Online Edition: Summer 2001

Utopic Fiction and the Mars Novels of Kim Stanley Robinson

by Jeremy Smith

Staring at the screensaver on my computer--an image of stars flying past as though the viewer were on a starship traveling faster than light--it hit me that human beings would one day accomplish this feat, maybe not as quickly or dramatically as we see on Star Trek, but some day, some way. We have simply invested too much time imagining the experience for it never to happen.

I feel the same way about the idea of utopia, the "no place" where we will live in balance with each other and with nature. Utopia, says culture critic Russell Jacoby, is the conviction "that the future could fundamentally surpass the present." We live in a time when many have lost this conviction, and to find it again is to find hope for a better future.

Although most leftists don't know it, Kim Stanley Robinson is one of America's best-selling and most visionary left-wing novelists. His three award-winning Mars novels chronicle the colonization of Mars from the viewpoints of dozens of characters over the course of a century. Recently completed by the publication of a coda volume, The Martians, at the end of last year, Robinson's Mars books are probably the most successful attempt to reach a mass audience with an anti-capitalist utopian vision since Ursula K. Le Guin's 1974 novel, The Dispossessed.

Robinson stands on many shoulders. Utopia, the perfect place, is always conceptualized from within the limitations of where we actually live. As old visions are chastened by the reality of their attempted implementation, our idea of perfection has changed over the past century. In literature, utopia as we know it begins with H.G. Wells, Edward Bellamy, and hundreds of lesser-known contemporary authors, all of whom were products of the late-19th-century socialist movement which consciously held their novels up as visions of a better, socialist future. It's a strategy that recruited millions worldwide.

In the classic Looking Backward, Bellamy's hero wakes from a one-hundred-year sleep to the futuristic year 2000, when the abolishment of private property has liberated humanity from scarcity, greed, and lust for power. In the typical turn-of-the-last-century utopia, which reaches back to Plato's Republic, society is egalitarian but run on a military model, with production and consumption regulated by technocratic elites. Culture is the superior scientific (and often Christian) culture of the Northern hemisphere, driven by macro-technologies: heavy industry, eugenics, centralized planning, atomic energy, space travel, and building of colossal scale. This is the vision that shaped the Soviet Union, which sought to one-up the capitalists in efficiency by establishing "industrial armies," as they are called in the Communist Manifesto.

Experience is a bitter critic of utopia, and in the period following World War Two, the modernist utopia was turned on its head in the novels of William S. Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, and J.G. Ballard.

Living as a heroin junky in Spanish-occupied Morocco in the mid-50s, William Burroughs conceived of divided Tangiers as a metaphor for the modern world, a point of convergence--the "Interzone"--for conflicting cultures, competing powers, and addicts and exiles of all types. Like George Orwell's 1984, his fragmentary novel Naked Lunch uses science fiction motifs to depict a consciousness shaped by drugs and mass media, in a world where technology is used as an instrument of control, not liberation.

As prisoners-of-war, Vonnegut witnessed the firebombing of Dresden and Ballard saw the flash of the atomic bomb from the coast of China. For many of their generation, the experiences of Dresden, Hiroshima, forced agricultural collectivization, and the Holocaust ended forever the faith in technological progress that was the cornerstone of early-century utopianism. Scientists no longer looked like disinterested searchers for truth, but servants of military-industrial complexes East and West.

In the 1960s and 70s, nationalist revolts, evidence of growing ecological disaster, feminism, and the Civil Rights movements provided the experiential basis of the New Left, which rejected the monoculturalism and five-year plans of their Social Democratic and Communist elders. The writers influenced by the New Left and counterculture--particularly Marge Piercy, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ and Samuel Delany--wrote allegorical novels of social, not scientific, speculation. Their utopias and dystopias pivot on the reconciliation (or altogether elimination) of gender and racial difference, sometimes even suggesting that the good society would be primitive and post-technological.

In 1984, William Gibson published Nueromancer--the novel that first conceptualized and named cyberspace, when such a thing was only an apple in the eye of the National Science Foundation. The resulting sub-genre--cyberpunk --broke from old-school science fiction by focusing on all-pervasive micro-technologies such as bioengineering, information technology, and quantum mechanics. In Gibson's novels, cyberspace is not merely a communications medium--it is utopia, literally "no place," a "consensual hallucination" achieved through microchips instead of drugs, but also a hyperreal escape from the stricken, corporate-run world outside.

Cyberpunk cities are dystopian, but reflect a post-modern hip-hop sensibility: polyglot and multicultural, ecologically devastated, media saturated, cluttered with cultural and technological debris, dominated by centralized corporations and shaped by the values of the market. Their world centers around Asia, particularly Japan, not Europe or North America. Cyberpunk has its progressive aspects, but there is little in this future that counters global capitalism. They are stories of survival, not hope.

Against the limits of dystopia, we return to Kim Stanley Robinson and his Mars books. "The dystopian cliche of our times is just too easy," he says in a 1996 on-line interview, "it no longer says ‘Don't go this way' but rather ‘This is the only way no matter what you do, so don't try to fight it.' That kind of dystopia is reinforcing of the status quo, it's a capitulation."

In the first novel, Red Mars, a culturally and ideologically diverse group of scientists--the "First Hundred"--land and begin the terraformation of Mars. They are followed by hundreds of thousands of others. The Earth from which his multinational colonists escape could very well be the same globalized Earth described by cyberpunk--resources are depleted, populations and ocean levels are rising, and transnational corporations are all-powerful.

Robinson, however, inverts the cyberpunk sensibility, harnessing its technological obsessions to the pursuit of utopia on Mars. The Mars books are an ambitious attempt to reclaim the soul of science by uncoupling it from the profit motive and hitching it back up to the project of building a better world. His vision reaches back to Looking Backward, but successfully assimilates ecology, feminism, and post-modern multiculturalism.

Robinson gets around the narrow and undemocratic implications of science fiction's traditional rule of scientists and engineers by quite logically making everyone on Mars a scientist or engineer--an elect lifted to heaven by their virtue (a millennial trope that utopianism can't seem to live without). Their exploitation by transnational corporations leads to a spectacular showdown between the complicated but essentially good scientists and the bad although all-too-human capitalists. The scientists' revolt fails, and in the second book, Blue Mars, they go underground to intentional communities based on ecological, feminist, and communitarian principles.

A second--this time mostly non-violent--anti-capitalist revolt succeeds, and at the beginning of the third book, Green Mars, the good scientists and their children embark upon the arduous work of building a Mars-wide utopia, using the experience of their intentional communities as reference points. Meanwhile, an Earth dominated by corporations continues to be swallowed by disaster, straggling (like Europe in the twentieth century) behind the New World.

The Martian utopia begins with the idea of an independent Mars "as a world rather than a nation," composed of many different cultures. Inalienable rights include "the material basics of existence, health care, education, and legal equality." The land, air, and water of terraformed Mars "are in the common stewardship of the human family." Finally, "the fruits of an individual's labor . . . cannot be appropriated by another individual or group . . . human labor on Mars is part of a communal enterprise."

The last two items--ecology and economic democracy--are conceptually merged into "eco-economics," a system where "efficiency equals the calories you put out, divided by the calories you take in."

Prices are determined by the caloric value of the object or service. "Everyone… makes their living…based on a calculation of their real contribution to the human ecology," a calculation that also measures human impact on the environment. On Robinson's 22nd century Mars, work is play. Economic activity is organized in huge worker-run cooperatives, regulated by special environmental courts, a system incapable of producing predators who take more out of the system than they put in.

If this sounds fantastic and unlikely, well, of course it does--that's science fiction, where walls drop from around the present and we gain the freedom to imagine a range of possible (if not probable) futures. For those whose imaginations have failed them, the future extends only to the next bottom line. But for the rest, there is little choice but to imagine a better way to live, before the problems created by our technology overwhelm us.

Editor's Note: Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars novels are all available from Bantam Books.

Click here to buy Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, and The Martians at Amazon.com

Summer 2001 Table of Contents