Monday, January 28, 2019

Red Mars


Who among us hasn't read the first 100 pages of this multiple times over the years? Who among us hasn't abandoned this novel more than once? Or owned the entire trilogy for years before getting around to it? Who hasn't collected the new series of covers (with the same ISBN) before ever reading it? Ahem, certainly not me for that last one.

KSR's Mars Trilogy won a slew of awards, has been optioned for film and television, and remains one of the definitive works of science fiction about Mars. And thus, as it is a sacred cow, people have tried to kill it. I'm not opposed to taking well-known or well-feted works down a peg or two. After all, on this blog, we take what we want from Deleuze and Guattari, which is to take what you want from the Oedipal fathers and reject the rest. However, I find myself ever-increasingly opposed to bad faith engagements with works of art. I try to avoid "hate-watching" anything (there's too much good stuff out there; why would I waste my time on things I know I won't like) and I try to encounter cultural objects on their own terms, which is to say, the form of a low-budget horror film made by friends in their backyard doesn't warrant the same amount of scrutiny as famous-for-their-form directors such as Christoper Nolan. With science fiction, I'm not generally particular about fidelity to the science the book is contemporary with. I'm not a scientist—I'm an English major. However, I do bristle at reviews in bad faith, in reviews not willing to engage with the object on its own terms, either as text or as cultural object enmeshed and imbricated into the wider sociopolitical tapestry of life under late capitalism. 

Nathaniel's review on Goodreads is an example of bad faith criticism. Let's look at it section by section, shall we? 
As a matter of principle, I try not to review books that I don't finish.
Not a strong rhetorical gambit to open with this omission, I'm afraid. He does admit to reading over "300 pages" which I personally think is enough to judge the book's aesthetics. After the halfway point, the reader has a very firm sense of the aesthetics and artistic aims of the author. Perhaps there's a wild left turn in the back half, a motion towards modernism maybe? But likely not. So in the interest of good faith criticism, let's give Nathaniel the benefit of the doubt.
It's the type of sci-fi story that wins awards not because the story is any good, but because of how meticulously researched it is.
I'm not convinced Nathaniel knows much about the history of science fiction awards, or specifically the Nebula (which Red Mars won). The Nebula is given by the Science Fiction Writers Association and some works in the hard science fiction subgenre have won, but just as many have won outside of that subgenre, such as two awards for Samuel R. Delany, not known for his interest in actual science.

Already, we can sense Nathaniel's expectations are different than mine. He's expecting scientific "realism" (though he later bristles at the word "realism" in the comments) and so he's judging the novel, whether consciously or not, along this spectrum.
I was impressed with the level of detail in everything from the description of the trip to Mars to the lengthy descriptions of Martian topology.

Then again, "length descriptions of Martian topology" might not sound like much fun to read. And--trust me--it's not.
We've reached a crucial point here. He's impressed by the level of detail, but he previously dismissed award-winners for their level of detail over story. Personally, long descriptions of Martian topology and trips around the surface interest me a lot (that's one reason why I finished this finally). Descriptions of landscape allow writers to let loose their more painterly instincts, to write in a visual mode, and this is often where my interest piques: the more elegant and/or novel way to describe non-human things in the material world, the better. I'm not sure I do trust you, Nathaniel, to determine what is and isn't fun. Especially since the rest of your review is pure pedantry.
Interspersed among these long passages describing Martian geography, attempts to create a greenhouse effect, and so on there is a story. Kind of. It's really just a meandering series of first-person narratives that are more of a travelogue than a novel.
Yes, we've established you don't like the traveloque aspect of the novel. I thought we could at least agree that part of the appeal of visiting Mars via fiction (because when will we ever get the chance to do so in person?) was the novelty of experiencing an alien world. But apparently not. Maybe Nathaniel is just jaded when it comes to descriptions of Mars. "Meandering" is one way to describe the sections. They're not episodic; each section builds on the chaos of the previous one, heightening the social unrest to the finale's boiling point. Meandering is in the eye of the beholder, I should think. What isn't subjective is his incorrect assertion that these are "first person" narratives. No, Nathaniel, they are third person limited, or more generally, internal focalization. Considering the review will nitpick KSR to death, we should hold Nathaniel to the same standard, no?
Kim Stanley Robinson is the most clueless person who has ever imposed the misfortune on others of writing about economics. I'm an econ graduate student, so this might bug me more than you.
And so we arrive at Nathaniel's personal bugaboo, KSR's grasp of economics. Nathaniel makes a good point here, one we shouldn't ignore: different readers have different thresholds for plausibility. For myself, KSR could have said the sky on Mars was aquamarine and I might have believed him, or if I had known better, I'd consider it unimportant in the macro. For STEM folks, the science in the Mars trilogy might set their teeth on edge because the author gets some things wrong. And that's fine. But what isn't fine is then using the same threshold against all aspects and willfully missing some of the points the mistakes (and correct aspects) are in service of. I'll come back to this.
What I do mind it *stupid* political writing (sci-fi or not) that utterly fails to understand the rudiments of the issue at hand, presents its case with all the cheapest tricks in the book, and then basically fails to actually prop up anything resembling a coherent, workable thesis.
In Nathaniel's case, he is correct: the Mars trilogy is presenting a thesis and that's conceptualizing alternative social, political, and economic models which aren't corrupt and aren't a zero-sum game. Normally, I would stress finding a "thesis" in a work of fiction is problematic critical reading, but KSR is quite explicit in his bibliography and overall theoretical project. He's using science fiction, the genre most fecund for this type of conjecture, to imagine alternatives for political emancipation.
Robinson gets the most basic elements of economics laughably wrong (he has no concept of what money is for, as an example).
Nathaniel expands on this in the comments. But all the examples he provides are quotes of dialogue from characters. I'll reiterate this later, but over and over again, Nathaniel conflates the dialogue of the characters with the beliefs of the author. A rookie mistake.
When he wants to criticize a viewpoint he disagrees with, he just creates an obnoxious, stereotypical character to represent it.
One of the strengths of Red Mars is its characterization. Using a series of internal focalized characters, the novel provides multiple perspectives on the same things, such as politics, economics, ethics, and even other characters. We see Frank Chalmers from many different angles, some flattering, some negative, but most of all, nuanced. Even all-American superhero John Boone is textured. A common critique of KSR is his employment of stock characters. Arkady, the revolutionary, is the closest we get to stock character (the spirited optimist). I can think of only one character who might be presented as an obvious strawman, Helmut Bronski, though it's heavily implied he's a victim of systemic pressures, the corrupting influence of capitalism. I just don't truck much with this interpretation, especially as Arkady isn't proven correct by the book's end. In fact, he dies as a result of his revolutionary zeal, a victim of a project gone awry.
And his own idea of ecologically-based economics (which isn't remotely original) is actually *less* well articulated and defended than works less than 1/10th this length.
Earlier in his review, Nathaniel calls this novel a "treatise" and then a "a giant technical manual." As this is only the first in a trilogy, I don't think it's fair to say KSR has reached a conclusion. If this is didacticism, then KSR hasn't yet reached the "lesson" Nathaniel thinks beats at its heart.

