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Monday, May 11, 2015

Building My Kim Stanley Robinson Essentials List: Book 8

One of the problems with determining how much a book means to you is that it may have been a long time since you read it. This grew abundantly clear with this book, as I tried to skim through the text and confirm my memories of Kim Stanley Robinson's story. Memory isn't like a magnetic tape, forever running through recorder heads, and always ready to be plucked off the shelf and reviewed. Instead it's like a computer hard disk drive. Its limited capacity means that memories not only get overwritten with time, but get corrupted, as our brains, like the rest of our bodies, grow decreasingly agile with age.

My Kim Stanley Robinson Essentials List

Book 8: Blue Mars

With Blue Mars, the final volume in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, the Red Planet approaches the culmination of all that its characters have worked so hard to achieve. Terraforming allows mankind to breathe unaided on the surface, and water collects in craters and depressions, leading to the formation of lakes and rivers. The presence of surface water prompts the rapid expansion of settlements, not all of which can be controlled through a strong central government. But then, that is what life on Mars is about: the freedom to begin something new. To try something new.

To become something new.

One of my favorite characters was Nirgal. As a descendant of the original hundred settlers, he occupies a special place among the leadership. And yet, he considers himself one of the people. He joins workers cooperatives, and tries his own hand at farming. He also takes part in long distance runs, which allows him to see all the different ways in which communities function. And yet, with his strong ties to the original hundred, he also gets to take part in a journey around the solar system. He travels to Earth, where he sees how different life is in the cradle of humanity. He also ventures to other planets, such as Venus, and the outer planets and their moons, and sees how human ingenuity has allowed mankind to adapt to living in such faraway places.

Another favorite character was Zo. She was another descendant of the original hundred settlers. She's a real free-spirit, in every sense of the world. My strongest memory of her is of her flying. Remember the ancient myth of Icarus? Well, in the lesser gravity of Mars, a person really can fly with wings. She tries her hand (or her arms) at this, and revels in the sensations and freedom of flight.

Then there's Art. He wasn't one of the original settlers, but he grows involved in the political arguments and debates in Mars new government. Instead of seeking power, he facilitates the process of debate, and watches with wonder and pride as a congress forms, a constitution is written, and a government grows along radically different lines than anything that ever functioned on Earth. The Red Planet may be strongly decentralized, but the information age, with the consequent ability for people to instantly communicate with each other, a functional direct democracy develops. It's the most beautiful vision of all in this novel, perhaps even more beautiful than the physical terraforming of Mars. The internet has changed our lives so radically in the last twenty years that it seems strange to think of this global phenomenon as still being in its infancy. It makes me wonder how Earth's networking sites may facilitate positive and profound societal change as the internet evolves and matures.

Of course, the original hundred settlers have their own journeys to pursue as well. There's Ann and Sax, two people who have lived out extended lifespans, thanks to medical advancements discovered in the first volume. Ann makes it her life goal to protect Mars from unnecessary terraforming, fearing that in the process much of the planet's uniqueness may be lost. In time, Sax, who only looks ahead, comes to understand the merit in some of Ann's arguments, which in previous volumes merely seemed backward and unrealistic. I never really understood Ann before this volume, but in Blue Mars I really came to like her. Sax, a scientist blessed with a profound intellect, remained a personal favorite character of mine, and his ongoing presence in the novel kept me turning the pages, wondering what he would say or do next.

Above those special characters, and my memories of their personal journeys, stand Maya and Michel. Maya was a vivacious woman, one of the standout people among the first hundred settlers. In time she found love with Michel, considered by many of the first hundred to be an outsider, as he fulfilled the role of the mission psychiatrist. He wasn't part of the group, and yet he was. That ambiguity led him to closet himself away, to remain quiet while others talked, acted, and shone in the spotlight. But in time, he and Maya grew closer, until they enjoyed a quiet, happy life together in the twilight of their years. The gentle nature of their relationship, in which each was content merely to be with the other, if only to sit together on a park bench and chart the colors of the evening sky, became some of the most vivid memories of the novel for me. Unfortunately, as I alluded in the prologue, their minds eventually succumb to the vagaries of age, growing less supple and capable of recalling memories. Still, they remembered they loved each other.

There you have it: Blue Mars, Book 8 on my Kim Stanley Robinson Essentials List. In many ways, it seems a crime that this novel doesn't rank higher, as it seems so important and foundational to me. But then, maybe it would, if only I could remember more about it. Perhaps I'll have to wedge it into the pile of books by my bed, and read it again to refresh my memory of how truly wonderful it is. Someday soon seems unrealistic. Still, like the terraforming of Mars, and the realization of a planetary direct democracy, it's a beautiful dream.

Dragon Dave 

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