Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy
Abstract and Keywords
The final chapter analyses Robinson’s multiple award winning Mars trilogy. It considers cybernetic themes in conceptions of terraforming and biospheres, and synthesises two related concepts, Jed Rasula’s “composting” and Thierry Bardini’s “junk,” to characterise the ramified dialogism of terraforming narratives. It explores pastoral images of the garden and, through Simon Hailwood, brings to bear Nagel’s notion of intersubjectivity and the process of “stepping back” to account for the change of perspective toward the natural world experienced by various characters. This section continues with a discussion of the relationship between science and nature and its implications for environmental philosophy and science fiction before ending with reflections on how terraforming narratives combine myth, science, politics, social inquiry and aesthetics to explore human relationships to their environments.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capitol trilogy (2004; 2005; 2007) explores socio-political responses to climate change on Earth in a near-future setting, and features instances of geoengineering as a form of climate change mitigation. 2312 (2012) is set in a far-future solar system made habitable by a plethora of space habitats and terraformed planets, but it is with Robinson’s groundbreaking Mars trilogy (1996c ; 1996b ; 1996a) that this study of terraforming ends. This trilogy engages in a dialogue over the cultural meaning of Mars, space exploration and terraforming. Its portrayal of Mars colonisation mirrors the structure of secessionist politics seen in such works as Ecotopia, which it uses to explore alternative socio-political arrangements. As Carol Franko explains, ‘fiction is for [Robinson] the crucial realm for the human activity of asserting and testing values’ (1997, 59). As in Ecotopia, the alternative practices experimented with in the new space of Mars begin to establish a feedback loop with the Earth of the text. One theme of the terraforming narrative is that of ‘throwing together,’ the combination of elements from many disciplines to establish the technical, social, political and economic basis for creating self-sustaining life-support systems on other planets.
The Mars trilogy incorporates overt environmental ethical reflection and brings this to bear against the industrial exploitation of Mars by multinationals that see it as a resource offering raw materials and a space for capitalist investment and development. Earth is forced to respond to the negative effects of climate change from a correspondingly global perspective, as the catastrophic effects of ecological disaster impact all the planet’s population. The pastoral collectives that Bakhtin identifies are represented as nested collections of spaces, often associated with contesting positions that are developed throughout the narrative. The chronotope of the interplanetary mine in the Mars trilogy is connected to debates regarding the preservation of alien planets as wilderness areas, (p.169) idylls where humanity’s socio-political struggles have not yet reached. The growing politico-economic primacy of multinationals throughout the trilogy contrasts with the initial nationalist interest in terraforming: the colonists known as the First Hundred, although ethnically diverse, represent the joint – and paranoid – agendas of America and Russia. Later colonists from China, Japan, Switzerland and other countries, as well as various Arabic groups who derive their identity from religio-cultural sources (for example, Bedouin and Sufi), emigrate to Mars, introducing further nationalistic and cultural considerations to terraforming.
Jed Rasula has reconceived the intertextual aspect of American poetry as a metaphorical compost library. He argues that newness arises from the continual recycling of language, shaped by an author’s attentiveness to predecessor texts and by reader interaction: ‘[i]n the compost library books have a way of collapsing into each other, not in the improvements of more “authoritative” editions or versions, but by constant recycling. Not one but many energies shape the field. It is a vortex’ (2002, 17). Thierry Bardini argues that biological entities and processes are the ultimate junk, and that terraforming represents a prime example of composting for the creation of new forms and systems (2013). Bardini’s sense of junk is rhizomatic; it is ‘all kinds of stuff that grows in stacks and patiently waits for a renewed use’ (2011, 7). Rasula and Bardini explore the questions of the ecological imperative of American poetry on the one hand and of junk as ‘one of the signatures of this age’ on the other (Bardini, 2011, 24), but both concepts, compost and junk, share this tendency towards exaptation in order to create newness in ways that add value.
Stephen J. Gould’s term ‘exaptation,’ as Stuart A. Kauffman explains in his provocative Investigations, refers to the way in which the biological structures of Darwinian pre-adaptations evolve into new structures with capacities that, in many cases, could not have been pre-stated or predicted. Kauffman explains that ‘in an appropriate environment a causal consequence of a part of an organism that had not been of selective significance might come to be of selective significance and hence be selected’ (2000, 130). Metaphorical examples of this process of exaptation for literary purposes are compatible with a Bakhtinian view of language and with Broderick’s view of the megatext, but they emphasise the specifically evolutionary and ecological character of this intertextuality. They can be linked to Brian Attebery’s notion of the ‘parabola,’ a trajectory rooted in an iconic sf image that, appearing in a form subject to collaboration and jazz-like improvisation, is open to inventive variation: ‘the sf scenario is an open curve, a swing toward the unknown’ (2005, 14). The term joins this notion of a narrative trajectory (p.170) to that of the parable, thus drawing attention to how the sf narrative ‘combine[s] human interactions with scientific ideas and technological innovations in a meaningful way’ (Attebery and Hollinger, 2013, viii).
Terraforming is a suitable motif for this view of the megatext as compost or junk: the emphasis that it places on the creation of soil, in stories such as Robert Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky (1967 ) through to Michael Allaby and James Lovelock’s The Greening of Mars (1984) and Robinson’s Mars trilogy, establishes a connection to this notion of the fertility of the composting aspect of the library of texts – a fertility at once open and oriented towards the unknown. Percival Lowell’s popularisation in the 1890s of his theory that the canali of Mars, identified by Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877, were the traces of an irrigation system engineered by Martians to combat the resource scarcity of a dying planet adds another resonance to this notion of Mars and terraforming as a site for the composting of junk, that blend of romance and science that has informed the popular imagination of Mars since the late nineteenth century (Crossley, 2011, 73). Robert Crossley in Imagining Mars (2011) provides an excellent and extensive examination of the compost library of the Martian megatext and of the meaning of Mars as created by a complex relationship between science and the literary and popular imagination.
Robinson’s Mars trilogy explores the fusion between the physical adaptation of the environment and the transformation of social practices and institutions. It considers the terraforming motif and its emphasis on closed life-support systems and soil, linking these physical parameters to an ‘eco-economic’ system propounded by the Martian colonists of the trilogy. Exploring how this system offers elements for exaptation from Earth’s compost library of socio-economic and political practices and attitudes, this chapter considers the role of the Martian landscape as a distorted mirror of Earth that offers to transform and revitalise a planet consumed by tensions that exacerbate the global ecological crisis on a near-future Earth. Eric Otto discusses the trilogy’s exploration of Aldo Leopold’s ‘The Land Ethic,’ a classic work of environmental philosophy that proposes the extension of ethical consideration to non-human nature and which negotiates the space between science, economics, expediency and ethics (2003). Responding to Ernest J. Yanarella’s criticism that the polyphony of subject positions in the trilogy allows Robinson to avoid resolving the ethical debate surrounding terraforming (2001), Otto argues that the work’s multiple perspectives ‘encourage readers to synthesize continually a complex array of political positions’ (2003, 132). More recently, Otto has explored the ways in which environmental sf intersects with transformative environmentalism, that (p.171) collection of environmental movements arising from the wake of Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring (2012). These movements offer analyses of and solutions to environmental degradation, focusing, to use a cybernetic, ecological paradigm, on the inputs that feed into environmentally destructive behaviour, rather than on outputs that would require a reaction to specific examples of degradation (Otto, 2012, 1).
Carol Franko connects Bakhtinian dialogism, polyphony and the carnivalesque to elements of Red Mars (1997) and, while William J. Burling argues that Franko’s insights cannot be usefully applied to the political process of Blue Mars (2005, 76), Robinson himself mentions in an interview that Franko offered ‘a clear theoretical expression’ of his aim that ‘actually helped me in figuring out certain problems in Blue Mars’ (see McVeigh, 1995, 4). In contrast, Burling argues persuasively for affinities between the political process outlined in Blue Mars and Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s ‘radical democracy,’ points of contact that are coherent with notions of dialogism and polyphony and that extend Franko’s analysis (2005). For Robinson, sf’s environmental engagement possesses utopian dimensions: the Mars books are ‘an attempt to take back the [utopian] territory – to show that the future is malleable and up to us’ (see Buhle, 2002, 88).
Approaching Robinson’s work from the perspective of composting is fruitful for exploring the connections between American ecological poetry and sf that he makes: as a former student of Gary Snyder and a dedicated burrower into a compost heap that includes American poets such as Thoreau and Emerson, along with Frederick Turner himself, Robinson states in an interview that ‘I believe that science-fiction is one of the most powerful modes of poetry of all time. Science-fiction is just a metaphor for the world we live in and metaphor is one of the basic tools of poetry’ (see Cooke, 1995). The Martian colony’s attempt to establish a sustainable environment on Mars involves the creation of new myths exapted from experiences and systems of thought on Earth. In the context of the Martian environment, these narratives are tuned to the new specificities of a developing compost library. The creation of new myths on Mars enshrines a Martian narrative that offers the potential for feedback from the alien to the human in order to transform the multiple voices embedded in Earthbound history into new avenues for socio-cultural experimentation.
Images of the garden appear as indicators of the drastic transformations that terraforming brings to Mars. In Blue Mars, Sax Russell is taken on a tour of Tyrrhena Massif near Sabishii, where the shaping of the Martian landscape prior to terraforming is described as ‘[n]ot chaos, technically speaking, but wild, speaking its unimaginable age in polyglot profusion’ (Robinson, 1996a, 89). This polyglossia is influenced by the geologic and meteorological forces that have shaped the planet for billions of years. After his guides point out the colonising plant life, Russell understands that ‘it was all fellfield, the whole Tyrrhena Massif,’ an ‘intensively cultivated’ pastoral space (90). Strongly recalling Turner’s depiction of Mars as a garden, Russell’s guides explain that various cultural gardening aesthetics are deployed, ranging from the Japanese Zen of Muso Soseki and others to Fu Hsi’s feng shui, the designs of Persian gardening gurus such as Omar Khayyam and the approaches of American ecologists such as Leopold, Wes Jackson and the biologist Oskar Schnelling. These voices serve as springboards for new visions of the landscape that have co-evolved with Mars’s topology and climate, an ecopoietic technique that embeds humanity into the landscape through the co-adaptation of its gardening strategies with the land. Russell observes that the landscape is built from a polyphony of voices, ‘an aesthetic journey, filled with allusions and subtle variants of tradition that were invisible to him’ (91). These gardens represent the colonists’ experimentation with the gardening practices of the past, a palimpsest of various aesthetic principles that speak of the legacy left to the Martians by Earth. These scenes are themselves part of the compost heap of the sf megatext, echoing Turner’s depiction in Genesis of a garden on Mars built on the aesthetic practices of a multiplicity of cultures and stances towards the landscape. The soil for this riot of gardening techniques, however, is imported from Earth, illustrating another dimension to the colonists’ continuing dependence on their home planet, despite the level of political and economic independence they have achieved (90).
