Working Scientists in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy

I was struck by how little space in this very long trilogy about science and technology is given to the people who make new discoveries and the process of scientific investigation. Clearly, Robinson has the background and knowledge to write accurately about both real scientists and their research, as is evident in the few episodes devoted to the source of the science in his science fiction. Although all of the First Hundred were chosen for their credentials as scientists, only two continue to pursue their professions over their long lifetimes on Mars together. However, both also devote much of their lives to political leadership.

Ann Clayborne becomes the Red party’s leading theoretician, although in her case her views are motivated by an interest in the scientific questions a pristine Mars would provide. While Sax Russell is often captivated by fundamental scientific problems, much of his time is taken up as a political advisor, applied scientist and engineer. In the final novel, Bao Shuyo makes a brief appearance as a theoretical physicist single-mindedly committed to basic research.  Perhaps, Robinson is reflecting  the popular bias that mathematicians have their heads in the clouds of abstractions unrelated to reality. There are other minor characters that the text implies do basic as well as applied research. They are discussed briefly at the end of the post.

Ann continues the career in geology that she began on Earth. However, we have only passing glimpses of her actually at work. She is much more memorable as the vigorous opponent of changing the surface of Mars. She favors preserving it as a scientific reserve for study and understanding, much as Antarctica was originally designated for scientific research. Until near the very end, she maintains her stance on this fundamental issue, not only arguing with the proponents of terraforming the planet but also leading a violent revolution against the “green Mars” effort.

Sax is a more complex character. Trained originally in subatomic physics, his insatiable search for answers to  questions about how nature works leads him into many other fields, including especially biology. On arrival with the other First Hundred, he becomes deeply involved in planning efforts to terraform the planet. This brings him into an ongoing conflict with Ann throughout the trilogy. As she gradually loses her battle to preserve the lifeless rocky surface of Mars, Sax develops an unrequited love for her, the seed for which was sown while they were in Antarctica together during the selection process.

I think Sax is best understood as a scientific dilettante. With his sharp mind and unwavering commitment to the scientific method, he flits from discipline to discipline, often contributing new and useful insights before moving on, usually into either applying what he’s learned to practical problems or jumping into current politics. This is, of course, useful to Robinson, since it allows him to present scientific developments on both Mars and Earth through the lens of Sax’s reading and reflections. However, there are three incidents, one early in Green Mars and two in Blue Mars, that dramatically reveal the scientist side of this complicated character.

In the first, Sax grows so frustrated with his inability to pursue his scientific work in exile that he arranges to change his physical appearance and assume the identity of Terran immigrant. In this role, he takes a job with Praxis, the one metanational corporation that is supporting the rebels and aiding their cause. In his new role as Stephen Lindholm, he meets Phyllis Boyle, one of the few First Hundred who sided with the Terrans’s attempt to put down the revolution. When they begin an affair, Sax manages for many months to keep Phyllis from discovering who he really is. But at last, Phyllis recognizes his interest in identifying a plant when they are trapped in a glacier crevasse and face the possibility of dying there. His ingrained curiosity almost costs him his  personality when Phyllis betrays him to the Terran security forces who attempt to brainwash him.

The second revealing incident occurs as Sax watches the scientists at work at the DaVinci labs he originally set up. He sees a widespread trend that amounts to a new “Martian science” resulting from several factors. Because their labs are semiautonomous political communities, they are in control of their work instead being beholden to self-serving, ponderous and sometimes ignorant bureaucracies, especially those governed by the profit motive. The only outside authority on Mars with power over them is the Martian constitution and an environmental court established by the constitution. The scientists therefore determine which problems to work on and only pursue others when asked to do so, and then only if they want to. Thus, Robinson proposes that the tribe, or ethnic group, of scientists governed by the rules of a scientific community be given complete local political autonomy, just as the Martian government permits similar communities based on shared social norms or religious doctrine. The result is work that has “…an unprecedented rapidity and power.”

In the third episode that shows Sax as a working scientist, he is trying to comprehend the literature on longevity and senescence. He has a sudden moment of insight into his place in the enterprise of science. He rhapsodizes, “…the structure of science was so beautiful. It was surely one of the greatest achievements of the human spirit, a kind of stupendous parthenon of the mind, constantly a work in progress, like symphonic epic poem of thousands of stanzas, being composed by them all in a giant collaboration. [p. 618].” He goes on to express, in equally extravagant and poetic language, his belief that “…the language of the poem [is] mathematics… the language of nature itself.” All the different sciences eventually develop standard models that “…hopefully interlocked in a coherent larger structure…” with particle physics at its core.

