are making the first earth such an unpleasant place to live at this point.
In addition, as the trilogy proceeds, long-term residents of Mars begin to think of themselves as Martians, with a separate culture and separate concerns from those of earth. Robinson’s environmental concerns are closely related to his treatment of the science in the trilogy, which clearly critiques the Enlightenment notion that science is a tool intended primarily to give humans power and control over their environment. Moreover, in the trilogy, the Martian environment itself becomes a sort of Other to the colonists from earth, suggesting by extension that both the drive to colonize other parts of the world and the drive to control and exploit nature arise from a Western Enlightenment drive for domination precisely of the kind famously associated by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno with the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment.
This style of science, of course, is that which so many critics have seen as closely aligned with the projects of imperialism and colonialism, so much so that the two are historically almost inseparable. Indeed, as Michael Adas notes, both technology and the ideology of science have historically been used as tools of colonial conquest. However, Robinson in the trilogy posits alternative styles of science that are genuinely respectful of and curious about nature rather than simply attempting to gain the knowledge necessary to dominate nature. Many of the political battles in the trilogy are struggles between these two competing scientific “styles,” as well as a struggle between those who would see science as a means of understanding and appreciating nature and those who would see it simply as a commodified tool for use in the exploitation of nature for corporate profit. Thus, as Elizabeth Leane notes, Robinson treatment of science is quite complex and the trilogy’s main utopian alternative may be its presentation of a new style of science more than its presentation of Mars as an alternative planet to earth. It is certainly to Robinson’s credit that he refuses the easy solution of abandoning science as inherently imperialistic but instead suggests potential visions of science that, opposed to the instrumental Enlightenment rationalism critiqued by Horkheimer and Adorno, can actually be anti-imperialistic.
The “Mars Trilogy,” in fact, is very much a tribute to the flexibility and potential of science. For one thing, most of its major characters are scientists, emphasizing the key role that science needs to play in the kind of major projects envisioned in the trilogy. It is certainly the case that much of the trilogy is devoted to politics and to the ways in which ethical political action can help to solve problems. But science is always at the very center of those solutions. The trilogy is replete with the kind of “hard” scientific and technological detail for which Robinson is justifiably so well known, yet it avoids the celebration of hardware (at the expense of human beings) for which science fiction has often been criticized. Perhaps Robinson’s greatest achievement in the trilogy is his ability to construct a stirring narrative of planetary colonization that avoids almost entirely the temptation to fall into the vein of colonialist romance and adventure. The trilogy is also rich in its imaginative exploration of a future world that differs substantially from that of the present, creating a form of cognitive estrangement that encourages readers to rethink their attitudes about related issues in their own world. In particular, the trilogy often focuses on social and political alternatives that might potentially lead to a utopian future, thus restoring some of the utopian vision that informed much early science fiction but that seemed to have waned in the science fiction of the 1980s, especially in the work of “cyberpunk” writers such as William Gibson.
