The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson

I’ve finished it! I’ve been reading this trilogy on and off for the past year and today I reached the end of Blue Mars, and I’m genuinely sad to be leaving those characters and that world behind. Through the three books, Robinson has created not just a exhaustively and emotively detailed Mars, but, surprisingly, a cast of well fleshed out characters whose stories work to create human realities in and around what could have been a fairly dry future history. The characters are not always sympathetically drawn, and in fact many of them spend a lot of the time being jerks, but that’s part of their strength. As is observed in either Green Mars or Blue Mars, heroics are not the matter of a lifestyle, they’re defined by a few single acts which intersperse a regular life.

Part of what struck me is how patient Robinson is throughout this grand story in his description of events, intermingling motivations and agendas, even the descriptions of the changing planet. He shows great understanding of the motivating power of personal flaws, and the human predisposition toward focusing on the wrong parts of themselves. He manages to merge this into sweeping political narrative, with historic decisions echoing the neuroses of the people behind them in a very honest way. Nothing seems inevitable. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars is not a world of destiny; it is a product of willpower and the law of unintended consequence.

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A view of Valles Marineris, from Nasa’s website

The characterisation throughout is complex and very thoughtful; surprisingly fluid in approach to how good a light in which people are shown. Some characters who initially come across as cold or unfeeling turn out to be lucid and sympathetic, some who initially seem sympathetic, fun and worth chasing turn out to essentially be rotten, and some who should be heroes are riven with flaws that actually accentuate or cause their heroic acts. There is a feeling that those who try to live as heroes are destined to fail by comparison to those who tried to live well and occasionally acted heroically. People who are convinced of destiny are weaker than those who shape it.

And the descriptions of Mars: Often wonderful, sometimes a little tedious, always utterly convincing. Such is the power of KSR’s descriptions here, it sometimes comes as a fun sort of a shock when you put the book down and remember that none of it is like that in reality. Doubtless, the landscape of Mars will bear strong resemblances to what is written here; KSR clearly does his homework. But it is someone frustrating that Mars doesn’t exist as it does by the end of Blue Mars, with its integrating biosphere and beautiful locales that I will most likely never see. Through his characters, Robinson takes us on huge, sweeping journeys throughout Mars (and at points, various other parts of the solar system), to the extent you really feel you know the place. To my amusement, I was reading an article on some new discovery on Mars recently, only to find that I recognised the name of one of the places described. It had been turned into a small sea across which two of the characters had recently sailed in Blue Mars! Such was the clarity of the image Robinson created, the first thing I thought of was a coastal bay, rather than the bone-dry world-desert of reality.

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The cover of Green Mars, painted by Peter Elson

One of the truly inspired touches across these three books is the way in which the planet reflects, and is reflected by, characters. The passion of life through Hiroko, the relentless scientific charge and its consequent universal transformation (perhaps transcendence) through Sax, the stark beauty of the world without Man in Ann and the inexorable productions of humankind in Nadia. Michel brings with him all the yearning and pain of home, Nirgal the spirit of Mars, wandering from event to event across the planet’s surface, lost in the infinite. The most arresting of these contrasts, however, is between Sax and Ann, a world apart, walking the same Martian earth, or Terran Mars, depending on whose perspective you are shown. They possess rival visions of paradise; one untouched, one perfected, and their conflict throughout the three books is often almost musical in its symmetry. Sure, Ann becomes a little tiresome in Green Mars, but overall, these two characters as voice-pieces for the two directions in time, both stemming from John Boone’s first steps on Mars, are fascinating to observe.

The environment also extends into the politics and psychology of the characters and the new Martian society (and later the greater civilisation throughout the solar system), as does a longevity treatment capable of letting people live well into their third century. I won’t get into all that here, as I found it very rewarding exploring these themes personally, and much of it was treated in surprising, and surprisingly intricate and innovative ways.

Overall, I came away extremely impressed by the Mars trilogy. As I’ve said, parts of it did get a little frustrating; out of the whole thing (around 2200 pages I suspect), I reckon a couple of hundred are a little aimless, but even then, this is by design. The parts that feel aimless are in fact due to the character the story is focusing on being aimless at that time. These characters are human. There is no hero’s journey here; at least not a traditional one. They falter. They get lost. They get confused. They get things wrong. They get themselves wrong.

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Theoretical projections of the effect of terraforming process on Mars, nabbed from Wikipedia

The colonisation and terraforming of Mars throughout these books is a human process, meaning it is messy, only vaguely guided by fractious and capricious humans, who occasionally utterly lose control and find, through momentary lack of control, new ways of reacting and planning and sometimes they reach a sanguine realisation that life is not control and wisdom is not knowledge (or memory); it is experience and a will to peace tempered by the ultimate acceptance of its lack of likelihood. It is the awareness that the moment, if it is good, must be savoured, and if it is bad, it will not abide. It is coming to peace with the truth that, whatever you construct, however much willpower you put into the world, the process of the world will take the briefest glance, if any at all, and construct itself in an unrecognisable image anyway. And so, the human Mars is made, through the fractal guided chaos of humanity.