For Russell’s guides, ecopoiesis is ‘terraforming redefined, subtilized, localized. Transmuted into something like Hiroko’s areoformation’ (Robinson, 1996a, 91). Moving from the global to the local, ecopoiesis re-visioned as gardening connects terrestrial landscapes to the primeval Martian planet, resulting in modifications to both. Like the areophany, this process is one of ‘[c]oevolution, a kind of epigenetic development’ that subtly redefines the boundaries of the Martian land as an experiment in building homes that respect nature’s otherness (91). While Russell initially views ecopoiesis as an unmediated process where the initial (p.173) conditions are established by human agency (‘let loose the seeds, then watch it all develop on its own. Self-organizing ecologies’; 92), Russell’s guides see ‘Mars [as] all a garden. Earth too for that matter. This is what humans have become. So we have to think about gardening, about that level of responsibility to the land. A human-Mars interface that does justice to both’ (91). Echoing Sargent’s Venus trilogy, this view of terraforming as gardening is an interface that mediates between human communities and non-human nature.
At Shining Mesa, along the banks of a stream fed by meltwater from the Marineris canyon floors, ‘forest galleries were springing up’ whose ‘balsa canopies were allowing a great number of plant and animal species to flourish underneath them’ (Robinson, 1996a, 379, 380). According to Nirgal’s acquaintances, ‘it was the most diverse biotic community on Mars’ (380). This landscape signals the extent of the transformations Mars has undergone after colonisation. Nirgal’s tour of Shining Mesa takes place alongside an internal struggle over two conflicting modes of inhabiting the land – between the nomadic lifestyle he is familiar with and the settled life of a home: ‘[h]e wanted to live in the open air. To learn a patch of land, its soil and plants and animals and weather and skies, and everything else’ (382–83). Candor Chasma is too sublime a location, too much a wilderness, for individuals to establish roots and inhabit the land. Nirgal therefore decides to resume his search for the absent Hiroko, thus allowing the narrative to explore the physical changes to the Martian landscape on the now blue Mars.
Nirgal’s view of the Elysium Massif strait is like nothing he has ever seen before: ‘water, the sea, a whole future world’ (Robinson, 1996a, 390). During this search he realises that the familiar primeval Mars is gone. His childhood companions encourage him to stop looking for Hiroko, and he decides instead to ‘look at the land,’ prompting a return to Tyrrhena Massif to try his hand at gardening (396). Thus, he moves from a nomadic to a settled lifestyle: ‘[h]e would be an ecopoet,’ but ‘[f]irst he had to learn the land’ (398, 399). Nirgal becomes the steward of a small basin, where ‘working out one’s locality’s connections to the larger region was a big part of the ongoing process of ecopoesis [sic]’ (400). As he cultivates his allocated basin, a microcosm of the plant and animal life that continues to be established at Tyrrhena Massif, a ‘Tyrrhena committee on the introduction of new species’ visits Nirgal in order to establish a position towards the local ecology: ‘there was a growing sentiment to regard this mix as “natural” to Tyrrhena, to be altered only by consensus’ (405). After this visit, Nirgal says to the marmots who have taken up residence by his home, ‘now we’re indigenous’: on Mars, being indigenous is a matter of political consensus (405).
(p.174) Another perspective on the transformations to Mars is supplied by Ann Clayborne, whom Russell accompanies on an expedition and observes reading the landscape like a text. Russell sees her as an oracle, a visionary whose love of rock – of abiotic life – he compares to Hiroko’s visionary areophany. He attempts to uncover the etymology of the words ‘stone’ and ‘rock’, but quickly abandons himself to a Mars landscaped as a tabula rasa, a seemingly boundless space invested with a creative potentiality directed towards the future. Such a view contrasts with his thinking about the etymology of the word ‘garden’. Derived from the Old Norse gard for enclosure, it ‘[s]eemed to share origins with guard, or keeping’ (Robinson, 1996a, 92), thus resonating with the image of the dome as a protective enclosure. The rocky Martian land is a space opposed to the cultivation of gardens seen in Tyrrhena Massif and the banks of the Arena Glacier: ‘[w]ithout active gardening, this was what one got’ (100). The encroaching plant life is a source of anger and depression for Clayborne, who interprets it as the destruction of Mars. Michel, a psychologist and member of the First Hundred, encourages her to walk amongst the changed Martian landscape and argues that terraforming has made humankind a part of the land and its ecology, essentially embedding them into a new home. For Clayborne, Michel suggests, ‘[y]our task becomes seeing the Mars that always endures’ (257).
Encouraged by this suggestion, Clayborne embarks on a walkabout to rediscover her relationship to the now altered Mars. Her encounter with the new landscape brings her face to face with an ecology imported from Earth, the short food chains of the Antarctic comprising marine, avian and mammalian life. Along with the image of skuas scavenging a dead seal, Clayborne sees a polar bear, which gives chase to her after feeding from the same carcass. This pivotal encounter introduces a new vantage to her consciousness: ‘[s]he only had to close her eyes and she saw again that heraldic image of the bear flowing over the rock; but open them and there the dashboard gleamed, bright and artificial and familiar. Ah so strange!’ (Robinson, 1996a, 268). For Clayborne, the image of the polar bear is an emblem for change: it is a haunting vision that initiates a transformation that eventually allows her to step back from her nihilism, preparing her for a modified relationship to the new Mars.
The environmental philosopher Holmes Rolston III identifies two broad categories of worldview around which debate over the aesthetic (p.175) appreciation of nature revolves: ‘one that aesthetic experience must be participatory, relating an actual beholder to a landscape; the other that nature is objective to such beholders, actually known in the physical and biological sciences’ (1995, 377). Considering the question of whether aesthetic appreciation of landscapes needs to be science-based, Rolston compares those various and diverse examples of what he calls ‘prescientific’ approaches to nature which, on the one hand, characteristically misunderstand nature (from the point of view of scientific objectivity), while on the other have developed specific ways of relating to that nature based on human co-adaptation with the environment. Rolston reflects on the assumption that ‘no one appreciates the canyon, for what it really is, unless helped by geologists’ (374) and argues that ‘[s] cience cultivates the habit of looking closely, as well as of looking for long periods of time. One is more likely to experience the landscape at multiple scales of both time and space’ (376). Nevertheless, he is well aware of the problems of contingency associated with this claim, noting that ‘science or no science, everyone can gain some of that sensitivity’ (377).
Kauffman sees the relationship between science and story as one in which science itself can be made richer by incorporating storytelling into its practice. He argues that ‘[t]he propagating exapting biosphere is getting on with it, and it appears that we crucially need stories to do some of the telling of that getting on with it’ (Kauffman, 2000, 135). Kauffman explains that ‘[s]tories are our mode of making sense of the context-dependent actions of us as autonomous agents. And metaphor? If we cannot deduce it all, if the biosphere’s ramblings are richer than the algorithmic, then metaphor must be part of our cognitive capacity to guide action in the absence of deduction’ (Kauffman, 2000, 135). Thomas Heyd suggests that the aesthetic appreciation of nature need not rely on science and that science may actually be harmful to such appreciation because it directs attention to the ‘theoretical level and the general case,’ rather than to ‘the personal level and the particular case that we actually need to engage’ (2001, 126). Heyd argues that the ‘aesthetic appreciation of nature should be guided by a great variety of stories from a diversity of walks of life and cultures because this enriches our capacity to appreciate nature aesthetically’ (137). Interplanetary imperialism, a tradition substrating such classics as Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1958 ) and Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (2001 ), has traditionally interpreted cosmological nature as a field for American conquest and annexation. Sf has simultaneously challenged this imperialism, a trend that feeds into Robinson’s exploration of human–nature relations in his terraforming trilogy.
(p.176) Robinson’s Mars trilogy portrays a not unfamiliar Earth subject to overpopulation, pollution, global warming, rising sea levels, war, famine and severe economic and political inequalities between the rich and poor, a list that matches Glen Love’s list of contemporary environmental problems (2003, 14–15). These ecological changes effect social, political and economic repercussions. In Red Mars, a group of one hundred scientists known as the First Hundred begin terraforming Mars in 2027. The text foregrounds the importance of, and problems associated with, opening spaces for dialogue in two ways: first, by utilising different perspectives to focalise each section and, second, by portraying the social activity of the colonists from these alternating perspectives. This involves depiction of the confrontations and differences of ideology between opposed groups or individuals. The Machiavellian Frank Chalmers recognises the importance of exchange between opposed positions when orchestrating his rival’s assassination in Red Mars’s opening sequence. He thinks of his chosen assassin as a ‘fool […] talk means everything. We are nothing but information exchange, talk is all we have!’ (Robinson, 1996c, 31). Chalmers’s plan for political dominance involves sowing discord between cultural groups. By manipulating the historical antagonisms between Arab and American nationalism, Chalmers sabotages any attempt towards dialogue. Raising awareness of and support for political positions and lifestyles is a major narrative component and is conducted through discussion, campaigning and interviews, further reflecting the importance of information exchange. As multiple individuals and groups attempt to define the Martian landscape according to their own values, the exchange and conflict between their contesting positions establish a literary ecology that opens a space for debate over the meaning of Mars.