This waning might be attributed to the discouraging effects of the Reagan-Thatcher era with its emphasis on austerity and its insistence that there were no real alternatives to the neoliberal road that was then being taken by capitalism. It is no accident that the most influential phenomenon in the science fiction of the Reagan era was probably the movement known as “cyberpunk,” which has been widely criticized for its lack of the kind of utopian energies that once informed science fiction. Of course, even during the Reagan-Bush era there were works of science fiction that transcended the throttling of the imagination that was so typical of that time. Robinson’s own California trilogy—comprising The Wild Shore (1984), The Gold Coast (1988), and Pacific Edge (1990)— was not only his first important contribution to science fiction; it was also the major utopian work of the 1980s. Carol Franko was the first critic to call significant attention to the utopian dimension of Robinson’s work, in essays such as “Working the ‘In-Between’” and “The Density of Utopian Destiny in Robinson’s Red Mars.” But Jameson, one of America’s leading cultural critics and theorists has emerged as Robinson’s most influential champion. Jameson’s enthusiasm for the work of Robinson may have something to do with the fact that Robinson is his former doctoral student, but it surely has more to do with Robinson’s ability to inject powerful utopian energies into his texts, even at a time when most American science fiction writers seemed to be finding that harder and harder to do. Indeed, Jameson has argued that the Mars trilogy stands as an important demonstration of the utopian potential of science fiction as a literary form (“‘If I find one good city I will spare the man’”). Or, as Jameson succinctly puts it in Archaeologies of the Future, the “Mars Trilogy” stands as a new sort of utopian text, one that is not concerned with the elaboration of a single utopian blueprint for an ideal society but with “the conflict of all possible Utopias, and the arguments about the nature and desirability of Utopia as such” (216). Further, Jameson argues, what is utopian about the trilogy is “not the commitment to imagining possible Utopias as such, in their greatest variety of forms. Utopian is no longer the invention and defense of a specific floorplan, but rather the story of all the arguments about how Utopia should be constructed in the first place. It is no longer the exhibit of an achieved Utopian construct, but rather the story of its production and of the very process of construction as such” (217).
In other words, what is important about the “Mars Trilogy” is that Robinson’s goal is not to imagine and describe a fully realized ideal society on Mars but to envision a working society that can constructively solve current problems and continually move toward a better society, retaining the flexibility to solve new problems as they arise. In short, the vision of utopianism that appears to drive the “Mars Trilogy” is very much like that put forth by Ernest Bloch, probably the leading utopian theorist of the twentieth century. For Bloch, utopian thought is not about imagining ideal societies but about attempting to stretch one’s mind truly to grasp the notion that history is an ongoing process and that the future can be different from the present and the “not-yet” can be fundamentally different from the “now.” Thus, utopia is never achieved, but simply sought, in a never-ending process.
The contemporary theorist who has probably put Bloch’s theories to the best use (especially with regard to science fiction) is, of course, Jameson, who has been such a champion of the utopianism embodied in the “Mars Trilogy.” In his 2005 book Archaeologies of the Future, Jameson’s most sustained meditation on utopianism and science fiction, Jameson insists that a society genuinely and fundamentally different from our own is simply impossible for us to imagine because our imaginations are so conditioned by our own society and its economic systems. In particular, Jameson argues that “our imaginations are hostages to our own mode of production (and perhaps to whatever remnants of past ones it has preserved).” Thus, “at best Utopia can serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment … and that therefore the best Utopias are those that fail most comprehensively” (xiii).
Because it is impossible to imagine anything completely new, argues Jameson later in the same text, “all our images of Utopia, all possible images of Utopia, will always be ideological and distorted by a point of view which cannot be corrected or even accounted for” (171). In the trilogy itself, Martian leader John Boone argues a very similar point when he insists that the Martian society needs to seek innovative new answers that do not depend on precedents from the history of earth. He is then asked exactly how these new approaches would look. He replies, “How can I say? When they’ve never existed it’s hard to talk about them, hard to imagine them, because we don’t have the images. That’s always the problem when you try to make something new, and believe me I know, because I’ve been trying. But I think I can tell you what it will feel like—it will feel like the first years here, when we were a group and we all worked together. When there was no purpose in life except to settle and discover this place, and we all decided together what we should do. That’s how it should feel” (349).
In short, while Boone agrees with Jameson (and, presumably, with Robinson) that it is impossible to imagine the material details of a fully realized utopia that is fundamentally different from anything we have known in the past, it is possible, based on positive past experiences, to imagine how we would like for a new world to make us feel. And, in this case, Boone, himself an interplanetary pioneer, suggests that moving toward a better society should involve much the same spirit of cooperation and discovery that drove the original settlement and exploration of Mars. In this sense, Red Mars, the first volume of the trilogy, might be the most important, even though the Martian society of that novel, by definition, remains the volume that is farthest from the ultimate realization of a better human society on Mars.