One new character introduced in Blue Mars is Bao Shuyo. She is a theoretical physicist with an entirely new mathematical approach to “…superstring theory and quantum gravity,” a topic Sax has been trying to master when he meets her. She particularly interested me because she resembles in important ways the heroine of my novel, Vanessa’s Curve of Mind. Although she is shy and “…somewhat plain” (and not a brain scientist like Vanessa), she is a superb mathematician with a razor sharp mind. Moreover, she is thoroughly grounded in the whole spectrum of empirical physics, from particle physics to astrophysics.

Like Vanessa she becomes a different person when she begins a presentation, “…writing her equations and notes on the screen very quickly, as if doing speed calligraphy.” After a year at the research center called Da Vinci, she is already recognized as “…one of the pantheon at work, discovering reality right there before their eyes.” “Their” refers to a group of twenty men and one other woman that Sax describes as the young turks, the intellectual elite of a community made up of elite scientists.

Sax’s friendship with Bao is a familiar episode in his long career as a scientist. After a century of focusing on practical applications of scientific disciplines from physics to biology, he returns to his earliest training in particle physics begun on Earth. On meeting Bao he is at first shy, awed by someone capable of “…bridging the gap between gravity and quantum mechanics…” with original work in mathematics.

They go for long walks together, and he takes her sailing, something he loves to do alone. In these relaxed moments, they explore her work more deeply and sometimes philosophically. When he challenges her with questions about the testability of her theory, she says it’s “…so beautiful it has to be true”–a familiar view among theoreticians including Einstein. The scientific interlude ends when Bao feels compelled to return home to attend to family obligations in the wake of a tragedy.

Sax later tells Michel Duval about Bao. As his sometime psychotherapist who restored his mind when it was nearly destroyed while in captivity during the first revolution, Michel has come to be both a friend and intimate confessor. What particularly impresses Sax about Bao is her gender, especially that she is a mathematical genius. Mathematics has always seemed to him the most masculine of all disciplines, closely followed by physics. That Bao should be brilliant at both has turned Sax’s preconceptions upside down.

Sax’s views lead to an interesting discussion about the degree to which Martian society is largely free of gender bias. While Sax and Michel agree they are, a reader might reflect on the fact Mars has many settlements that maintain cultures they brought with them from Earth. Although they don’t violate the letter of constitutional civil rights, some of these single-culture communities continue to oppress women in other ways.

There are three other characters among the First Hundred whose scientific work is mentioned although it is never described in any detail. Vladimir Taneev had already won a Nobel Prize in medicine when he left Earth on the Ares. Early in the trilogy he plays a prominent role in developing viable plant species for the harsh conditions of the Martian surface. He is the principal in the project to terraform the planet, surreptitiously releasing engineered plants in defiance of a specific UN ban.

Toward the end of the trilogy, “Vlad,” as he is called, together with Ursula Kohl–also a well-know Russian biogist before joining the First Hundred–discover a method of repairing the genetic damage that results from aging and radiation. With this work as a foundation, they develop a procedure which repairs the damaged genes and prolongs life. Their work is pivotal in allowing the central characters of the story live up to 150 years beyond their arrival on Mars.

Vlad is also noteworthy for his work in economics, which he pursues with Marina Tokareva, who was an established botanist when she landed on Mars. She played a key role in founding the field of areobotany as well as engineering new plant species adapted to Martian surface conditions. Together with Vlad, she also developes a theory of “eco-economics.” The latter is the economic theory underlying the democratic socialism built into the Martian constitution.

One implication of eco-economics is the principle that corporations must be run as democratic co-operatives. This work on economics becomes the basis for Vald’s pivotal role in the constitutional convention. Opposing traditional capitalism, he argues that no one should have to give up his rights as a citizen of a democracy when he or she goes to work.

An interesting aspect of these three scientists is the ménage á trois they form early in their stay on Mars and continue until Vlad’s death near the end of the trilogy.

Reviews of the three novels in the Mars Trilogy can be found at Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue MarsComments on the plot and style of  the Mars Trilogy appear in my next post.

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