Sunday, July 03, 2011

Criticism is easy. Art is difficult.

I really ought to read it all again before embarking on a discussion of what I rashly called the ‘shoddy tricks’ involved in the creation of the utopia in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Colour Mars” trilogy. But life is short, so I will just wade into it with ten or so minutes of preliminary research.  

KSR goes to a great deal of trouble to take us through the violent and drawn-out birth pangs of his utopia, with all the interminable arguing between different factions, to make it seem plausible, but there are things that bug me about the way he does it. I felt I might have been going overboard in calling them ‘shoddy tricks’, but flicking through quickly now I think it was the right terminology to use.

#1:  In the ‘free for all’ period of Martian settlement of the 2050s, where anyone who wants to can go there, KSR has omitted groups that would certainly want to go to Mars in large numbers and once there would be disruptive of his program and be violently opposed to elements in the utopian Martian constitution. The ones I immediately thought of were:

1a. Fundamentalist Muslim groups. There are secularised Bedouin-ish folk aplenty, and Sufis, but that whole raging current of Salafist energy that has been convulsing the world and changing Islamic practice to make it even more antithetical to KSR’s vision is absent.  They are people who would definitely be keen on having a tabula rasa on which to create their own utopia, and who would have the resources to get to Mars. Of course they were easier to ignore in the first half of the 1990s, I expect.

1b. Ruby Ridge Type People. As well as counter-cultural left-wing misfits, there are counter-cultural right-wing misfits. Instead of hanging around free-love communes arguing points of anarcho-syndicalist theory, they are holed up in their cabins in the mountains, clinging to their guns and religion and wishing the gummint would f*** off. They will be off for Mars like a shot. 

1c. Mormons. If you want to make the desert bloom, who are you going to call? Especially given the weird extraterrestrial elements in their theology, I have always thought Mormons would be early and enthusiastic space travellers.  Like the Salafists they are going to have their own very clear ideas about how they want their utopia organised, though they are less likely to bring the whole thing crashing down if thwarted.

The default option for dealing with ideologically inconvenient groups like this in future history is to not mention them and hope they have gone away, as in David Brin’s “Earth”. 

#2: There is something about growing up on Mars that makes people more receptive to KSR’s utopian vision. It is not clear whether this is from the interdependency that arises from having to cooperate or die in a hostile environment, or is just some mystical Arean thing. If its is meant to be the first, I don’t think the ‘planetary’ interdependency would sink into everyone’s consciousness so fundamentally as KSR supposes, and what you would get instead would be an enhanced sense of loyalty to *your* community. 

F’rexample, in Blue Mars (p.107 in Marco’s copy which I have to give back to him):

 ‘People claiming that some fundamental right is foreign to their culture... They aren’t going to get away with that here.’

Art noticed more than a few delegates frowning at this sentiment, which no doubt struck them as a version of Western secular relativism ...

The young Martian natives, however, looked surprised that this was even considered an issue. To them the fundamental rights were innate and irrevocable, and any challenge to that struck them as just one more of the many emotional scars that the issei were always revealing, as a result of their traumatic dysfunctional Terran upbringings. [Clamly emphasis]

#3: The next may be the shoddiest trick. A natural disaster strikes Earth, which both makes it more receptive to KSR utopian ideas and lets Mars break free without too many hassles. The disaster mimics the sea-level rise of global warming, but happens all at once. It isn’t presented as anybody’s fault, not even by the terrestrial governments we know are, and always will be, keen on pinning the blame for everything bad that happens on some scapegoat.  

Of course, there will be natural disasters, and they will have unpredictable political and social effects,  but if one aim of the books is to show how such a utopia *could* come about, then having so much of the plot hinge on the adventitious collapse of the West Atlantic ice shelf is a shoddy trick. (Of course if it actually *was* engineered by the Martians, as I suspect, then it is a neat plot twist. And not admitting that the Martians did it is an even neater gesture to the co-creative role of the reader. To which I humbly tips me lid.)

p.155 of Blue Mars, Sax speaking  in Switzerland: ‘The flood marks a break point in history ... It was a natural revolution. Weather on Earth is changed, also the land, the sea’s currents. The distribution of human and animal populations, There is no reason, in this situation, to try to reinstate the antediluvian world. It’s not possible. And there are many reasons to institute an improved social order. The old one was – flawed. ... So we see the flood as an opportunity – here as it was in Mars – to – break the mould.’

As a coda here is something I wrote a few years ago when I read the following statement from Kim Stanley Robinson rejecting the view that there can be such a thing as 'right-wing utopian science fiction':

'I don't think there are opposing utopian schools in sf, as your question suggests, because I don't think there's any such thing possible as a "right-wing utopia." Right-wing politics by definition tries to prevent or reverse change; for it the current feudal regime is already "utopia" so there is no need to think utopia as a project. You have to distort the word "utopia" out of all recognition to make it fit any right-wing book; as for instance, "the world would be great if it were run by a junta and had biological communists to fight forever, so Starship Troopers is a right-wing utopian novel." True maybe, but useless. It has to be acknowledged that the expansion of legal rights to more and more people (women, ethnic minorities, children, the disabled, alternative lifestyles)--that is to say, social progress in history, the utopian track of history--has been a left-wing project and a left-wing accomplishment." []

This is an odd statement which tells me a lot about the narrow vision of KSR.

To a free marketeer, this 'current feudal regime' is not utopia - the market is born free, but everywhere is in chains, groaning under heavy burdens that prevent it from being the mighty Archangel for eliminating poverty that it can be.

To someone who believe that people should be free to act as they like, speak as they like, and think as they like, this 'current feudal regime' is not utopia - every day there is a new stupid law, and the debate on another topic is declared over.

To a social conservative, this 'current feudal regime' is not utopia - we live beneath the smoke of Auschwitz, in the sprawling new suburbs of the Cities of the Plain. The world is going to Hell in a handbasket.

And it tempts me to write a sprawling novel about not a ‘right-wing utopia’, but about a whole competing family of ‘right-wing utopias’ playing out across space and time.


Cornelius Gallows said...

Having not read the KSM novels in perhaps twenty years (and not recalling that I enjoyed them that much at the time) I have little to contribute beyond nodding with polite attentiveness, right up until the last paragraph.

That's when I jumped up and pointed and said something inappropriate for the workplace. I would *so* read that. Especially if you could cram in some gratuitous space battles, but even otherwise.

Dr Clam said...

Okay, I have a goal now! I may be... some time :)

Marco said...

Thanks for writing this. Shoddy tricks is right - and his left wing ideology permeates his writing in a way that is almost imperceptible to me, but a considerable irritant to you. His obvious quantitative orders of magnitude error on volume of water was an irritant to me but I supposed if he had calculated it right, he would not have had to change the plot much.

I found his progression of Mars settlement to be tenable in a "suspended disbelief" kind of way until at least Blue Mars. I interpreted his political subplot to be the way that the average citizen "might" see it, but perhaps not as it actually was.

His views of the evil corporations, for instance, were interpreted by me as that being the perception by the characters he was following rather than being the reality.

To me, Australia now is as close to Utopia as the world is conceivably (to me) going to get at any point.

Dr Clam said...

And thank you! Too long have you been silent in the blogosphere, Marco. Though I probably did not help with my brief and puerile comment on your last post. I can quibble chiefly with your words "at any point"; the historical record shows societies asymptoting towards utopia with the advance of scientific knowledge, and I see no reason why this trend should not continue. Vide infra my comment - September 2008 I think - on gleaming crystal cities inhabited by uplifted Gila Monsters.