Red Mars begins with the first colonial expedition to Mars, as a carefully chosen international group of 100 highly qualified scientists and other specialists (dominated by Americans and Russians) set out on the spaceship Ares in the year 2026 to found the first permanent settlement on Mars. They then begin the long, slow process of terraforming the planet, at the same time dealing not only with their own internal disagreements but also with growing political tensions between Mars and earth. Social and political tensions grow considerably more intense as subsequent expeditions join the First Hundred on Mars and as large transnational corporations from earth seek more and more to exploit the new settlements for their own profit—in a mode highly reminiscent of colonialism on earth. Thus, when an Indian delegate to a Martian conference complains that colonialism never really ended, one of the key members of the First Hundred responds, “That’s what transnational capitalism is: we’re all colonies now” (460).
In fact, this understanding of the neocolonial nature of capitalist globalization is crucial to the political sensibilities of the entire trilogy. Eventually, earth’s transnational corporate giants spearhead the construction of a huge space elevator (perhaps the most ambitious engineering project in human history) to allow the efficient shipment of goods and materials beyond the gravity well of Mars, whence they can be shipped to earth easily and economically. Many on Mars deplore this project, because of both its contribution to the capitalist exploitation of Mars and the dangers associated with a closer connection to an earth that is increasingly sinking into economic and political instability, largely because of the burdens of the planet’s vast population. This situation, meanwhile, has been exacerbated by developments on Mars, where scientists have discovered a genetic treatment that retards the aging process and may enable individuals to live almost indefinitely. Unfortunately, the availability of this gerontological treatment leads to increased discrepancies on earth between the lives of the rich, who can afford the treatment, and the poor, who cannot. Here, Robinson participates in a common science fictional motif. Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron (1969) is perhaps the best exploration of this theme, but as Jameson notes, longevity technologies often translate into class struggle in science fiction (Archaeologies 328–44). In the case of the “Mars Trilogy,” the gerontological treatment also threatens to exacerbate an already critical overpopulation problem on earth, leading some countries to pursue draconian population control methods.
This gerontological treatment is a perfectly credible projection of existing genetic research, but it is also a useful plot device that allows the First Hundred to remain central to the colonization of Mars throughout the trilogy, even though this process spans a period considerably longer than a normal human lifetime. Robinson’s use of the treatment is typical of his thoughtful explorations of the social consequences of scientific advances. The space elevator is important in this regard as well. The potential that it offers leads to the sending of large numbers of working-class colonists to Mars, where they are exploited in traditional capitalist fashion, used as tools of the transnationals, who are bent especially on mining the rich mineral resources of Mars for shipment to earth.
By the earth year 2061 (and the end of Red Mars), conditions on earth have deteriorated into near chaos, with a variety of local wars spreading to the point that they cover almost the entire planet. Meanwhile, the growing tensions on Mars lead, in this same seminal year, to an all-out revolution in which a variety of loosely aligned Martian factions strike out against the domination of Terran capital, leading to the large-scale destruction of the Martian infrastructure, including the space elevator.
In Green Mars, the terraforming of Mars is well advanced, while the largest and most powerful of the transnationals have re-established their domination of both earth and Mars. A new space elevator is constructed, and large amounts of raw materials are being mined on Mars for export to earth. Most of the transnationals seek to exterminate the Martian resistance (including most of the surviving members of the First Hundred), except for Praxis, the largest transnational of all. Praxis CEO William Fort understands that the mere use of Mars as a source of raw materials (and dumping ground for excess population) is short sighted. In a fairly obvious riposte to those in our own world who seem to feel that environmental responsibility is inherently bad for business, Fort believes that there are far greater profits to be made from nurturing the development of Mars into a genuine earth-like planet, and, to that end, he decides to try to form an alliance with the resistance, which he sees as the true heart of Martian society.
