“Green Mars” and More on Mitchell Wilson

Let me begin with a brief comment on Mitchell Wilson’s two novels about physicists, Live With Lightning (1949) and Meeting at a Far Meridian (1961). As readers of this blog know, my reviews have praised both of them highly. I’ve also mentioned a couple times in my posts that I originally wrote what I thought was going to be a single post reviewing Meeting at a Far Meridian for my blog. However, the result was so long that I decided to break it into two parts and edit them so that each could stand alone without the other, although each referred to the other.

Once I had a review that said everything I wanted to say about Meeting at a Far Meridian, I realized that I could condense it into a review of an appropriate length for Lab Lit. Because the novel wasn’t on the Lab Lit List at the time, I decided to edit the combined review and would have sent it to Lab Lit. However, the latter has a policy of not accepting any material which has appeared elsewhere. After reflecting on the work I’d already done, including my blog post reviewing Live With Lightning, I rewrote my review of Meeting at a Far Meridian as an essay on Mitchell Wilson’s career as a writer the essay now appearing on lablit.com.


Cover of Green MarsNow, some brief comments on Kim Stanley Robinson’s second novel in the “Mars Trilogy,” Green Mars, which I finished reading a week before I drafted this post. The comments that follow are not intended to be a complete review. I want only to point out some interesting aspects of the continuing adventures of the First Hundred, as the 101 people who made the journey from Earth to Mars are called, to colonize the Red Planet and prepare the way for many others to follow them. (There was one stowaway on the Ares spacecraft when it left Earth.)

Red Mars begins in 2026, with the First Hundred aboard a spacecraft called the Ares on a trajectory that will eventually allow them to go into orbit around the Red Planet. It ends with the defeat of a revolution in 2061 started by the splintered factions of the original colonists. Thus, Robinson covers a slightly greater span of years in this second book than he did in the first. The goal of the revolt was to free Mars from Earth politically. It occurs at the same time that the Earth is involved in another world war. Green Mars picks up the story of the surviving colonists in 2081 and follows them into the twenty-second century, ending in 2127 in a second insurrection that succeeds.

In order to provide continuity, Robinson imagines that some of the Martian medical investigators, who were among the First Hundred, develop of treatment that repairs the DNA of aging individuals, makes them healthier, and leaves them feeling younger. Such a treatment of course substantially reduces the incidence of the afflictions of old age, especially cancer, and rectifies the damage done by the much greater exposure to radiation incurred by travelers to Mars. Some of the important First Hundred were killed in Red Mars, including several important leaders, so the survivors are now called the First Thirty-Nine. New players come on the scene, too, many of them offspring of the first settlers and, because of the reduced gravity of the planet they live on, they grow taller, and grow up more agile than their parents.

In spite of the fact that terraforming the planet was a source of considerable friction among the early settlers, by the time Green Mars begins, atmospheric pressure and the proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere has increased significantly. They continue to increase throughout the course of novel, so that by the end, it is finally possible for humans not only to survive without an artificial oxygen supply but also to work for limited periods of time without helmets in the lower elevations of the surface. New genetically engineered plant species now cover some of the surface again as well. Trade with Earth is also flourishing, especially after a new space elevator, replacing the one brought down during the war, begins operating. Much of the commerce is based on metals and other elements that are difficult and expensive to extract on Earth but are available in abundance and easily mined on Mars.

As in much of his fiction, Robinson takes on many contemporary issues in our early twenty-first century culture and politics: the human role in climate change, cultural and ethnic conflict, the adverse effect of increasing corporate vis-à-vis national power and, surprisingly, aging. I will very briefly touch on the last two of these before noting how little space Robinson devotes to basic science and scientific research in the 600 pages of this ambitious novel.

Robinson envisions a history in which the transnational corporations  or “transnats” of Red Mars morph into what come to be called “metanational” corporations, or “metanats,” by a process of forming alliances with relatively small, weak client nations. The latter allow the metanats to take over the nation’s institutions, including its security and military forces, in exchange for performing the usual functions of their government. Thus, the schools, courts, parks, highways, etc., are all administered by a corporation, with its top-down system of governance, replacing whatever form of government the country had, even if it was originally a democracy. Needless to say, this is a scary idea, yet it is the logical conclusion of the argument that “the private sector can always do it better,” even run the schools, as is currently being tried in some places.

The “treatment” for aging discovered and first widely used on Mars results in a steady growth of the population of the planet, with many of the First Thirty-Nine living beyond 130. Because we are inside their heads, we experience with them the consequences for memory of nearly twice as many years of experience as most of us will. Almost all of the ancients, as the younger natives call them, find they have trouble remembering the early days on Mars, some discovering they can remember their years on Earth better than the early years of colonization. The question the author never addresses head on is whether this memory deficiency stems from the “treatment” being less effective with brain cells or from a limitation on the storage capacity of the human brain (Perhaps evolution could not anticipate the need for more than, say, 90 years of experience!

Almost all the First Hundred were originally trained in the sciences, the specialties being chosen for their relevance to explorations and colonization of Mars. However, most of them have  become leaders or applied scientists by 2080. Trained originally as a physicist, Sax Russell arrived on Mars convinced that “terraforming,” creating a livable atmosphere on the surface that would eliminate the need for people to wear helmets and heated suits, was the most desirable way to approach colonization of the planet.

As the leader of a political faction favoring terraforming, he comes into conflict with Ann Claybourne, a geologist, who continues to hold out for preserving as much as possible of the conditions on the planet, as the First Hundred found it on arrival. These two opponents also differ in their vision of the Martian colony’s future, with Sax favoring a democratic government independent of Earth but bound to it economically, versus a politically neutral territory preserved for scientific research under an international treaty like the one that governed Antarctica when the Ares left for Mars.

Scientific research goes on all over Robinson’s Planet Mars, but readers rarely experience scientists pursuing scientific questions as they can in Rescue Mode, another realistic novel about human travel to Mars. (See my review on the Lab Lit website.) What little realistic research appears is applied science. Ann and her husband Simon are exceptions. They continue to pursue geological exploration of the planet, although as readers, we see very little of this side of her. (Martians trained as geologists on Earth, now call themselves “areologists.”) As of this moment, I am halfway through Blue Mars, the third and last volume of the Mars Trilogy, and my interest hasn’t faded. The artistry with which Robinson spins out the implications of his speculations continues to dazzle me.

A review of the third novel of the “Mars Trilogy” may be found at  Blue Mars.

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