Central to the Mars trilogy is the depiction of a developing Martian community and its struggle for political independence from Earth. One view of Mars is purely instrumental in the sense that it is seen only as a means to relieve the pressures threatening Earth’s population. In response to uprisings on Mars the official line from Earth’s governments is that ‘“Mars is not a nation but a world resource”’ (Robinson, 1996c, 602). This perspective is directly connected to the mining that had begun earlier in Antarctica, a space that, as a natural reserve, has been protected from such activities by the 1961 Antarctic Treaty. Clayborne places the blame for the breach of this treaty squarely on the colonists’ efforts to terraform Mars: she explains that ‘[t]hey kept mining and oil out of Antarctica for almost a hundred years […] [b]ut when terraforming began here it all collapsed’ (298).
This view of nature as a resource highlights technology’s influence in redefining humanity’s treatment of external space. The chronotope (p.177) of the first colonising outpost in Red Mars implies a series of narrative trajectories that draw upon the pastoral opposition between images of the ‘natural’ landscape of the country and the technological city. As Bakhtin explains, the chronotope is the artistic representation of space and time as interrelated in a text; time qualifies spatial meanings and vice versa. This representation, because linguistic, allows it to accrue a series of human-centric meanings from structures internal to the text and through sf’s megatext, a repository of discourse constructed by works in the sf tradition and by reader interaction with those works. Russell’s assessment of terraforming is cast in doubt in the light of Nadia Cherneshevsky’s trip with Clayborne to the north polar region. On her return, she sees their habitat in a new light: ‘[i]t had the disordered, functional, ugly look of Vanino or Usman or any of the Stalinist heavy industry cities in the Urals, or the oil camps of Yakut. They rolled through a good five kilometers of this devastation’ (Robinson, 1996c, 191). The description of the outpost taps into the narrative potential of the dystopia, the alternative to the possibility of a utopian interplanetary colony. This theme contributes to the ongoing debate regarding the development of new societies on other worlds. It constructs an image of a repressive society signified by the chronotope of the city as wasteland, delineating a socio-political structure that rejects heteroglossic dialogue that would incorporate all the voices of the multiple groups who work towards constructing a new Martian identity.
Greater control of the environment is thus accompanied by a greater willingness to adapt the landscape for purely anthropocentric ends: nature’s otherness does not feature as a constraint to terraforming. Cherneshevsky responds to the environment instrumentally, although this response is personal rather than economic. When Clayborne invites her to a trip to Mars’s polar regions, she sees the wilderness of the Martian landscape and experiences a cognitive shift that allows her to re-evaluate this space. She thinks that ‘[a]ll this beauty was so strange, so alien,’ and the narrator continues: ‘Nadia had never seen it properly before, or never really felt it, she realized that now; she had been enjoying her life as if it were a Siberia made right, living in a huge analogy, understanding everything in terms of her past’ (Robinson, 1996c, 171). Recognising the alien aspect of Mars’s landscape helps her identify her own tendency to project meaning onto nature and so ameliorate its otherness. Cherneshevsky’s identification of Mars with Siberia instantiates a landscape that is completely constituted by her imposition of meaning. Her initial view of Mars as a new Siberia is instrumental because it allows her to cope with the deterritorialisation (p.178) that accompanies the unfamiliarity of, and the demands of living within, an alien landscape.
Here we see the pastoral refigured: by contrasting the alien with the familiar, its strangeness is raised to the level of awareness, drawing attention to how Mars is unlike familiar natural landscapes. It signifies the new; civilisation on Earth is shifted to a nostalgic past. Cherneshevsky responds to the intuition that Mars is not solely a field for the imposition of her engineering discipline, thus overlaying the chronotope of the Martian wilderness with non-instrumental value. This episode draws on the mystique of Mars, constructed, as Russell notes, from ‘[a]ll those dumb sci-fi novels with their monsters and maidens and dying civilizations. And all the scientists who studied the data, or got us here,’ but it challenges conventional ideas of beauty, pushing us as readers to reflect on a personal, aesthetic response to a nature not already conceived of as determined by instrumental cultural expectations (Robinson, 1996c, 212). Through Cherneshevsky’s experiences of the ‘real’ Martian landscape, an ecologically oriented perspective is woven into the dialogue of the text and stands out as one of its major ideological voices.
Cherneshevsky’s approach is indicative of general trends towards landscaping Mars. Hailwood focuses particular attention on what he calls ‘a kind of intellectual fragility involved with the difficulty of maintaining natural otherness in view: the ease with which it is overlooked in the cultural process of feeling at home and secure in a landscape’ (2004, 29). Earth’s view of Mars as a resource exemplifies a landscape that prefigures and justifies physical terraforming. Clayborne reflects that ‘[o]nly on Mars did they walk about in a horrendous mishmash of the dreams of the past, causing who knew what disastrous misapprehensions of the real terrain’ (Robinson, 1996b, 155). Such ‘disastrous misapprehensions’ disrespect nature’s otherness and demonstrate the failure to recognise the constructivism inherent in landscaping. Clayborne and Cherneshevsky are both aware that such cultural projections are ways in which continuity with the past is maintained. An awareness of intellectual landscaping processes allows Cherneshevsky to acknowledge that physical space is not solely constituted by anthropomorphic perspectives.
Franko argues that intersubjectivity is central to two of Robinson’s short stories (1994), ‘Exploring Fossil Canyon’ and ‘Green Mars,’ collected in the Mars trilogy’s companion volume The Martians (2000 ). They ‘explore the subjective processes that shape such debates [about nature’s value] and suggest that the most important moments of growth are those that involve a crisis in one’s perception of otherness, and that such crises open the way for the discovery of a social utopian impulse, one that responds to otherness, human and non-human’ (Franko, 1994, 199). (p.179) ‘Instrumental’ is a term from environmental philosophy that refers to the way in which we value nature, and it forms one of the dimensions of the concept of nature’s otherness. Hailwood argues that ‘the value conferred by nature’s otherness is best thought of as non-instrumental (independent nature is a “negative end” [a constraint] in virtue of its otherness), extrinsic and objective’ (2004, 13). Its value is located ‘extrinsically’ by virtue of the fact that it is other to humanity. Nature’s otherness also has objective value, and here Hailwood adopts Thomas Nagel’s conception of objectivity, which he describes as ‘a method of understanding from a detached perspective, formed by stepping back from an initial view to arrive at a new conception taking in the original and its relation to the world’ (52).
In this light, Bakhtin’s notion of transgredience, the practice of assuming an external perspective as a mode of consciousness, can be considered a form of objectivity in the sense that Nagel describes. Evaluating the self from the perspective of nature’s otherness offers an avenue for overcoming anthropocentrism and for developing new ethical relations with nature (Murphy, 2011, 156). Cherneshevsky’s cognitive shift is an example of this process of ‘stepping back’ and reconsidering one’s relationship to the environment. There are other implications involved with this conception of objectivity: Hailwood cites Nagel’s explanation that ‘“[t]he wider the range of subjective types to which a form of understanding is accessible – the less it depends on specific subjective capacities – the more objective it is,”’ but notes that, to avoid nihilism, ‘[n]ormative realism […] requires the retention of some relatively subjective element’ (2004, 52). Objectivity is therefore dependent upon the convergence of multiple subjectivities, yet this process exists in tension with individual subjective perspectives that allow individuals to evaluate and develop a range of new ethical relationships to nature and to regulate a potential regress towards nihilism.
The debate between the Reds and Greens is fundamental to the trilogy and is represented by the opposition between the geologist Clayborne and Russell, the physicist turned biotechnologist. In Red Mars they confront each other and establish their initial positions towards terraforming. Clayborne argues that ‘you’re going to wreck the historical record, destroy the polar caps, and the outflow channels, and the canyon bottoms – destroy a beautiful pure landscape, and for nothing at all’ (Robinson, 1996c, 212). While Clayborne’s emphasis on the physical fragility of natural features apparently supports an intrinsic view of nature’s otherness, her discussion of the geological ‘historical record’ and an aesthetic of beauty suggest that this is otherwise. Russell, on the other hand, argues that
(p.180) Changing it won’t destroy it. Reading its past might get harder, but the beauty of it won’t go away. If there are lakes, or forests, or glaciers, how does that diminish Mars’s beauty? I don’t think it does. I think it only enhances it. It adds life, the most beautiful system of all […] Mars will always remain Mars, different from Earth, colder and wilder.
(Robinson, 1996c, 213)
Russell places value on aesthetic aspects of the landscape, but for him only biotic processes – organisms and ecologies – have extrinsic aesthetic value. He recognises the presence of otherness as a component of nature on Mars and he distinguishes nature’s otherness from an alien nature’s otherness. Clayborne is dissatisfied with Russell’s more popular position but is unable to effectively articulate a response, demonstrating the difficulty involved in speaking for the rights of abiotic nature. She does, however, attempt such a defence:
I think you value consciousness too high, and rock too little. We are not lords of the universe. We’re one small part of it. We may be its consciousness, but being the consciousness of the universe does not mean turning it all into a mirror image of us. It means rather fitting into it as it is, and worshipping it with our attention. […] You’ve never even seen Mars.
(Robinson, 1996c, 213–14)
Clayborne advocates an attention to nature’s otherness that is almost religious, criticising the anthropocentric landscaping that follows from the view of humanity as ‘lords of the universe.’ She sees terraforming as imperial in its approach to nature when she completes Russell’s claim that ‘[d]eciding to go to Mars is like the first phrase of a sentence, and the whole sentence says—’ by saying ‘Veni, vidi, vinci’ (Robinson, 1996c, 56). This ‘sentence,’ the narrative of interplanetary colonisation that seems to demand resolution in familiar ways, is the political landscape that informs terraforming. This position is distinct from her earlier emphasis on aesthetic beauty and is intrinsic in the sense that the value of nature’s otherness is not dependent on its relationship to humankind. It is nevertheless extrinsic in that an appropriate response to the universe is one of paying attention and of ‘fitting into it as it is,’ which does depend on recognising it as other from humanity’s perspective. Clayborne’s view in this pivotal episode involves extrinsically valuing landscapes in the manner of Hailwood’s notion of nature’s otherness. Robinson’s Mars trilogy attempts to negotiate new relationships to a nature already intellectually landscaped with meaning.
This relation of extrinsic worth is confused, however, because Russell (p.181) refers to Clayborne’s position as advocating intrinsic worth, as when he thinks that ‘she believed in some kind of intrinsic worth for the mineral reality of Mars’ (Robinson, 1996b, 186). Russell fails to understand Clayborne’s arguments; Green Mars and Blue Mars are partly concerned with his decision to step back from and re-evaluate his initial position, partly to better understand Clayborne’s own perspective and partly to attempt to convince her that the terraforming project has its own kind of value. On a walking trip with Clayborne in Blue Mars he realises that ‘[o]ne had to let things speak for themselves. This was perhaps true of all phenomena. Nothing could be spoken for. One could only walk over the land, and let it speak for itself’ (Robinson, 1996a, 98). If, however, it is not possible to speak for the landscape, how do you convince those who disrespect nature’s otherness to maintain a green (or rather red) perspective if not by relating its value in some way to humanity? Accepting nature’s otherness as an extrinsic value is one way in which characters begin to recognise existences external to humanity. Clayborne’s advocacy and, eventually, Russell’s focus on viewing the landscape open up other textual spaces where appropriate responses to the environment are explored.
The Red/Green positions splinter into a variety of mediations between these two extremes, and Russell comes to question his initial orientation. Setting the narrative on the red planet allows the ideological connotations of ‘green’ as a label for environmental consciousness to be inverted, with it coming to represent the interests of an unreflecting and destructive process. That these values have led Earth to its current environmental and political crisis allows us to question further our notions of an acceptable interplanetary environmental consciousness. These values also lead us to consider the symbolic value of terraforming and to explore the implication that terraforming leads to a mirroring of the socio-political dynamics on Earth. Space is thus politicised as groups struggle to define the meaning of Mars and their relationship to it.
Clayborne and Russell exemplify the way in which language is used to speak for the Martian landscape from perspectives that view it as a site of traditional symbolic value and from contesting positions, contributing to the definition of textual spaces for the confrontation and interaction of different discourses. Russell views Mars as lifeless and therefore ripe for the seeding of life, a traditional sf theme. Clayborne sees terraforming in terms resonating with the American pastoral, with the Martian landscape occupying the role of pristine wilderness. These values are represented synchronically, as spaces that are placed in juxtaposition to each other: Clayborne and Russell embody contesting views towards the Martian landscape, while Chalmers (p.182) considers it a space in which to manoeuvre for political dominance. However, through the diachronic structure of a text (narration and character dialogue), these and other positions come into contact with one another to allow an implied audience to consider and question the value systems represented. Different characters may express contesting positions towards a particular landscape that can be read against the implied authorial voice. As Russell’s reassessment of his initial position shows, characters may be exposed to different ideological worlds in their attempt to reconcile the discourses that these landscapes are made to represent. Confrontations with nature’s otherness deterritorialise and thus allow characters to step back, enabling them to develop alternative ways of valuing their environment.
Visions Reflected Back to Earth
While visiting the Alps Nirgal experiences the realisation that ‘Earth was so vast that in its variety it had regions that even out-Marsed Mars itself – that among all the ways that it was greater, it was greater even at being Martian’ (Robinson, 1996a, 201). This impression is generated by the similarities and differences of climate between the Alps and a terraformed Mars, one in which Nirgal, as one of the first children born on Mars, feels at home in. Antarctica, as we learn in the opening of Red Mars, is also ‘a landscape that was almost as cold and harsh as Mars itself,’ which explains why it functions as the selection and training site for the First Hundred prior to their journey to Mars (Robinson, 1996c, 41). What this relation highlights is the presence of nature’s otherness in all landscapes. Even on Earth, where many spaces are significantly modified by physical and psychological cultural adaptations, an element of this otherness remains, reminding the reader that human ends and values do not exist in isolation from the natural world. Nirgal is Martian and so Earth for him represents an alien planet; this perspective offers the reader an opportunity to engage in Nagel’s process of stepping back and reassessing their subjective view of nature’s otherness in the familiar landscapes of Earth.
The Mars trilogy argues that a reliance on technological fixes as an answer to societal conflict is inadequate. Championed by the Russian Arkady Bogdanov and the American John Boone, a break with history becomes one of the driving goals of the more politically minded on Mars. They believe that the social patterns on Earth are responsible for many of the ills that humanity faces and that nothing but a complete overhaul will do: a discarding of those that are unhelpful and (p.183) destructive and a retaining of those that speak for cultural pluralism and a new Martian identity that offers the colonists a global identity distinct from Earth. Boone, after many discussions with Bogdanov, advocates ‘a new Martian way, a new Martian philosophy, economics, religion!’ (Robinson, 1996c, 410). This call for a new outlook alludes to Isaac Asimov’s short story ‘The Martian Way’ (1974 ), and is one of the central ideas of sf narratives of terraforming. This theme takes its place in an ongoing debate that addresses issues of economic and socio-political independence on Earth. This economic independence is linked to a Martian perspective where local forms of community, along with the appropriate forms of cultural and economic interchange between communities, are emphasised in contrast to Earth’s socio-political schisms, themselves caused by individualistic and nationalistic perspectives towards resources and land use. Terraforming literalises metaphors for the creation of discursive spaces to explore new forms of local and global connectedness and identity that stand as alternatives to destructive social formations on Earth. The intersections between texts and between generic categories such as sf, utopia and the pastoral are heteroglossic and engage with the sf megatext and with contemporary discourses of environmental philosophy and geopolitics.
That the initial colonising outpost is built near resources deposited from Earth, including a full range of technologies built by Boeing, Rolls Royce and other companies, indicates that the outpost itself and the terraforming effort that it supports are driven by the commercial interests of the most powerful of Earth’s transnationals, a political fact that some of the First Hundred, unlike Bogdanov, would prefer to ignore: ‘it all comes back, and we have a return of ownership, and prices, and wages. The little scientific station is being turned into a mine, with the usual mining attitude toward the land over the treasure’ (Robinson, 1996c, 403). This draws on the sf megatextual trope of technological sophistication, but associates these technologies with familiar companies, implying one of the uncanny oscillations of the subjunctivity of sf, which Samuel R. Delany claims is ‘blanketly defined by: have not happened’ – an unspoken ‘yet’ may linger at the end of that sentence (1977, 44).
The chronotope of the scientific station, associated with exploration and the scientific utopia, is shifted to that of the mine, an industrial, capitalist image. Driving these economic interests is the application of advanced technology as a means of securing the resources to relieve scarcity on Earth, thus allowing Earth’s governments to cope with the growing ecological crisis. The historical application of increasingly advanced technology has enabled Earth’s population to boom, resulting (p.184) in a depletion of natural resources and an amplification of the growing crisis. The Martian discovery of a treatment that can significantly prolong human lifespans further emphasises this dynamic. Some predict that this will increase the transnationals’ drive for economic security for two reasons: because it will exacerbate the already problematic division between the rich and poor, and because it will increase overpopulation on Earth: ‘if this damned treatment only goes to the rich, then the poor will revolt and it’ll all explode – but if the treatment goes to everyone, then populations will soar and it’ll all explode’ (Robinson, 1996c, 415). Mars is seen only as a space for the resolution of Earth’s ecopolitical problems. The view of the scientific station and of Mars as a mine represents the transnationals’ attempt to impose an identity based solely on utilitarianism onto the Martian landscape and its community. Because these transnationals see Mars only as a source for the extraction of resources, and because they view this as the scientist’s only role, their priorities for the physical adaptation of the landscape reflect an attempt to turn the planet into a mine. The scientific community on Mars is considered only in utilitarian terms, not as a community whose lived experience on the planet might legitimate alternative interpretations of the landscape.
The urge to make a break from the trajectory of reified ideology is mirrored by the narrative’s discontinuity in time. Beginning in 2026, this near-future narrative compresses the traditional gap between the time Red Mars was published (1992) and the far-future setting of much sf dealing with the colonisation of the solar system. Such far-future narratives imply significant changes to socio-political structures and technology, as Sargent’s Venus trilogy illustrates. The Mars trilogy begins by retaining many of the structures that are now familiar and calls them into question as the narrative progresses. It also adds further weight to the notion that the series of crises faced on Earth oscillates between Delany’s categories of sf subjunctivity, ‘have not happened’ and ‘have not happened yet,’ but may soon (1977, 44). The solution demonstrated by the text’s emphasis on social relationships in a new experimental space asserts that it is not by focusing on adapting the landscape but by landscaping the self, by metaphorically terraforming the individual and social aspects of a community, that the best hope for effective change is to be realised. This is wrapped up with the Martian landscape: a phrase that appears throughout the trilogy, ‘[s]o we terraform the planet; but the planet areoforms us,’ demonstrates that Mars has a corresponding effect on the identity of its inhabitants and suggests that there is an influence exerted on this sense of planet from an alien nature’s radical otherness (Robinson, 1996c, 301).
(p.185) Sf taps into a range of generic forms and discourses and reconfigures them through its own language in order to provide textual spaces for examining human relationships to the landscape. As shown in the foregoing discussion, this is achieved by adapting the pastoral and utopian form in conjunction with portraying debate between positions to consider questions of land use and responsibility towards the land. These alternative perspectives arise from differences in physical space, from the contrast between the planetary spaces of Earth and Mars and the meaning invested in them. Local, global and interplanetary space is constituted by ecologies of landscapes embodying multiple ideological positions. In this way the concept of the chronotope, as a unit for the analysis of texts, is joined to Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism, which is especially important as it is the principle by which the megatext operates. Dialogism and the chronotope interact to define the structure of a text; parts interrelate to take on additional layers of meaning, and changes to one dimension impact upon others. In the glossary of The Dialogic Imagination dialogism is described as ‘the characteristic epistemological mode of a world dominated by heteroglossia’: ‘[e]verything means, is understood, as a part of a greater whole – there is a constant interaction between meanings, all of which have the potential of conditioning others. Which will affect the other, how it will do so and in what degree is what is actually settled at the moment of utterance’ (Bakhtin, 2002, 426). The Red/Green debate and the view of technology as the solution to ecological problems on Earth are specific examples of voices that work to condition each other. Linked to the internal ecology of a text is an external one where individual works exist in dialogue with others, thus contributing additional layers of meaning to the text’s themes and images.
