Kim Stanely Robinson’s Mars trilogy has become a sci-fi classic. Red Mars tells the story of the original colonization of the planet. Green Mars, the subject of this post’s reflection, covers the ecological and political development of the Mars at the hands of the first generation of colonists (whose lives have been extended by a miraculous treatment discovered in Red Mars) working with or against the “metanational” governments/corporations back on Earth, as well as later generations of colonists. Will Mars survive the growing problems on Earth? Will it gain its independence, or remain an exploited colony? Will Mars be transformed to a livable climate, or will it maintain some of its pristine beauty as a desert world?
While the plot of this book is interesting enough, even more interesting is the reflection Green Mars gives us on the big picture of how the world works. Across several conversations between main characters, we’re told of a tension in the world between the “green” and the “white.” The “white” aspect of the world is the mysterious, primal chaos that we seem to see when we look at the cosmos for the first time with fresh, naked eyes. This vision can be stunning, or even overwhelming, but it is at first incomprehensible.
Over time, we make attempts to explain and organize this “white”, chaotic world. These attempts are the “green”, efforts to systematize the chaos of the world to make it comprehensible and livable. This isn’t the example Robinson uses (or the example Nietzsche uses in The Birth of Tragedy, where similar arguments are made), but the idea is that we encounter the wonders of nature, for example. We notice–really notice–for the first time that things we drop always fall down. This is either mysterious, awe-inspiring, or terrifying, depending on the state of our souls, the circumstances in which we in which we encounter this revelation, or any number of other criteria we might run into.
Eventually, we go to work trying to systematize and quantify this mysterious world we have uncovered. Newton writes his seven kinematic equations, and we think we’ve really gotten a handle on the white world of gravity using the rational green system. However, just when we think we’ve gotten a handle on things, the green proves inadequate as either we discover new realities, or the exceptions to the green system (and there are always exceptions) overwhelm its usefulness. Newton’s kinematic equations show us the world of relativity, which exists beyond their scope and for which they are insufficient. The white once again overwhelms the green. Then the green is used to explain the white again, only to find more white underneath. And so on in rotation.
This principle does not only apply to the relationship between the natural world and the sciences, Green Mars is especially interested in thinking about how this explains our difficulty in explaining human nature and politics as well. Just when we think we’ve got a handle on how people work or what kind of government is best, we discovered something new or run into a problem which all of our previous assumptions have ill equipped us to face. We think “freedom of speech” is a pretty good idea, then someone discovers the anonymity of the Internet or that they can say awful things about someone else because of their race or gender or whatever. We discover the limitations that come from feudal monarchy, and so we come up with representative democracy, only to discover its limitations.
We could go on. The point is, there seems to be something problematic about every solution given enough time. When we’re dealing with colonizing another planet, well, hopefully it’s obvious that this problem is going to be vastly magnified.
This is interesting to think through from a Christian perspective. We of course have many categories with which to try to understand the world, including (but certainly not limited to): creation and sin, law and Gospel, sacred and secular, the city of man and the City of God, etc. And in a sense, there is some kind of similar pattern to what Robinson has identified in church history. We will try to articulate a truth about God–say, the Incarnation. But then our articulation either runs into heresy, or seems to be an insufficient explanation of the wondrous mystery of God made man, so we try to find another, which encounters the same problems. Over and over through history this seems to be the way things work.
I admit I have to think more about this. I think on one level this perspective does seem to be an accurate reflection of our experiences and of human history. And yet, on another level, this view is pretty obviously deficient (though deficiency of perspective is a part of the perspective itself). Christianity teaches that there are certain and lasting truths which can be known and held, even in the face of a changing world. To be sure, we do not claim that these truths lead to perfect knowledge or understanding, or that we can see how in every circumstance they can be perfectly reflected. And yet, perfect knowledge doesn’t belong to anyone anyway. While Christianity’s beliefs may not explain the world fully to our satisfaction in every event, they explain the world sufficiently for all of our lives.
And that can give us confidence, even when the planetary government and ecology seem to be in a slow collapse.
And if it’s not clear by now, Green Mars is worth picking up and reading. The fact that it’s an excellent story is just icing on the cake.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO