Robinson, Kim Stanley. Red Mars

Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars (1993). Worthy, solid, hard sf-ish epic which speaks very directly to speculative fiction's utopian tradition. Reasonably good at avoiding the worst pitfalls of hard sf by making time for social science and political theory, and by creating dialogues and controversies that aren't decisively settled one way or the other. It edges on cringe-worthy ethnic caricature, though at least it has an inclusive and cosmopolitan instinct. Perhaps I need to think about that a bit more.

One particularly interesting section, as regards economics, is Arkady's conversation with Boon in Part 5, Chapter 8: "So far we have not been living in a money economy, that’s the way scientific stations are. It’s like winning a prize that frees you from the economic wheel." Arkady imagines the colonists as "scientist primitives" who have carved out an island utopia which appears free from the workings of global (stellar) capitalism, but is not really. Another is Marina and Vlad's eco-economics in Part 5, Chapter 6: "Everyone should make their living, so to speak, based on a calculation of their real contribution to the human ecology." As an attempt to rationalize economic value, Marina and Vlad's calorie-based proposals could probably stand to learn from historical experiments with time-based currencies (e.g. LETS), as well as the late 19Cth subjectivist critique (Menger et al.) of labor theories of value and cost-of-production theories of value. Marina and Vlad also propose a version of the Bullshit Jobs thesis (cf. e.g. Adams, Bellamy, Morris), that "there are whole categories of parasitical jobs that add nothing to the system by an ecologic accounting." But it is probably a good rule of thumb to think of economics as a "deformed offshoot" of ecology that is "like astrology." Marina and Vlad's eco-economics is soon compared with -- though it surely very different from -- the Sufis' aspiration for a "reverent economics" inspired by gift exchange. "We have studied the old cultures, before your global market netted everything, and in those ages there existed many different forms of exchange. Some of them were based on the giving of gifts." Mars's awkward and often ambiguous status at the edge of the Terran economy may offer some interesting comparisons, perhaps, with Charles Stross's Neptune's Brood. I am interested to see what happens in the next two books, and suspect the economics of longevity treatment may play a bit of a role?

Red Mars, by the way, is another of those books that actually does many of the things science fiction is assumed as a matter of critical cliche to do: it imagines the future, it reasons extrapolatively, it respects science but also wiggles it a bit, it inspires, it cautions, it tries to invoke sensawunda. It does these things in a way which feels fairly straightforward, almost prosaically literal, if you have been spending your time trying to read, oh I don't know, Dune or Trouble on Triton or Neuromancer or Children of Men or The Hunger Games or Jack Glass or something through that lens. You can kind of make it work, and actually using slightly the wrong tool turns out to be pretty damn fruitful once you give it some oomph ... but then when you turn to Red Mars and the critical apparatus and the text slot together so neatly, you feel a bit nonplussed.