Closed Life-Support Systems, Soil, and Cybernetics
Biospheres are materially closed systems that are energetically open to the influx from the sun. They are microcosms of larger ecological systems on Earth and are intended to function as models for the Earth as a global system. Martyn J. Fogg draws comparisons between contained biospheres such as Arizona’s Biosphere 2 and the uncontained biosphere of Earth, arguing that the ultimate aim of terraforming would be to create a self-sustaining uncontained biosphere on another planet (1995). These uncontained biospheres rely on the physical cycling of elements within a closed system, such as hydrological cycles, various biotic cycles and nutrient cycling through several processes. In Red Mars, the scientific team (p.186) responsible for agricultural work tinker ‘endless[ly with the] project of maximizing the closure of their biological life support system,’ the success of which is measured against a formula, K = I − e/E. The formula itself, closure equals Hiroko’s constant minus the rate of incomplete closure divided by the rate of consumption in the system, expresses the simplicity of the closed cycle, the ideal of which would be K = I − 1, or closure equals Hiroko’s constant minus 1. Since Hiroko’s constant is a fictional term, this equation is important not for its scientific veracity but as an ideal with powerful metaphorical implications for the Martian colonists. The ideal goal is acknowledged to be ‘unreachable, but asymptotically approaching it was the farm biologists’ favorite game, and more than that, critical to their eventual existence on Mars’ (Robinson, 1996c, 85).
Physical life-support systems connect with others in relationships whose complexity is compounded by cultural elements that occupy multiple dimensions within a system of subsystems, all of which are open. Since constituents of life-support systems include cultural aspects, and as no system can obtain complete closure – Earth is energetically open to sunlight and radiation from the solar system and leaks gases into space – physical and cultural systems retain a capacity for externally influenced transformation. Incomplete closure in this context is tied to utopian thought, which Robinson redefines as a process involving continual change and not a static blueprint. Robinson reflects that ‘Joanna Russ talks about changing the term from Utopia to Optopia, meaning “the optimum possible” – a continuous, dynamic process. Even HG Wells in his Utopian writing would often talk about this kinetic process rather than reaching any kind of stasis’ (see Cooke, 1995). This formulation chimes with one aspect of Rasula’s discussion of the compost library, which resists closure and continually re-activates Palaeolithic lore and historical voices in new contexts (2002). The propensity for the sf parabola to offer a binocular vision that ‘allows us to view stories from two perspectives at once, as both literal description and metaphor,’ likewise resists closure through its vacillation between modes of meaning (Attebery and Hollinger, 2013, ix). Before further developing this connection between the terraforming motif and the compost library, it is necessary to consider the implications of the motif of compost and soil as it figures in Robinson’s terraforming trilogy.
The biotic modification of Mars, otherwise known as ecopoiesis, borrows from the insights of Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, specifically the notion that organisms and their environment are involved in feedback systems that regulate the environmental parameters of a planet. This feedback system, understood as the institution of a life-support system, must be managed on Mars. ‘[N]ew life fed on the compost of their ancestors, (p.187) and reproduced again. Lived and died; and the soil and air left behind were different than they were before these millions of brief generations’ (Robinson, 1996c, 245). Life is involved in a bootstrapping process in which organisms rely on the compost of their ancestors in order to thrive and so change their environment. This image possesses a metaphorical parallelism when ‘life’ is extended to include the colonists themselves, whose own ability to modify Mars builds upon the ‘compost’ of their own ancestors. Bardini defines computer pioneer Douglas Englebart’s use of the term ‘bootstrapping’ as ‘an iterative and coadaptive learning experience,’ a notion that grows out of Norbert Wiener’s influential theorisation of cybernetics (2000, 24). In Junkware, Bardini undertakes a (bio)semiotic examination of junk DNA in terms of ‘an inquiry into the cybernetic metaphor applied to the understanding of life, its modes of reference, and the question of “genetic insignificance”’ (2011, 21). ‘Junkware,’ Bardini explains, ‘is the name I chose to give this ordeal, turning the modern industrial and postindustrial excretions into a new sense of what being human can mean, now’ (24). This aim resonates with that of the sf parabola, which builds on icons that are exapted in ways that vacillate between literal and metaphorical signification without offering definitive resolution.
Lovelock’s view of Earth as a Gaian system builds on cybernetics and exploits the potential for analogies to be drawn between domains implicit in systems theory and its probabilistic approach to processes shared by a variety of structures. Rasula explores the metaphor of compost as a figure for a geographically bounded intertextuality exemplified by American poetry of the Black Mountain school, which he notes ‘was historically congruent with, and sometimes affiliated with, the interdisciplinary matrix gathered around what Norbert Wiener named “cybernetics”’ (2002, 3–4). Such intertextuality hinges on what he calls the biodegradable, transformative potential of language, and specifically of the trope:
In the tropics of American poetry, trope is the composting engine, a fundamental dislocation, forge or furnace of a different locus: the unpropertied space germane to language. Not the mysticism of another world, but another economy (another oikos or household) of language-in-production, words in emanation, not nation. A tropical poetry is an agency of partial bodies, effluvia, surplus meaning: partial to polysemy, many-seeding.
(Rasula, 2002, 124)
A focus on language is fundamental to Wiener’s conception of cybernetics, concerned as it is with both communication and control acting on a (p.188) system’s capability to generate feedback and so achieve homoeostasis. Wiener explains that ‘[i]n control and communication we are always fighting nature’s tendency to degrade the organized and to destroy the meaningful; the tendency, as Gibbs has shown us, for entropy to increase’ (1988, 17). Rasula’s description of another ‘economy […] of language-in-production,’ of a ‘tropical poetry […] partial to polysemy’ and imbued with a transformative potential associated with its locus as an unfamiliar or alien space, can be brought to bear upon Robinson’s treatment of the habitation of an alien planet and the development of living practices that are tied to place (2002, 124). The Mars trilogy narrates a colony’s struggle to bootstrap and develop complexity in variety and structure as it terraforms and learns to inhabit the planet. The trajectory of this bootstrapping process is structured like an sf parabola, as a movement towards the unknown and as an ecological parable. The sf trope, the motif of terraforming, is itself a composting engine in which a variety of domains of knowledge collide and are transformed.
Scientific discourse is applied to narrative considerations of soil, which sustains important nutrient cycles that determine the potential and the character of the organisms that are able to take root on Mars. ‘[D] ifferent soils encouraged or discouraged each cycle to different degrees’ (Robinson, 1996a, 340); understanding the ways in which micronutrients like ‘iron, manganese, zinc, copper, molybdenum, boron, and chlorine’ work, along with macronutrients such as ‘carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, potassium, calcium, and magnesium,’ becomes essential for the terraforming effort (339). Given the complexity of soil composition, the polyphonic range of soil types and the geologic span of time that it takes for organisms to create soil, the terraformers realise ‘[t]hey were going to have to construct soil just like they had the magnesium bars’ (Robinson, 1996c, 140). Despite the sophisticated technologies that they have at their disposal – space elevators, solettas (giant mirrors in orbit that reflect sunlight to the surface) and the like – ‘manufacturing soil was one of the most difficult technical feats they had ever undertaken’ (Robinson, 1996a, 338). Much of the narrative shifts towards issues of compost, agriculture and gardening, thus allowing a focus on landscape to dominate the text. The compost/soil motif is one of the core images of the Mars trilogy; it is redefined as polyphonic in terms of its vast range of types, which in turn support a range of different organisms and, with regard to the colonists, a multiplicity of lifestyles. It is both a literal life-support system for the colonists and a model that functions as a parable for productive cultural and political variation and diversity.
Speaking of his alliance with a formulation of scientific socialism that rejects nineteenth-century scientism, Robinson claims that
the ‘scientific’ returns as a way of talking about providing some kind of ecological basis to economy. That way, economy is not just the astrology of the ruling class but actually a way of calculating true costs and benefits in a way that could be agreed on and quantified, and therefore making clear what we are really doing – whether it is sustainable or not over the long haul.
(See Buhle, 2002, 89)
It is this dislocation and movement towards another economy, one of creation rather than depletion, that underlies Boone’s call for seeing the terraformation and habitation of Mars in terms of an eco-economic system in a speech he delivers to his fellow colonists in Red Mars:
‘Look,’ he said, ‘here we are on Mars!’ (Laughter) ‘That’s our gift and a great gift it is, the reason we have to keep giving all our lives to keep the cycle going, it’s like in eco-economics where what you take from the system has to be balanced by what you give in to it, balanced or exceeded to create that anti-entropic surge which characterizes all creative life and especially this step across to a new world, this place that is neither nature nor culture, transformation of a planet into a world and then a home.[’]
(Robinson, 1996c, 443)
A revolution for independence from Earth becomes the main narrative trajectory of the trilogy, and eco-economics becomes the basis from which this revolution is conducted, ‘a change in practice’ from revolution conceptualised as war (Robinson, 1996b, 451). As its creators Vlad Taneev and Marina Tokareva explain, eco-economics involves consideration of issues of carrying capacity, co-existence, counter-adaptation, legitimacy mechanisms and ecologic efficiency, among other ecologically oriented issues, along with the recognition of the co-existence of cultural and natural domains: the practice of economics on Earth is described as a ‘deformed offshoot’ of ecology (Robinson, 1996c, 351). It is a ‘synthesis of systems’ ‘based [as Vlad explains] on models from Terran history, and its various parts have all been tested on both worlds, and have succeeded very well’ (Robinson, 1996a, 148). Many of these economic systems have been exapted from real-world systems currently practised on Earth. The microeconomics of eco-economics is borrowed from the ‘Mondragon region of Spain[, while the] different parts of (p.190) the macroeconomy have been used in the pseudo-metanat Praxis [(a fictional corporation)], in Switzerland, in India’s state of Kerala, in Bhutan, in Bologna Italy, and in many other places, including the Martian underground itself’ (148). Eco-economics is supplemented by a barter and gift system, the former of which is based on a ‘hydrogen peroxide economy, where things are priced by calculations of their caloric value,’ the latter ‘a nitrogen standard’ covering ‘two planes, the need and the gift’ (Robinson, 1996b, 463).