Frankly, I never expected to see these sorts of themes and messages coming from the pages of a heavily technical trilogy of books ultimately about the terraforming and colonisation of the red, freezing dustball next door. The further into the books I got, the more engrossed I became, and the process of exploration of this world Robinson creates became immersive, engaging and fascinating in a very immediate way.

These books are an achievement. In years to come, when human feet walk Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson deserves a place in the pantheon of those whose imaginations helped us get there, alongside Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov and HG Wells. Magnificent.

In the Time of Godlike Egos

I always wondered what it would be like to be a Roman in the time of Caesar; to live during a time of such incredible disruption, coping with the loss of some massive and wonderful institutions and looking forward to a new kind of future, all in the proximity of a man who, by the end, believed himself a god.
Well, I think now I know. It’s a state of thinking, “oh my god oh my god I need to read a book and listen to some relaxing music because oh god I literally can’t even.”Or something to that effect. The shrill, continuous din of dire political news has gone from apocalyptically terrifying to merely irritating in the space of a year.
Fascinating times.
Incidentally I am currently reading Dictator by Robert Harris and it’s really extremely great, although all very close to the bone right now. The first two in the series were, for me, a rather beautiful wander through the final days of the Roman Republic. Cicero (narrated by his secretary, Tiro), being at the centre of all sorts of controversy, led me a rather gritty path, but still, it all felt like a dangerous holiday. Perhaps Dictator would feel like that too, if it weren’t for the fact that, as of 2017, the USA seems determined to relive the more idiotic failures of Rome.
I suspect not though. It’s an altogether more maudlin story, as you might imagine if you are aware of Cicero’s end (spoiler alert, the guy who has been dead for over 2000 years dies). There’s real threat in Caesar, and real uncertainty after his death. It’s all hit an un-nerving chord with me, considering, as I have said, America might be dealing with its own Dictator.
I wonder what stories will be being written about this time, 2000 years hence. Are we entering an age of marbled glory and god-like achievement? Are we looking downwards into our own decline? History suggests that both simultaneously is most probable.
I’m an optimist, however. The Romans never fell; they changed and dissipated. The essence of their civilisation pervades our own, as ours will pervade unrecognisable civilisations ahead of us in time. Those civilisations will not be called America or Britannia or The West, but they will know of us, and they will know much of what they owe us.

A Man with Two Holmes

deerstalker-01I have had a Sherlock Holmes start to the year. Not in a solving murders with wordplay sort of a way, but in an experiencing lots of Sherlock Holmes sort of a way. After watching the first episode of the fourth series of Sherlock on the BBC, (and thoroughly enjoying it), I was inspired to pick up a book my wife had bought me a while back: The Hound of the Baskervilles. 

I have to admit to being an Arthur Conan Doyle philistine. I vaguely recall trying to read Sherlock Holmes as a kid, but can’t remember much. I remember finding it a bit dense; to be honest I think I was simply too young.

I have, however, been a huge fan of Sherlock since it started, finding the characters, scripting and atmosphere extremely appealing. It was freewheeling, both very light and very heavy. It drew you into the friendship between Holmes and Watson in a way that reminded me very much of Kirk, Spock and McCoy; a genuine, affectionate camaraderie which invited you in as a thrilled fly on the wall.

I had been presuming along the way, that these features were the more modern aspects of the story, brought in to engage a 21st century audience. I suppose I had always imagined the storytelling and characterisation by Arthur Conan Doyle to have been stiff, stoic, dense or slow. It was with very pleasant surprise, therefore, that I found the same swiftness, humour and humanity in The Hound of the Baskervilles that had so appealed to me in Sherlock. I found myself smiling, thinking, ‘this sounds exactly like Sherlock and Watson in Sherlock!’, realising immediately that what I was really expressing was admiration for how faithfully Thompson, Moffat and Gatiss had scripted the characters. I was able to quite clearly hear Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes in 19th/turn of 20th century form alongside Freeman’s Watson.

Even some of the snarkier nuances, the kind which really smack of 21st century playful cynicism, such as Holmes’ penchant for affecting a deeply incredible insight through superhumanly complicated reasoning when in fact he has deduced from some obvious, salient clue; that’s all in there, back there at the dawn of our current era. Without exaggeration, reading The Hound of the Baskervilles was joyous not simply because of the grim fun of the story, but how recognisable it all was. Holmes’ 21st century texting stands in for his heavy use of telegraph in the 19th century. His relationship with Watson and his handling of others is unchanged. And of course the format, a written report by Dr Watson, is now translated, naturally into a blog, the Watsonian perspective maintained.

It is an interesting and scintillating experience, looking at human perspectives on the past, through fact or fiction. What so often shines through is not the differences, but the similarities.

