The first book I read this year was Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. It’s the first in a trilogy about human colonisers on Mars, and it’s an absolute beast at more than 650 pages. It took me most of January to read, and I loved it.
Probably the most impressive thing about Red Mars is that very rarely during its 650-odd pages does it drag. That’s because Robinson needs all those pages, not only to tell the stories of the settlers (the book is split into sections, each told from a different character’s point of view), but also to explore much bigger questions about sociology, politics, philosophy, science, mythology and war. He manages to combine small-scale characterisation with large-scale analysis of the human condition in a way that’s challenging, but entertaining.
One of the central questions of this book – and one of the themes that most fascinated me – is whether or not the human settlers should terraform Mars (i.e. change the planet to be more like Earth, so that humans can live on it more easily). As soon as the first people set foot on the planet, the question of terraforming is at the forefront of their minds.
At first, only 100 colonists go to the planet, and they make their homes in bunkers underground and ration their time outside, because Mars’ thin atmosphere provides very little protection against radiation from space. Clearly this situation is untenable, and as the story progresses (and the years pass), the human settlements get more and more sophisticated.
The humans also start to make their mark on Mars in other ways. From almost the very beginning, they start making changes to the planet’s atmosphere. Small changes at first, but increasingly bigger ones as the technology advances and the settlers get the go-ahead from Earth. (They get this permission because Earth is beginning to feel the strain of overpopulation and is looking to Mars as a way to ease some of the pressure.) Anyone even slightly familiar with this series knows that the terraforming will probably be successful to some extent: the next book is called Green Mars and the third one Blue Mars.
But is terraforming a good thing? In a future history novel like Red Mars it would be easy to just scream ‘progress!’ and then go wild in the sandbox of invention, but what I really appreciate about Robinson is that he takes the time to consider this question seriously.
Of course, there are many good reasons to terraform. First, from a practical point of view, if there are people living on Mars, their quality of life will be vastly improved by small things like being able to go outside and breathe the air. There’s also the argument that Mars used to have liquid water (as evidenced by geological formations on its surface), and so terraforming would to some extent be restoring the ‘dead’ planet to a previous, potentially life-sustaining state. And, naturally, there’s the argument for progress – what is all our adventuring and space travel for if not to go further and further, and how will we do that without building habitable bases as we go? Also, there’s the idea that humanity may be the only life in the universe, and so there’s a sort of biological imperative to spread out and seed life beyond our own planet.
However, there are also many arguments against terraforming, which can be equally compelling.
Throughout the novel, there is a certain subsection of settlers who are resistant to the human changes being wrought on the Martian atmosphere. Chief among these is Ann, who is quite a doom-and-gloom sort of character, but who in my opinion delivers some of the best speeches in the book. She also has some very strong arguments against terraforming. For example, the reason a group of scientists have settled on Mars in the first place is to study the planet, but almost immediately they start changing it, which will inevitably affect their results. (An eternal problem for science, in fact – how do you observe without changing what you’re observing?) She also points out that if there is alien life on Mars – even microscopic bacterial life deep under the ice – they could destroy it through terraforming. Or, even if they discover it, they will never know for certain that it isn’t a strain of something grown in one of their own labs and released onto the planet as part of the terraforming effort. The act of trying to make the planet more habitable for the scientists, destroys the science they were there to do in the first place.
And perhaps most convincing of all is her argument that terraforming will just end up turning Mars into another Earth, completely defeating the object of travelling there in the first place. If we set out in the spirit of adventure and discovery, why would we want to make the new place we find look the same as the old place we came from? Do we just want to turn everywhere we visit into another Earth? She puts it best when she says:
We’ll all go on and make the place safe. Until it’s all some kind of Siberia or Northwest Territories, and Mars will be gone and we’ll be here, and we’ll wonder why we feel so empty. Why when we look at the land we can never see anything but our own faces.
Of course, plenty of characters are quick to point out Ann’s hypocrisy: she’s a settler too, and like it or not she’s part of the colonisation effort even if she resists it at every turn. But I think it’s too easy to dismiss her as a hypocrite. She’s a fascinating character with a really important role. If she believes in a hands-off approach, should she have stayed at home? Or is she in exactly the right place – on the front lines, fighting her corner and (arguably) the corner of Mars itself? Just because we all run the risk of being hypocritical, does that mean we shouldn’t fight for what we believe in?
By the end of Red Mars, the planet has been irreversibly changed. But it’s not simply that the pro-terraformers have won and the antis have lost – in true Robinson style, it’s far more complicated than that. I’ll be interested to read the rest of this series, to see where Robinson takes this terraforming debate. In the meantime, Red Mars has given me plenty of food for thought. I highly recommend it.
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