This system ties the economic practices of the Martian government directly to the life-support system of the planet. They are slowly pieced together from a variety of economic systems from Earth in a manner that resonates with Rasula’s notion of ‘wreading,’ ‘the collaborative momentum initiated by certain texts, like the Maximus Poems, in which the reader is enlisted as an agent of the writing,’ or a ‘nosing into the compost library’ (2002, 11, 18). Vlad and Marina explore the compost library of economic systems, carefully selecting examples for exaptation into a new Martian economy that brings the ecological aspects of human dependency on nature to the fore. Others are also involved in developing and testing components of this system in a dialogic process that leaves the act of creation open. To Boone eco-economics sounds like ‘echo economics,’ an ambiguity that emphasises the exaptation of practices from Earth’s compost library: echoes of Terran history and storytelling that are given new life in an alien ecological system (Robinson, 1996c, 351).
There is a danger that using the Martian landscape as a space to compile a new culture from Earth’s compost library will overwhelm Mars’s alien otherness and undermine its own status as an independent and autonomous nature. Clayborne warns that the result of terraforming will be that ‘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’ (Robinson, 1996c, 190). In this allusion to the final story of The Martian Chronicles – in which a family identifies themselves as Martian after seeing their reflections in a stream (Bradbury, 1958, 222) – Robinson highlights how the failure to recognise Mars’s otherness results in an alienating emptiness that undermines the possibility of reaching an identifying engagement with the land. In contrast, Clayborne sees the planet as a space with its own meaning: ‘[t]o see the landscape in its history, to read it like a text, written by its own long past; that was Ann’s vision, achieved by a century’s close observation and study, and by her own native gift, her love for it’ (Robinson, 1996a, 98). Its geologic and climatic processes, while not part of a life-support system of its own, leave traces of a ‘voice’ that (p.191) can be read with the appropriate scientific knowledge. The Martian landscape has another history, ‘the history of Mars in the human mind,’ or the Martian megatext, that compost library constructed in part by science and sf and in part by older forms of knowledge about Mars (Robinson, 1996c, 13). The Martian landscape is a palimpsest written upon by physical and intellectual landscaping processes; alternatively, it is, from the perspective of some colonists, a tabula rasa without a history, a landscape of ‘immense potential [… a] blank red slate’ (108). The struggle over Mars’s meaning is the main issue at stake in the Mars trilogy, and it subsumes the narrative of revolution that constitutes much of its political engagement.
Nirgal, one of the first generation of Mars-born colonists, gives a speech on the occasion of his visit to Earth in which he suggests that ‘Mars is a mirror […] in which Terra sees its own essence.’ Characterising Mars as an expression of ‘Terran thought and Terran genes,’ Nirgal sees the purifying voyage to the planet as an opportunity for the colonists to ‘help the home planet by serving as a way for you to see yourselves. As a way to map out an unimaginable immensity’ (Robinson, 1996a, 178). Mars offers a space in which a new composting library of practices and institutions can be explored, ideas that have been developed through the colonists’ various relationships to Mars. Their physical relationship to the new planet prompts the development of new socio-economic relationships and new philosophies to meet the requirements of habitation. ‘As people learn more, [says Nirgal] they understand better their dependence on each other and on their world. On Mars we have seen that the best way to express this interdependence is to live for giving, in a culture of compassion’ (178). This view works as a counter to the interests of Earth, whose own politico-economic structures, dominant on Mars throughout the narrative of Green Mars, are overthrown to make way for the sifting and exaptation that goes into creating a new human relationship to the planet during Blue Mars.
Thomas J. Morrissey accounts for the relationship between Mars and Earth in many of the stories of the Martian megatext as one in which they are ‘bound like jealous siblings or inconstant lovers, alternately brought together or torn asunder by intelligent but often conflicting visions, often expressed in metaphor’ (2000, 372). Earth’s ecological failures form a background and foil for economic developments on Mars, and in the Mars trilogy eco-economics offers a challenge to Earth’s own economic systems. Earth’s practices are described as a ‘cycle of madness,’ a life-support system that is detrimental to continued habitation (Robinson, 1996b, 637). One character says of Earth that ‘[w]e have been liquidating our natural capital as if it were disposable (p.192) income, and are nearing depletion of certain capital stocks, like oil, wood, soil, metals, fresh water, fish, and animals. This makes continued economic expansion difficult’ (100–01). That many of the multinationals who invest in Mars intend for the planet to become a field for further capitalist expansion, given the dwindling capital and field for growth on Earth, is testified to by their movement of corporate security forces onto the planet and their aggressive and intrusive interference in the lives of the workforce that they ship to Mars. Earth’s governments see the red planet as a site for the relief of the population surplus and as an answer to ecological crisis and conflict on Earth. One character notes that ‘carrying capacity was a very fuzzy abstract concept, depending on an entire recombinant host of complexities such as soil biochemistry, ecology, human culture’ (Robinson, 1996a, 346). Carrying capacity is thus an ecological principle that illustrates the interdependency of physical and cultural parameters in determining the appropriate level of strain that a life-support system can bear. Earth and the multinationals push for increased immigration quotas in order to solve the problem of overpopulation and to create a new market for economic expansion on Mars. Morrissey summarises these values and practices as part of what he calls a ‘Dominant Social Paradigm’, which received widespread representation in the stories of the Martian megatext prior to the late 1980s–1990s, after which many texts move towards what he characterises as the ‘New Environmental Paradigm,’ of which Robinson’s own Mars trilogy is exemplary (2000, 386).
Against this background, the Martian revolution aims to establish new expectations for habitation and economic practice based on scientific, ecological principles: ‘[s]cience is creation,’ argues Sax (Robinson, 1996c, 213). As the narrator notes, ‘[m]etanational capitalism’s track record at this point did little to support it; in the last century it had precipitated a massive war, chewed up the Earth, and torn its societies apart. Why should they not try something new, given that record?’ (Robinson, 1996a, 148). Examples of this movement away from the economic systems of the past include the pseudo-metanational corporation Praxis. This corporation aims to develop new possibilities for economic relationships on Earth, and it allies itself to the Martian revolutionaries in order to learn from the social experiments taking place there during and after the revolution.
Praxis establishes new industries on Mars that engage in ecologically oriented industrial practices: a local Praxis salvage subsidiary fittingly named Ouroboros provides an example of an economic endeavour tuned to the necessities of maintaining a life-support system on Mars: ‘there was not a large garbage output on Mars; almost everything was (p.193) recycled or put to use in creating agricultural soil, so each settlement’s dump was really more of a holding facility for miscellaneous materials, awaiting their particular reuse’ (Robinson, 1996b, 131). Ouroboros ‘transforms waste into resource’ through ‘green’ nanotechnology, which Colin Milburn argues is ‘the symbol of corporate domination’ and which, in this example, ‘is remade and remobilized as “power from below”’ (2012, 73). This mobilisation of power can thus be seen as a metaphorical exaptation. Milburn argues that ‘Robinson shows us that science fiction is itself an instrument of environmental nanopolitics, a molecular technology for terraforming our world and ourselves’ (57). Terraforming and the mythic image of Ouroboros offer metaphors for an sf composting library that, through the exaptation of elements that establish a New Environmental Paradigm, is oriented towards a future that seeks to distribute political power.
Morrissey notes that Robinson’s Mars trilogy is engaged in a ‘search for a vision that can sustain us in the future’ (2000, 386). Mars, as Nirgal suggests, cannot save Earth by functioning as a safety valve for immigrants wishing to escape from the Dominant Social Paradigm of Earth, but it can function as a way to revitalise Earth’s socio-economic and political institutions through the developments generated by the Martian compost library. The two planets have always been connected, despite the claims of some of the hardliners amongst the revolutionaries. There are two dimensions to the challenge of this reconnection: the relationship between Earth and Mars must be redefined, as Nirgal attempts to do, and the Red/Green debate on Mars must be resolved. This debate pivots on the disagreement over terraforming, with Reds supporting a preservationist stance towards Mars’s natural otherness and Greens emphasising the transformative potential that life offers to the colonists. The narrative moves towards a synthesis between opposed positions as much as it attempts to resolve the conflict between Mars and Earth. Sax, initially the strongest proponent of a heavy industrial terraforming model, finds that his preferences for the Martian planet are transforming as he discovers Mars’s own voice expressing itself through the new life being introduced to its surface: ‘[f]arther on lay some tangles, red-stalked, greenneedled, like beached seaweed in miniature. Again that intermixture of red and green, right there in nature staring at him’ (Robinson, 1996a, 67). As Earth’s compost library is sifted through by the colonists, the Martian landscape offers metaphors for a synthesis between opposed positions, offering a symbolic point of reconnection between the compost libraries of the two planets.
As the trilogy progresses these themes are argued over and considered from an increasing number of different perspectives and contexts. (p.194) The Mars trilogy foregrounds the structural relationship between the chronotopes of Earth and Mars, underscoring a postcolonial dimension to terraforming other planets, aspects of which have already been discussed in terms of national and global identity and familiar and unfamiliar spaces. Edward Said explains that ‘there is no doubt that imaginative geography and history help the mind to intensify its own sense of itself by dramatizing the distance and difference between what is close to it and what is far away’ (2003, 55). The vacuum of space, a chronotope symbolising a purifying transformation, signifies the radical distance between the two planets and serves as one of several estranging devices. This distance, and the imaginative geography already associated with Mars, establishes it as a field for the exploration of and experimentation in alternative social and individual identities that allow Earth’s population to see distorted reflections of themselves modified by influences from the alien landscape, but only if it is not landscaped solely in terms of the chronotope of the interplanetary mine.
