Kim Stanly Robinson’s most famous book, Red Mars, is also probably my least favorite science fiction book of all time. I read it at a very inopportune time. The novel is preoccupied with economic considerations, and I read it while I was studying economics in graduate school. I objected so strenuously to the poor handling of economic theory in the book that about 2/3rds of the way through I stopped reading and inaugurated the “refused-to-finish” shelf of my Goodreads collection.
I haven’t tried any Kim Stanley Robinson since then, but when I saw his newest book, Aurora, was on the 2015 Locus Recommended Reading List I decided it was time for a fresh attempt. The bright side? For one, I’m not in an economics graduate program and for another the book is basically completely devoid of any economic theory. So, right off the bat, we’ve cleared our first hurdle. On the other hand, instead of a lot of badly confused economic theory, this time around there’s badly confused computer science theory. The Traveling Salesman Problem, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems, Turing machines (I think), the Turing test, the Hard Problem of Consciousness, and especially the Halting Problem all make prominent repeat appearances in ways that meander between facile and simply incorrect.
Now, I get that I’m at risk of being that guy. You know, the guy who interrupts a story that you’re enjoying to explain that none of the physics are realistic, or whatever. I will state, very briefly, my case for when and why that kind of thing matters. Physics does not really matter in The Avengers, and math doesn’t really matter in The Big Bang Theory. In both cases, the science is not the point. On the other hand, physics matters a lot in The Martian and you can’t have the movie A Beautiful Mind without at least a passable conception of Nash equilibrium. The point is that an author doesn’t have to get everything right that some random person in the audience might happen to view as their particular treasured niche. But an author does have an obligation to do a considerable amount of research on any particular topic that the author chooses to elevate to prominence in their novel. It’s the you bring it up, you buy it corollary to you break it, you buy it.
So, if you’re going to bring these concepts up in your book and feature them prominent, you should get them right. But Robinson doesn’t. Most of the time, he’s just throwing around buzzwords, and the usage is too superficial to tell if he gets it right or wrong. And that, itself, is a problem. Science fiction is supposed to be the literature of ideas, not the literature of misappropriated jargon. And so we get quotes like “consciousness is the hard problem,” which is a mangled confusion of the actual Hard Problem of Consciousness, a crucial issue in cognitive philosophy and AI that has to do with the reducilbity (or not) of qualia (the subjective aspect of conscious experience).
In other places, however, the use of these concepts isn’t just superficial, it’s completely wrong. The most flagrant of these is the Halting Problem. There’s a scene near the end when a starship AI isn’t sure if the ship will be able to decelerate to avoid flying by its intended destination, and the AI calls it the Halting Problem. But that has nothing to do with the Halting Problem at all. The Halting Problem is not “can I stop?” The Halting Problem is, “Can you write an algorithm that will be able to determine if any given program will have a finite run time, given specified inputs?” That’s not the same thing. Moreover, the Halting Problem has an answer. The whole reason it’s so famous is that back in 1936 Alan Turing proved that the answer to the question is “No, you cannot make an algorithm that will be able to determine—for any arbitrary computer program and a set of inputs—whether that program will run forever or stop after a finite number of iterations.” So what does this have to do with slowing down your spaceship? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
The oddest of them all, however, was the speculation by the protagonist about the meaning of delta-v. That’s an abbreviation for “change in velocity” because v is short for velocity and delta is the Greek letter conventionally used in physics to denote a change. So it’s not mysterious at all, but the main character is off musing about river deltas and the shapes that waves leave behind in the sand of a beach as they recede.
Now, in fairness to Robinson, the main character is also described as being rather dimwitted. Maybe she’s just really dumb. But, considering she lives her life on a spaceship and undergoes intensive training in basically every aspect of the ship—including lots of statistics and math—it’s odd for her to have no clue what “delta-v” means. Nobody who takes a single undergraduate physics class is going to confuse delta-v with river deltas.
So, just as with Red Mars, my biggest complaint is that Robinson brings up all kinds interesting topics without any actually conveying any substance about them at all. I mean, there’s also a ton of chemistry in this book. It sounds legitimate, but I don’t know anything about chemistry so I can’t tell. I know a fair amount about economics and computer science, however, and if his handling of chemistry is as poor as those topics there are a lot of chemists out there with headaches after trying to read this book. And to me, that’s the biggest problem, this is hard sci-fi written by an author who seems to go out of his way to erode his audience’s confidence. What is the point of writing hard sci-fi if you don’t get the science right?
This is far from the only similarity to Red Mars, however. The books are so similar that they seem to have been written from the same template. They are especially similar in regards to the protagonist:
- Spending most of the time wandering around a small community talking to everyone (and having sex with a large proportion of them)
- Having no discernible talent or intelligence other than just talking to people (in contrast to being surrounded by competent experts)
- Having no real job and contributing basically nothing to the group at all (other than being a mascot)
- Becoming a polarizing figure: most everyone loves the protagonist, but a small minority detest him (Red Mars) or her (Aurora) and those haters are the Bad Guys
There are other similarities as well, such as the obsession with small-scale political turmoil and endless town hall meetings with lots and lots of speeches all set against the backdrop of a challenging, austere environment.
Let me just get one more thing in: there is a common accusation made by the political right that the political let is secretly enamored with taking over everybody’s life and telling them what to do. Of course, in most cases, this is just a convenient stereotype and hardly worth dignifying with a response. But it’s always interesting to see exceptions like Robinson. The real hero of this book is not the protagonist but the ship’s AI, a conscious being with near absolute surveillance capability over everyone on board the ship and vast police powers who—when the humans can’t solve their own problems—responds with the threat of death by seizing control and declaring “I am law and order.” So yeah, nothing creepy at all about vesting the abstract principles law, order, and justice in an actual person who also happens to wield totalitarian control over the populace.
However, having said all this, I did like the book much, much better than Red Mars for a few reasons.
First, the premise is really quite daring. Kim Stanley Robinson is a person who has built a career writing near-future, hard sci f tales of the colonization of the Solar System, and the whole point of this book is: it can’t be done. “Life is a planetary phenomena.” That’s the conclusion of the characters in the book, backed up by the evidence, and the message that colonization is futile (thus explaining the Fermi Paradox) is not what I’d have expected from someone who has spent so much time writing about colonization. The stark contrast of this depressing conclusion vs. the optimism of Red Mars / Green Mars / Blue Mars is also laudable: Robinson’s plot structure might be a little formulaic, but he’s clearly willing to change his world-building rules in fundamental ways, and I think that’s really important as an author and makes for fresher, less predictable writing. In addition, he takes the generation colony ship concept and inverts it completely in a way that is really, really interesting and very narratively powerful.
The ending chapters, in particular, are very, very impactful. A little preachy, perhaps, but his idea that life is a planetary phenomena—that you can’t actually separate an individual organism or even a collection of them from Superorganism Earth—is a genuinely, legitimately Big Idea and it is conveyed at the end with conviction and literary flair.