Past and Future Histories

Red Mars
Red Mars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Historical fiction and SF (or sci-fi if you prefer) generally seem unlikely bedfellows. You’re into bodices and Tudors, or space opera and rayguns. But in fact, when well written, they have more in common than you might imagine. For starters, they are both about world-building. A fine historical writer – and there are a great many – will not just lavish attention on the physical details of the realms inhabited by the characters, but make some sound guesses concerning the way those constants might affect their attitudes, reactions and beliefs.


I don’t read very much SF, but one writer I’ve followed with great interest over the last couple of decades is the formidably talented Kim Stanley Robinson. I first came across him, as do the majority of his fans, I suspect, through his epic Mars Trilogy in the mid-1990s. It does what it says on the tin – you start with the premise that in 2015 the first man landed on the Red Planet, followed a few years later by an international group of 100 colonists. From this beginning, over hundreds of pages, he traces the development of Mars physically into a terraformed planet habitable by human beings, and socially into an independent world.

KSR loves to think big. That’s what I love about him. He does have a tendency to go off at tangents, which can last hundreds of pages, (a bit like Hugo in Les Miserables) and the characterisation in the Mars books was at times a bit formulaic. There were representatives of various environmental and political positions, most noteably the MarsFirst group who opposed terraforming on principle and their opponents who wanted to throw everything technology had to offer at them thar red rocks. The third book, in particular, sometimes felt as long as the characters’ genetically-enhanced lifespans. But what stayed with me was his astonishing grasp of landscape, the way he could bring alien worlds so vividly into the mind’s eye, and the boldness and optimism of his vision.

By the end of Blue Mars Mercury and the planetary systems of the gas giants are being colonised, Venus is being terraformed (I said he liked to think big) and interstellar travel is on the drawing board. As the Martian narrative flagged, I became entranced by KSR’s vision of the city Terminator, endlessly travelling on tracks to avoid the lethal Mercurian sunlight, and the idea of hollowed-out asteroids becoming arks for imperilled species from Earth. I was eager for him to return to this captivating picture of the future, but I was to wait a long time.

Red Mars
Blue Mars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now at last he has. 2312 is set in, more or less, the same universe as the Mars Trilogy, though I notice that the chronology has been shifted forward a few years. People have argued over the minutiae of canon, just like Doctor Who fans do, but it’s basically a sequel in all but name. It’s a riveting, if slightly odd, picture of where we could be in three centuries’ time, assuming environmental Armageddon becomes the spur to drive us outward into space rather than inward to despair.

What I love about KSR, apart from the aforementioned boldness of vision, is the careful way he fills in the background, constructing a richly detailed and believable future history. Some people still find his characters flat and his infodumping rather indigestible, but personally I lap it up. I haven’t had this much fun reading a novel for a good while. For those familiar with the Mars Trilogy, there is an extra layer of interest, because that was basically a story still rooted in the Cold War, or rather the ending of it and the question of what might happen next. A post 9/11 Mars Trilogy would have different concerns; terrorism, Balkanization, the unexpected resurgence of fundamentalist religion and the ever-present menace of Kurtzweil’s Singularity – are those little computer implants actually getting smarter and ganging up on us?. There is something very Al-Quida about the notion that a massive act of terrorist destruction could be caused by an infinite number of tiny, but massively powerful, computers each hurling a pebble across vast interplanetary space to converge on a single target too late for safety systems to detect their lethal intent. If that’s not an allegory of 9/11, I don’t know what is.

We read historical fiction to show us where we’ve been and SF to tell us where we could be headed, but both are essentially meditations on our present. And it’s curious that the other book I’m reading, which appears so different, has turned out to be the perfect complement to 2312. It’s Neil McGregor’s wonderful list of 100 objects that shaped the history of humanity, from axe heads carved two million years ago to Shariah-compliant credit cards from the 21st century. Both examine what it means to be human, and to build a human society that will interact with other societies, ones with values so alien to its own that they might conceivably be said to inhabit another world. But McGregor does it with forensic minaturism, while KSR thinks very much on the grand scale.

Between them, they combine to form a complementary, perfect whole. It seems that to explore strange new worlds must, after all, include an element of going where man and woman has boldly gone before.


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