And it is with this new familiarity of the foundation of Holmes’ mythology (I now need to go on to read the rest), that I saw the strength of the method of Sherlock. If the creators of the new, extremely 21st century Holmes had not fit so excellently with the works of Doyle, the audacities, scope and more modern adaptive characterisation simply wouldn’t work. It is a weakness of the Guy Ritchie films that, despite affecting a haughty Victorian English accent, wielding a pipe and solving crimes, the essential verve of Doyle is lost. The stories lacked grounding. With Sherlock so aware of its history, and so willing to use it as a firm foundation for a modern towering narrative superstructure, it embraces the best of both worlds.

As I say, I’ve still to read the rest, and I look forward to it – perhaps all the rest that I have accredited to Sherlock is present in Doyle’s works too.

On a closing note, I’m excited by the direction of this latest series. The second episode, The Lying Detective, was particularly unnerving and genuinely heart breaking. Again, very well written and directed, but so much credit has to be sent to way of the central cast, all of whom were on absolutely top form. That closing revelation too. Wow.

I’m a late convert, but I understand now the magic of these characters and why they endure with such vigour. It’s not because of what they can become; it’s because of what, in the right hands, they can always be: an affectionate and incisive reflection of universal complexities, truths and humanity that will always be present in an ever-changing world.

Post-Truth is a Lie

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Every so often in human history, the fight for truth becomes extremely important, and often in a shockingly short period of time. Populism throughout the West is threatening to undermine a lot of what we citizens hold dear: a life lived without fear, hope for a future inclusive for all humanity, and the ability to come to understanding of the world. Many people will seek to block these hopes and values through obfuscation, trickery and out-and-out lying (now re-branded “post-truth”).

Humanity has proven before that we will not let them.

Star Trek Beyond (spoilers, obviously)

GO AND SEE THIS FILM. MULTIPLE TIMES.

Ahem. Sorry about that. But seriously. This is my favourite experience of Star Trek for years. Since seeing the first trailer for the 2009 Star Trek reboot, I had a huge buzz, an anticipation of the sorts of feelings Star Trek gave me when I was a kid and a teenager. The hope and excitement of seeing people I could relate to in such fantastical and quite literally awesome circumstances made me look to the future and back to humanity with positivity and wonder which has shaped my outlook through to adult life. It widened my scope of view to the entire universe. The horizon of exploration and endevour became infinite.

Now: 2009’s Star Trek was an exceptional film. I enjoy very much, to the point of it being one of my favourite films. The casting, aesthetic and story were fantastically well handled, and it brought Star Trek to a wider audience than I’d ever seen it reach. However, it left certain things to be desired, such as weirdness, the awe of the new and the philosophical moral centre of the best of Star Trek. These are not necessarily criticisms of the film. It did a fantastic job of setting up a universe of possibility whilst grounding it in a raw humanity often absent from the television series.

Similarly with Into Darkness. Whilst it was still an exciting, fun film, I was still left wanting regarding exploration and weirdness. There were promising allusions to all that: at one point Scotty does exclaim, “I thought we were explorers”, when he discovers the aggressive nature of their mission. Still though, still very much based around Earth, still all about human problems.

It was with absolute delight, then, that I watched Beyond. From the absolute outset we are given the new, the alien, the… well, the crazy. And all that with a lightness of humane humour. A good beginning.

There were several wow-inducing sequences, such as the entry into then subsequently the exit from the enormous and complex Yorktown space-station, home to millions. The recklessly imaginative destruction of the Enterprise. The mind-blowingly, edge-of-your-seat rollercoaster madness of the escape in the Franklin. It was just… just amazing.

But my glee didn’t arise simply from spectacle. More than its two predecessors, this story felt so wonderfully grounded in Star Trek lore. There are numerous nods and direct references to previous series and films, including the first non-Enterprise reference to the Xindi war. It might not have been the greatest story-arc in Trek history, but it was nice to hear it being talked about. Also good grief the character-work in this film is marvelous. This is by far the best use of this new cast and, if I’m honest, any Star Trek cast in film. The scripting is flighty and interactive – very little talking-headery here. Every character gets a moment, too, and not just a super-power moment. Yes, Scotty gets his exceptional engineer moments, but he also gets a few lovely human instances of compassion. Similarly, McCoy gets to be a superb doctor whilst also very prominently being a friend and confidant for Spock and Kirk in a way last shown to this extent in The Undiscovered Country. As I said, all characters get this treatment, the result of which is not just simply increasing your investment in them; I was left with a much greater sense of reality and possibility for growth, both story-wise and character-wise.

Talking of characters, the way Leonard Nimoy’s death was handled was just wonderful and extremely moving. As you might imagine, it’s dealt with in universe as the death of Spock Prime with Kelvin Spock acting as the audience-surrogate, a task handled with genuine aplomb by Quinto. The moment when he receives Spock’s belongings, and opens the photo of the original, Prime Enterprise crew… sent a shiver down my spine. Absolutely beautiful moment.

Overall, this was just a great film, and perhaps more importantly for me right now, a great Star Trek film, which left me really extremely excited about the franchise’s future, especially in the light of the recent announcement of Star Trek: Discovery. Now go and watch it hundreds of thousands of times so they make more films. Thank  you.