Eventually, a second revolution breaks out on Mars. However, this time the notion of Martian independence has strong support on earth, especially from a coalition formed by Praxis and the national governments of China, India, and Switzerland. Aided by the sympathetic attitude of this powerful coalition and by increasingly chaotic conditions on earth (where, among other things, the melting of a large portion of the polar ice cap in Antarctica has led to the flooding of coastal areas worldwide), this second Martian revolution is successful. By the end of Green Mars, the entire planet of Mars is in the hands of rebel forces, with the exception of a single Terran stronghold in the town of Sheffield, anchor point of the space elevator cable.
Blue Mars centers on the attempts to establish a new government on the Mars in the wake of this revolution. As such, it is one of the most genuinely political novels of the past few decades. Much of the first half of the novel, for example, concerns the workings of a global constitutional convention on Mars in which various groups meet to attempt to iron out, starting from scratch, a new social, political, and economic system for Mars. Virtually everything, except for certain basic human rights, is up for discussion in the convention, which makes it the trilogy’s central example of political debate. All sides seek to build a new utopian society on Mars, but different individual and factions have very different ideas about what this might entail, providing the opportunity for a number of utopian ideals to meet and jostle for position.
Ultimately, the attendees at the convention are able to agree on a loose global confederation that gives considerable power to local governments and that supports the development of a new economic system based on concepts of fairness for all, with “both patriarchy and property brought to an end. It’s one of the greatest achievements in human history” (346). This system, spelled out in a long speech by Vladimir Taneev, a member of the First Hundred and a key developer of the gerontological treatment, is specifically designed to overcome the exploitative class inequalities typical of capitalism (115–20). In fact, the new Martian system has much in common with socialism, though it is later described as a dialectical movement beyond both capitalism and socialism (391–92).
Eventually, the new Martian government achieves a détente with earth. The elevator is allowed to remain in place, and the Martians gain full control of their planet through negotiation, rather than further conflict. They even send a delegation to earth to negotiate a treaty to govern future relations between the planets. However, these relations continue to be strained by the desires of the vastly overpopulated earth to send more and more immigrants to Mars, where the increasingly earth-like ecology remains very fragile. Still, as Blue Mars (and the entire trilogy) draws to an end, the future looks much brighter for cordial relations between earth and Mars, though the members of the First Hundred (now well over two hundred years old) are rapidly dying off due to an age-related syndrome that even the advanced science of Mars is unable to combat, or even understand.
However, the bulk of Blue Mars is concerned with the growth of Martian society rather than the problems or actions of individual characters. Indeed, the trilogy as a whole is very much a collective work in which individual characters (especially members of the First Hundred) move to the forefront, then recede, making it clear that society as a whole is more important than any individual. To emphasize the point, Boone, perhaps the most important leader among the First Hundred, is killed in the opening prologue of Red Mars, though the book then backtracks a bit and gives the details of events leading up to his assassination via a conspiracy involving Frank Chalmers, another key leader among the First Hundred. In this, the “Mars Trilogy” is an important departure from most science fiction—and from the whole tradition of the Western novel, which typically relies on strong individual protagonists to engage the interests and sympathies of readers, thereby inevitably reinforcing the individualist ideology that is central to capitalism itself—and that the “Mars Trilogy” clearly seeks to critique.
The vast expansion in technological capability envisioned throughout the “Mars Trilogy” is something of a throwback to the earlier days of science fiction, which tended to foresee an extension of the Enlightenment project to a solution of all human problems through technology. But Robinson’s vision looks forward, not backward, and his trilogy represents a major new contribution to utopian thought—centrally informed by an attempt to envision dedicated scientific inquiry free of the colonialist impulse to dominate nature. Robinson’s future utopia is complex and open-ended, however, and he acknowledges the many difficulties that human societies will continue to face however technologically advanced they may become. Ultimately, in the best tradition of science fiction, Robinson’s trilogy, while set in a future time on a distant planet, is very much about the here and now, using its spatial and temporal distance as a defamiliarizing device to render new perspectives on social, political, environmental, and economic problems that already plagued earth in the 1990s.
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 For a more detailed discussion of science and scientists in the trilogy, see Bellamy.