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John Newsinger

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On another planet

(June 1976)


From Socialist Review, No. 176, June 1976.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


Red Mars
Kim Stanley Robinson
Harper Collins £8.99

Science fiction novels generally fall into one of two categories: ‘hard’ and ‘soft’. The first category is generally concerned to explore what is scientifically possible. It is technology oriented, features macho characters and attracts right wing writers.

The second category is more concerned with exploring personal relationships and social orders. Science is of interest only insofar as it can serve as metaphor. This category attracts the more liberal, feminist and left wing writers.

Now with Red Mars we have a widely acclaimed science fiction novel that attempts both to remain true to the direction of scientific knowledge and to explore the nature of the social and political order.

Even more noteworthy, its author, the American writer Kim Stanley Robinson, has claimed that part of his intention in writing Red Mars had been to rescue ‘the socialist baby from being thrown out with the Stalinist bathwater’ in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. How successful is he?

Red Mars is volume one of a projected trilogy. It tells of the first settlement on Mars, of the first stages of the terraforming process that is to make the planet habitable, of the increasingly ruthless exploitation of the planet’s resources by the great Earth Multinationals and of the eventual revolution of 2062 that this provokes. The revolution ends in defeat with the surviving revolutionaries driven underground.

In a whole number of ways, the novel is superb. Robinson’s Mars is marvellously realised: the sheer scale and grandeur of the new planet captures the imagination. His exploration of the politics of the settlement, of the various factions that form among the colonists, is also a success. There are those who only reluctantly come to embrace the cause of independence, who take up a position clearly modelled on that of the American colonies in the 1770s. They want an independent Mars, but one going down the same road as the Earth. More radical factions, however, want not just independence but a new social order, one where profit does not rule.

The radicals consist of two main factions: the reds led by Arkady Bogdanov and the greens led by Hiroko Ai. They both share a libertarian socialist perspective.

Less successful is Robinson’s handling of personal relations. He never really manages to rise above the level of a rather melodramatic soap opera.

Nevertheless Red Mars is essential reading for anyone who enjoys science fiction. It is another demonstration that socialist ideas were not extinguished with the collapse of Stalinism and that the struggle goes on.


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