When applied to sf worlds, Said’s notion of Orientalism sheds light on Clayborne’s resistance to the terraforming of Mars, which is geared to recreating the self, symbolised by Earth’s landscape, on another planet. Clayborne’s and Cherneshevsky’s response to the wilderness of the Martian landscape is an affective response to nature’s otherness, a non-human identity that remains outside of the familiar bounded spaces of the colonising outposts. Terraforming reduces these spaces to a partial identity through the growth of an ecological system imported from Earth: an ecological imperialism. This identity is partial because such imports must be adapted to the alien environment and because unadapted imports are subject to the evolutionary influence of these alien spaces. The social aspect of settling other planets and the ecologically focused terraforming project are not simply two material necessities to ensure survival on Mars, but attempts to reduce Mars’s otherness to an identity. This notion is encapsulated by the phrase ‘terraforming’ itself: the colonists attempt to change the Martian landscape, which is other from the point of view of Earth’s population, into another Earth.
Nirgal’s description of Mars ‘[a]s a way to map out an unimaginable immensity’ elides the trilogy’s concern with the notion that the Martian landscape exists independently of Earth’s interests (Robinson, 1996a, 178). Nevertheless, he points to the importance of landscape as ‘hero’ or ‘character’ in sf, mobilising language that taps into sf’s sense of wonder, a character’s and (potentially) a reader’s response to a conceptual breakthrough, a shift in the conceptual paradigms framing views of the world. Mars’s function as a way to map the future is one such (p.195) conceptual shift that connects Earth and Mars. The trilogy explores an imagined future to address human-centred concerns that cannot be predicted from our present vantage.
Said discusses the example of ‘Bouvard’s vision of Europe regenerated by Asia,’ which ‘represents what Flaubert felt to be the nineteenth-century predilection for the rebuilding of the world according to an imaginative vision, sometimes accompanied by a special scientific technique’ (2003, 114). He notes that ‘[k]nowledge of the Orient, because generated out of strength, in a sense creates the Orient, the Oriental, and his world’ (40). In this sense the reconstructed other is an identity, the result of projection that excludes the other from opportunities to define itself. Nature has no obvious voice and so is at greater risk of being spoken for and its otherness being elided. Denial of otherness provides foundations for the repetition of the historical influences that Bogdanov advocates against in breaking away from history. This apparent mirror is mediated by the effects of the Martian environment on the colonists, who do respond to the otherness of Mars and adapt their culture to account for new forms of local and global belonging. Through the synthesis of self and other Nirgal offers Earth an opportunity to regenerate itself in a manner that resonates with Said’s examination of Bouvard’s (sometimes scientific) utopian vision.
The Mars trilogy constructs textual spaces populated by competing ideological positions. The language of sf – its use of megatextual images such as chronotopes – maps dialogues between positions for examination and interrogation. The spaces of Mars and Earth, and the colonising outposts and mining facilities, take part in a heteroglossic dialogue in which different voices are placed in relation to each other to create a polyphonic whole that offers an examination of societies in relation to their environment. The Mars trilogy shows how the meaning of these chronotopes is contested. The Martian landscape is spoken for from the position of transnationals, Greens engaging with the terraforming process, and Reds agitating for the preservation of Mars as wilderness. These debates embody the process of world-building on the social level, where a new Martian identity, distinct from Earth, arises from the interstices of debate and from the Martian landscape’s influence. This world-building engages with eco-cosmopolitan concerns and is linked to utopia and dystopia, two alternative paths down which the development of the new society could lead.
Science offers sf a series of discourses that terraforming stories adopt and adapt to inform literary constructions of alien landscapes. The initial motivation to transform alien planets into new Earths puts into play contesting interpretations of ideal relationships to the environment. Scientific discourse dominates these ‘discussions,’ accruing metaphorical implications (often socio-political) and offering alternative perspectives on the environment that variously undercut or contribute to other modes of understanding. Robinson connects science to socialism, distinguishing it from nineteenth-century scientism by explaining that ‘the “scientific” returns as a way of talking about providing some kind of ecological basis to economy […] Another way it returns is to regard science itself as a utopian project and as a form of human interaction’ (see Buhle, 2002, 89). Through the course of such narratives, as colonists struggle to re-territorialise their new environments, the feedback between science and non-scientific knowledge generates alternative conceptions of the nature and import of alien spaces, forcing us to rethink the concept of nature and of human relationships within these environments.
Because of his early efforts as head of the terraforming project in pioneering a heavy industrial terraforming model, Russell is closely aligned with the values linked to applied science as an expression of colonial ideological value. He initially behaves like a caricature of the scientist figure who prefers to separate politics and science. Speaking of instances in which, as with the cell–culture metaphor in Sargent’s trilogy, nature is used to account for social relations, Russell argues, ‘I don’t think it helps to make analogies between the physical and social worlds’ (Robinson, 1996c, 646). Russell’s fundamental disagreement with Clayborne over the future of Mars centres around Russell’s failure, in Clayborne’s view, to ‘see’ the landscape: his early perception is mediated by a range of scientific apparatus and audio-visual technologies, and he defines Mars’s value in terms of its value to the terraforming project. Clayborne’s view is informed by her scientific awareness of ‘deep’ geological time and by her experience of the landscape. This opposition reflects Rolston’s participatory versus objective view of the environment, with Clayborne’s preferred method of relating to Mars involving long periods of physical exploration of, participation with and perception of Mars. Yet her experience is combined with a scientific view that shapes her awareness of global processes. Just as science can, as Rolston argues, lead to a better appreciation of the environment, something more may be needed, perhaps something ‘[t]hat may go beyond science, but [which] must go through science to go beyond’ (1995, 375).
(p.197) The problem of developing a sense of place that includes an aesthetic appreciation of the environment is a perceptual issue, and science remains a powerful tool for developing these perspectives. This is joined to a political problem, one of persuading others to view the landscape in like manner. In Red Mars, Clayborne reflects that her inability to understand Russell and vice versa is due to ‘[v]alue systems based on entirely different assumptions. Completely different kinds of science’ (Robinson, 1996c, 649). As Russell struggles to understand and reconcile his longstanding disagreement with Clayborne in Green Mars, he suggests that their difference centres on ‘the fact-value problem. Science concerns itself with facts, and with theories that turn facts into examples. Values are another kind of system, a human construct’ (Robinson, 1996b, 185). Despite the problems Clayborne raises in response, that science is also a human construct and that it too has values embedded within its scientific method, Russell insists that terraforming as applied science involves a choice of how to utilise the insights gained from science, and so is a value problem, whereas science and the scientific method itself are concerned only with facts.
By Blue Mars Russell modifies this view to articulate a vision of science as utopian and objective, ‘a social construct, but […] also and most importantly its own space, conforming to reality only; that was its beauty’ (Robinson, 1996a, 677). He describes how science is built on a method that privileges dialogue and adaptation, arguing that ‘[i]n truth the work of science was a communal thing, extending back even beyond the birth of modern science, back all the way into prehistory, as Michel had insisted; a constant struggle to understand’ (676). Russell remains convinced that the communal practice of scientific enquiry in this general sense is the source of as much of the value of science as the facts and theories that it generates. He experiences an epiphany during a moment when he ‘steps back’ to reflect on the practice of a ‘Martian’ science that indexes the growth of a new global sense of belonging to the alien planet:
something inside him would glow till it hurt, some parasympathetic reaction spilling out of his limbic system – now this was science, by God, this was Martian science, in the hands of the scientists themselves, working together for some collective goal that made sense, that was for the common good; pushing at the edge of what they knew, theory and experiment bouncing back and forth like a blur of Ping-Pong balls, week after week finding out more, going after more, extending the great invisible parthenon right out into the uncharted territory of the human mind, into life itself. It made (p.198) him so happy that he almost didn’t care if they ever figured things out; the search was all.
(Robinson, 1996a, 702)
This Baconian image of the utopian impulse in science relocates the focus of the scientific utopia from the construction of societal blueprints to one emphasising a dialogic process whereby scientific engagement with the natural world ramifies through social worlds. This view of the practice of science as a communal activity accords importance to the means by which knowledge of the natural world is generated. The Mars trilogy scrutinises the structure of the scientific enclave and its communal goal, which, taken as a model, raises the question of its connection to the wider political sphere. In Red Mars, Bogdanov tells Boone that ‘a scientific research station is actually a little model of prehistoric utopia, carved out of the transnational money economy by clever primates who want to live well,’ and that their unwillingness to tackle the problem of ‘work[ing] to create such conditions for everyone’ compromises its status as a genuine utopia (Robinson, 1996c, 402, 403).
Russell’s outlook towards science changes in response to social upheaval. As the head of the terraforming project and in his role as one of the mythic ‘generals’ of the Martian revolution for independence from Earth, Russell is positioned at the forefront of a political struggle for defining Mars, forcing him to grapple with the problem of the fact–value interface, of working to establish a foundation for the practice of science, and of developing a genuinely communal decision-making process. Suffering from aphasia after capture and torture in Green Mars, Russell slowly recovers his linguistic ability alongside a new awareness of social interchange. He begins to consider the importance of other modes of understanding in Blue Mars: ‘[s]ymbolic value: it was a concept Sax was trying very hard to understand. […] symbol, “something that stands for something else,” from the Latin symbolum, adopted from a Greek word meaning “throw together.” Exactly. It was alien to his understanding, this throwing together, a thing emotional and even unreal, and yet vitally important’ (Robinson, 1996a, 47). Russell’s reflection on meaning takes him into the figurative realm and leads him to combine his understanding of science with this notion of symbolic meaning, not to blur their boundaries, but to complement his experience with another perspective. He makes connections between the ‘throwing together’ of the symbol, the mind, ecology, and climatology, and uses metaphors drawn from the science underlying terraforming to suggest models that characterise the mind itself: ‘an ecology – a fell-field – or else a jungle, populated by all manner of strange beasts,’ or ‘chemical energies surging hither and yon, like weather in an atmosphere’ (p.199) (Robinson, 1996a, 55): ‘[t]hat was better – weather – storm fronts of thought, high-pressure zones, low-pressure cells, hurricanes – the jet streams of biological desires, always making their swift powerful rounds … life in the wind. Well. Throwing together. In fact the mind was poorly understood’ (Robinson, 1996a, 55). This metaphor for the human mind utilises the chaos-influenced science of meteorology in a manner that echoes Sargent’s spatialisation of Venus’s hostile environment and the domes, all of which operate as metaphors for the mind turned inward. Ecology and climatology are figuratively aligned to the indeterminacy involved in analyses of the otherness of the human mind. Ecology takes on a figurative status as the science of ‘throwing together’ as it depends on a range of scientific and cultural disciplines to portray and grapple with the entirety of an ecological network that includes humanity and its adaptations to multiple environments. Turner suggests that sexual reproduction recapitulates this throwing together and that ‘[o]n rare occasions that “symbolon” can be the start of the great grand poem of a new species.’ In his view, art and language are extensions of biological and ecological processes of throwing together: ‘[p]oetry is fast evolution: evolution is slow poetry’ (see Pak, 2014b, 7).
