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/.
Space exploration has always been driven by both the imagination of the individual and the political will of nations. When the United States decided to go to the Moon it was an inherently political endeavor, part of the Cold War arms race; however, the majesty of the journey itself inspired the imaginations of millions of people to dream of traveling far beyond the Moon. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s phenomenal novel Red Mars (1993), there is an undeniable sense of both the personal imagination of the scientists and the political utility of the Mars mission for the nations of Earth they represent.
Red Mars begins in medias res after the “first hundred” scientists have colonized Mars, but before the craziness which eventually ensues. In this middle ground the dominant groups on Mars are the Swiss and members of different Arab countries. Seemingly an odd mix for the Red Planet, but throughout the course of the novel, the reason for this reality becomes clear: money. It is the privilege of rich nations to be brought into the open spaces and less chaotic sphere of Mars, where they can escape the problems of Earth.
This economic and political reality was not the grand vision of the scientists who came to Mars as the first hundred; they came with a utopian imagination inspired by events like the Moon landing. Members of the first hundred, like the firebrand idealist Arkady, dreamt of creating a new society – reimagining not only the physical structure of buildings but also the structure of basic social institutions. The first hundred pledged their lives to the risky Mars colonization effort not for political reasons, but because of the possibilities the Mars held in terms of scientific innovation and knowledge generation. But no matter what their vision originally was, ultimately their involvement was not simply scientific but inescapably political.
As a joint project of the U.S. and Russia (again, privileged nations, and the world’s two superpowers in the aftermath of the Cold War), the majority of the first hundred hailed from these two nations, with the rest sprinkled in from other partner nations or scientists lucky enough to survive the rigorous selection process. What this shows is that even in the near future the technology of space travel and exploration will be in the hands of a few. This poses an inherent contradiction in that no one nation can own space, nor does any one nation have sufficient resources to dominate space travel completely – so the colonization of Mars must be a cooperative international endeavor. But as the story progresses it becomes obvious that a few economic juggernauts will dominate the colonization process and shape not only the physical development but also the cultural development of Mars. Culture is ultimately much more powerful than infrastructure, since physical structures in the harsh world of Mars must be done in a certain way, but culture blossoms with infinite possibilities.
As environmental and political crises on Earth intensify, and transnational corporations become dominant, the real political reasons behind Mars colonization become clear. It will be a haven for the overpopulated Earth and a conduit for the exploitation of desperately-needed natural resources. In other words, the colonization of Mars is hijacked by the narrow self-interests of those who do not live there, but wish to establish a traditional colonial relationship with Mars. But those who first came to Mars, starry-eyed and full of dreams, will not accept the subjugation of Mars. There is a political backlash – a revolution that brings hope – and when the revolution falls apart, there is refuge in the vast hidden spaces of Mars while the transnationals take over the planet and political conflicts on Earth boil over into war.
Red Mars manages to encapsulate a full range of political action, reasoning and reaction resulting from colonization of Mars. Kim Stanley Robinson demonstrates, with striking realism, the dualities of space exploration: the scientific and utopian imagination of the individual vs. the political will of nations, the struggle for domination vs. the necessity for cooperation, the escapism of space vs. the bounded realities of Earth. All of these conflicts are prevalent in the current moment for space exploration, and will become even more important issues to ponder as we reach further out toward the stars.