This post is part of CSI’s Thoughtful Optimism and Science Fiction project. To learn more about the project, visit https://csi.asu.edu/category/optimism/.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (1993) initially presents a markedly optimistic vision of the future. The terraforming technology he envisions has enormous potential: it enables colonists to leave an environmentally devastated planet Earth to create a utopian society out in space. His ideas for creating and refining livable environments beyond Earth provide a hopeful alternative to eking out a living on the beleaguered planet. The gerontological treatments that extend the natural lives of the novel’s Mars pioneers, allowing them to accomplish more work, is an extremely optimistic example of how medical technology can improve human life.
However, his narrative raises serious questions about whether humans are capable of utilizing this revolutionary technology to its fullest potential—or if its presence would actually drive people apart. Though the technology is initially promising, the superior Martian tools soon spark riots on Earth.
Protagonist Frank Chalmers warns that the presence of such advanced technology is the final catalyst that will doom their mother planet. “We’re knee-deep in gasoline!” he says. “And those goddamn aging treatments are the match….” Chalmers explains that the expedition had been sent to Mars because of the inability of “industrial” superpowers Russia and the U.S. to compete with their more innovative rivals on Earth – the journey to space was always about global economic jockeying back on Earth, not a grand utopian adventure. The colonists were also sent away due to the scarcity of resources as the Earth becomes overpopulated. With the evolution of the Martian technology, the problems that they’re fleeing actually turn into bigger ones, as the Earthlings now demand access to the radical life extension enjoyed by their Martian counterparts. “Think about it,” Chalmers says. “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. Either way it’s gone! It’s going now!”
Here we see how Martian technology is the driving force of Earth-Mars conflict in the novel—and that conflict ends up having disastrous consequences. Martian technological marvels like the space elevator are destroyed; violence and oppression abound; and finally the Earth forces overpower the Martian insurgency. The Martians fail to win their independence, and stability returns to a heavily-oppressed Mars. The Utopia that the colonists seek to build collapses under the burden of Earth’s crippling problems—and it’s all because of Robinson’s “hopeful” promise of technology.
The dilemma that Robinson paints in Red Mars is not an uncommon one in contemporary science fiction: Is it possible to remain optimistic about technology in the face of troubling social, political and environmental realities? Can a science fiction author hoping to sound authentically optimistic write about technologies like deep space exploration, terraforming, and genetically-modified crops without falling into the dark (and very real) possibilities of misuse, exploitation, invasion, violence, and catastrophe?
Interestingly, Robinson’s narrative ends on an ambiguous note. After the Mars colony is largely destroyed and brought under Earth’s control, the survivors of the “First Hundred” colonists retreat to a sanctuary under the Martian south pole, called Zygote. There they find many “young people and children”—representatives of a new generation and the potential for a revived civilization on Mars. At the outset of Red Mars, humans see the planet as a place to “start over” without the toxic legacy of Earth. Although that revolution is quashed, the novel ends again in a safe haven, a place to start and rebuild anew.
Is this an optimistic ending, or is Robinson showing us the beginning of another spin in an endless cycle? Is the ending a celebration of human resilience, perseverance, and ability to adapt and start anew? Or is it a warning of mankind’s cyclical, quixotic struggle to free itself from the sins of its past? The struggle between optimistic technology and the harsh realities of social and human complexity persists. Robinson leaves it up to us to decide which of these forces will dominate our future.