Pamela Sargent, Frederick Turner and Robinson imagine several levels of engagement with other worlds that form a complex of interacting or contesting discourses of varying degrees of dominance. These works establish a plurality of discourse, a model of overlapping interests that intersect and diverge, but are ultimately brought together in the physical space of the terraformed world. Sf has offered an especially powerful language for expressing ecocritical concerns, but this has risen slowly to the foreground in its own distinctive ways in terraforming stories. The influences feeding into or implied as narrative possibilities are used to explore counter-models to inadequate relations between the human and non-human.
Rolston ends his paper by reflecting on various prescientific views of the environment, arguing that ‘[s]cience should demythologise these views but must itself find a new myth that encourages appropriate aesthetic responses to nature’ (1995, 384). He is claiming not that traditional cultural responses to nature are detrimental or irrelevant, but that scientific understanding necessarily needs to demythologise them in order to be science. Just as Clayborne argues in Red Mars, Rolston claims that ‘humans are always the landscape architects, and even science is another cultural way of framing landscape’ (376). Terraforming, as a literature of landscaping, partakes in the throwing together theorised by Russell, combining scientific, political and cultural parameters into the space of its thought experiment. It uses the dialogism inherent in (p.200) scientific enquiry that Russell identifies to construct images of science and society that offer alternatives to imperial approaches to nature. The science of the Venus trilogy also opens up reflection on the use of projects of applied science to enforce repressive socio-cultural and political agendas. Terraforming narratives explore science’s limits and investigate ways in which prescientific and scientific modes of understanding fuse. They concern themselves with the struggle to transform and use the sciences, especially ecology, to construct new myths for conceptualising and relating to nature and society.
On Martian Myths
Commenting on Bud Foote’s description of the ‘self-conscious intertextuality’ of Red Mars as drawing attention to the novel as an artefact that encompasses older stories, Franko notes that ‘Mars itself is the nexus of many of these embedded stories, from science fictions to fictional canals to ancient myths of Mars inspired by its redness and erratic revolution’ (1997, 59). Mars is the iconic basis of the parabolas explored in the trilogy, with terraforming functioning as a second-order cluster of icons that modify the trajectory of the parabola in various ways (through, for example, the motif of soil and compost). Several characteristically Martian myths dominate the imagination of the colonists, all of which are interlinked and build upon the compost library of Earthbound myth and science in the new context of the Martian landscape:
stories have naturally blossomed to fill the gap, just as in Lowell’s time, or in Homer’s, or in the caves or on the savannah – stories of microfossils wrecked by our bioorganisms, of ruins found in dust storms and then lost forever, of Big Man and all his adventures, of the elusive little red people, always glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. And all of these tales are told in an attempt to give Mars life, or to bring it to life. Because we are still those animals who survived the Ice Age, and looked up at the night sky in wonder, and told stories.
(Robinson, 1996c, 14)
The little red people of Mars, often seen in the corner of the eye but never directly, is an exaptation of sf tales of ‘little green men’ and tells of an indigenous people who adapt to the influx of colonists and their ecologies. As ants are introduced as part of the project of soil construction, a mythic story of this event arises that describes the little red people’s encounter with these creatures: they ‘were just the right (p.201) size to ride, it was like the Native Americans meeting the horse. Tame the things and they would run wild’ (Robinson, 1996a, 113). The ability of the little red people to adapt to the colonists is testified to in tale after tale until in Green Mars some of the colonists begin identifying themselves with the myth: one character reflects that ‘[t]hey were ants in such a landscape, they were the little red people themselves’ (Robinson, 1996b, 326), while at a conference to outline a governmental system for Mars, an anonymous individual writes the slogan ‘However: We Are the Little Red People’ on a public message board (Robinson, 1996a, 156). The official Martian constitution operates, Burling argues, as a referential framework, ‘a provisional set of shared beliefs’ that makes a radical democracy on Mars possible (2005, 80). The myth of the colonists who become Martians complements this official political document with another referential framework, a mythic origin story of transformation from a colonial, capitalist annexe of Earth to an environmentally transformative society that shapes its values around the demands of living on Mars so as to extend ethical considerations to Mars’s non-human nature.
The classic pioneer myth of Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox Babe is also subject to exaptation on Mars. Bunyan and Babe are characters who feature in several traditional pioneer tales, one of which describes how Bunyan finds and adopts the calf Babe during a winter’s day, amidst drifts of blue snow. Complementing Bunyan’s own stature, Babe grows to gigantic proportions after returning to Bunyan’s camp. The most detailed appropriation of these figures in the Mars trilogy relates to Bunyan’s encounter with Big Man from big planet, with whom he engages in a contest of strength. In an echo of some Australian Aboriginal myths, their contest transforms the landscape of Mars by creating many of the named geological features, from Argyre and Hellas to Nirgal Vallis, Ceraunius Tholus and the Elysium Massif. The contest kills Bunyan, ‘[b]ut his own bacteria ate him, naturally, and they crawled all around down on the bedrock and under the megaregolith, down there going everywhere, sucking up the mantle heat, and eating the sulfides, and melting down the permafrost. And everywhere they went down there, every one of those little bacteria said I am Paul Bunyan’ (Robinson, 1996c, 454). This passage recalls Alfred Bester’s short story ‘Adam and No Eve’ (1941), which tells of an engineer’s attempt to reach space in a rocket that uses a gas and a combustion process that ultimately destroy all life on Earth. The sole survivor – the inventor – drags himself into the empty sea so that the micro-organisms in his body can repopulate the Earth. Bunyan, a representative of America and its pioneer past, is bested by something even bigger than him, Big Man, who stands (p.202) for the vastness of the wider solar system. Their struggle is a mythic retelling of the struggle of the colonists on Mars, while the death of Bunyan symbolises the death of America, and indeed nations, as the dominant players with interests in the interplanetary colony – a role that the transnationals in the later parts of the trilogy assume, and which later still is superseded by the rise of the Martian government. Bunyan’s transformation into bacteria mirrors the human colonisation of Mars; just as the bacteria colonise Mars, the colonists transform the Martian landscape through ecopoietic means. The metaphor embedded in this tale reaches towards a vision of consensus in which the Martian landscape is changed through the combined efforts of a multitude. Little red people or the bacteria of Bunyan – these tales are structured as parabolic arcs that embody the exaptation of stories into myths that function as metaphors for the creation of a new society embedded in its landscape. They rework elements from the compost library of Earth within the context of a terraformed Mars.
Bardini’s notion of junk and its tendency to resist closure and Rasula’s notion of the compost library offer ways to consider what is characteristic of the sf motif of terraforming. Centred on the creation of life-support systems on other planets, terraforming Mars depends on the initial modification of the atmosphere, but ultimately on the construction of soil, or compost. These physical parameters form the essential basis of a Martian eco-economics that ties both the physical and the socio-economic aspects of the colony into a whole. The Martian landscape is threatened not only physically but intellectually, in the sense that the projection of human interests onto the planet poses the risk that its nature will be overlooked in favour of using its landscape solely as a field for autological speculation and a recycling of Earth’s practices, which threaten to close possibilities for creating new, more ecologically sound, modes of habitation. Nevertheless, when the eco-economic system is tuned to the specificities of the Martian landscape, the potential for feedback from the alien to the human offers to transform the multiple voices embedded in Earthbound history into new avenues for socio-cultural experimentation. Burling notes that this experimentation is provisional and possible only through struggle, requiring the continual revision of previously stable points of social and political agreement in contexts that are subject to change (2005, 83). The challenges to Earth’s socio-economic systems posed by the innovations in social thought developed on Mars offer in turn to revitalise the compost library of Earth.
Rasula states that ‘[a]mong available modes of discourse, poetry is unique in favoring utopia as transient occasion, not universal city. Poems effectively consume all the energy they generate’ (2002, 71). Robinson’s (p.203) use of terraforming to explore the juncture between ecology, politics and society favours transience of another sort, a utopia of process. Robinson explains in an interview that ‘I will always remain a science fiction writer because we live in a giant collaborative science fiction novel that we are all writing together. It is the realism of our time, especially in the industrial West, but more and more everywhere’ (see Buhle, 2002, 90). This view of sf as an integral part of a wider dialogue that includes economic, scientific and technological knowledge and its impact on socio-political practices, lifestyles and thought positions the sf compost library as an indispensable ecological literature. Robinson’s focus on the impact of science and technology on society offers the reader a way of thinking about sustainable ecological processes, the extent to which they can be modified, and the possible outcome of these modifications. Attentiveness to the sf compost library is also an attempt to engage with the world outside of the sf megatext through a collaborative writing process that takes as its basis a distrust of static utopias, favouring instead the openness of utopia as a continual process.
The parabolas of Robinson’s terraforming narrative connect scientific ideas and their practical implications to metaphors for social and political philosophies that model an ecological approach to habitation, thus working in environmentally transformative ways to critique the limits of contemporary society’s economic, political and social institutions. Investment in dynamic utopias finds in the motif of terraforming as a life-support system a figure that embodies ideas of exaptation, junk, cybernetics, and open feedback mechanisms, and is emblematic of the psychic and social interventions of human communities upon their environments. The Mars trilogy engages in ideas of bootstrapping as an iterative, co-adaptive learning process, not just for the colonists of the text, but for contemporary (w)readers of sf, whose vacillation between literal and metaphorical readings of the narrative creates a feedback loop that generates new perspectives on nature and society that cannot be reduced to the initial sf motifs underpinning the narrative. The exaptation of the sf compost library is thus a process that, like Attebery’s parabolas of sf, generates new and creative ways of exploring ecologically oriented modes of habitation.