The important part that Nathaniel keeps missing: the eco-economics part of Red Mars are only ever presented as hypothetical, one system they could adopt as an alternative to the baggage they've brought from Earth. Though KSR ostentatiously shows the current systems on Earth are not sustainable, he also never shows the colonists implementing a single system. It's only ever spoken about as a possible system. Eco-economics, or at least the practical application of it, are implied to be ethically superior to capitalism by dint of the descriptions of Earth, but that's not what Nathaniel is arguing. He's arguing KSR gets the details of eco-economics wrong.

In the comments, he writes:
My contention is that in addition to taking upon himself an obligation to get Mars right as a physical setting, he also took upon himself the obligation to get economics right because of how he wrote the story. (italics in original)
By Nathaniel's own logic, which in his favour, he unfolds for us, fiction writers have an implicit contract with readers. Both writer and reader agree on certain aspects of plausibility. The Mars trilogy is going to stick with actual Mars topology and that any violation this realism isn't purposeful but a mistake. The same thing, Nathaniel argues, applies to the book's understanding of economics. The rebuttal is quite easy here: the economics described in this book is only ever described by the characters. The topology is described by both the narration (we can take this as "objective" for the sake of argument) and by characters (subjective). At no point does the narrator say the implementation of this economic system is successful or better than capitalism. In fact, the finale of the novel undermines Nathaniel's thesis; the characters are shown to be naive, politically helpless, and in some cases (Arkady) straight up wrong!
it is KSR himself (not just his characters) who makes objective statements about how economics works that are integral to the way the novel unfolds.
No. Just wrong. And he never gives a citation from the text.
the one I can recall is the statement that when the Mars colonists stopped using cash, the economy became more efficient.
This isn't true either. The colonists do not use cash and many emigrants receive their paycheque after returning to Earth, where it has been accruing interest.
It's not even a close third person narration. It's much closer to traditional omniscient narration.
He's wrong and he's contradicting himself.
It would be one thing for KSR to write an informed (albeit iconoclastic) dissent from Hayekian views of markets. It's another for him to blithely blather on about how efficient everything got without markets without even recognizing that--from a physics standpoint--he might as well be merrily chatting on about how all objects tend to slow down over time on their own
Arkady's statement about the efficiency of the market, in that there is no market, is what Nathaniel is taking issue with. But, again, in his classic bad faith mode, he's completely disregarding that a) the finale of the novel shows Arkady was wrong and that b) the economic system was in collapse from the get-go. There was no efficient market because it never got off the ground. Too much interference from the transnational corporations and too little intervention from the (financially and politically compromised) government.
Is there any point where KSR effectively says, "Surprise! My characters were all stupid! Here's how things really work!"
No, Nathaniel, because award-winning fiction such as this doesn't stoop to the level of painstakingly explaining why characters were wrong. It's up to the reader to infer, to conclude, to judge. If you had finished the book (you didn't), you could have judged for yourself.
Nor does "realism" have anything to do with it. No fiction is realistic. That's why it's fiction.
Here's where Nathaniel is uncomfortable with "realism." Even though in this bit he argues to take fiction on its own terms, his whole Jeremiad focuses on nitpicking (without ever specifying the nits he's picking) the economics some characters discuss. I agree that "realism" is an illusion. Which is why I meet this novel on its own terms. It's the first chapter of three, a long saga about both the colonization of Mars and the possible society built alongside and on top.

Like good leftists, KSR realizes a utopian workers' paradise is untenable. There are always going to be outside influences, always going to be greedy capitalists, vultures, parasites. No society can ever be a Marxist utopia. This reality shouldn't dissuade workers from trying though. Even if there is no ethical consumption under capitalism that doesn't mean folks should shrug their shoulders and not bother at all. Little steps help, even if just for the well-being of the individual. The pleasures to be found in Red Mars include the revolutionary zeal, the optimism for something better. It's also finely written, not at the level of M. John Harrison or Gene Wolfe, but elegantly written, and somewhat nuanced in its characterization. I hoped, in this post, to highlight the positives of the novel while weighing against bad faith criticism. Good readers should always finish the book if they wish to discuss the novel's arc (either plot or political) and good readers should never mistake the characters for the author.

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