Monday, September 29, 2008

Kim Stanley Robinson: Hero of the Environment

It seems that it's hard to get far away from Mars when talking about notable science fiction (and yes I still have a review of Mars Life to finish). This week Time Magazine named Kim Stanley Robinson as a "Hero of the Environment 2008".
Robinson, 56, is a Californian, an intellectual, a child rearer, an activist, a deep believer in the value of science ("Science is — or should be — the greenest force of all.") He is also one of the most accomplished and popular writers working in science fiction today. In a genre full of environmental warnings, Robinson's gift is a vision that uses the environment and its complexity as the focus of all that happens, rather than merely as grim set dressing or allegorical overlay. And that vision is optimistic about what could, with sufficient will, be brought about. He sees creating utopias as a technical challenge to his craft — they're hard to do convincingly and interestingly. But he also sees them as an empty ecological niche in the imagination; if only to maximise cultural biodiversity, he wants that niche filled.
Robinson is specially noted for his Mars trilogy - Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars - which follows the the human settlement and terraforming of Mars. But many of his other novels also look at the effect of man on the environment, and the effect of environment on both individuals and society. Robinson's latest trilogy is set on a near future Earth in which global warming has cause widespread flooding.
You can certainly read the Mars books as a story of taking responsibility for a planet's reshaping that applies right here right now on earth. But at the same time they are always books about a real Mars waiting in the future, its rocks and ice and canyons and craters relished in their toe-stubbing there-ness. Settings, whether as alien as Mars or as familiar as Washington's Rock Creek Park, are one of the foundations of Robinson's writing; the realism with which he treats the changes he imagines for them is fundamental to making his stories of progress convincing and compelling.
In a 1993 interview published in Eidolon, he talked about how exploration of Mars might actually might help us solve climate problems here on Earth:

"[Red Mars is] almost all based on fact. The only thing about my book that is probably a stretch is the speed with which it is accomplished. Most proposals will put the terraforming of Mars on a scale of thousands, or at least many hundreds of years. I have things shifting pretty rapidly. But we're making awfully big advances in biotechnology. Every decade shows enormous leaps in our ability to manipulate biological matter and that might be a tool much stronger in terraforming than currently predicted."

If the creation of a balanced natural environment were to become possible on Mars, would that help us to save our own planet - re-terraforming it perhaps?

"Yeah, exactly! Mars functions as a giant control experiment. If you terraformed Mars, the amount you could learn would just be enormous and would be directly applicable back to terraforming the Earth."

Considering that NASA isn't even planning a manned mission to Mars until 2031, any experiments in terraforming are likely to be too late to prevent the effects of global warming. Not to mention that we may inadvertently alter the ecology of Mars by simply landing there, as Robinson noted in an interview with BLDGBLOG
The interesting problem on Mars, and Chris McKay has talked about this, is that if we conclude that there’s the possibility of bacterial life on Mars, then it becomes really, really important for us not to contaminate the planet with earthly bacteria. But it’s almost impossible to sterilize a spaceship completely. There were probably 100,000 bacteria even on the sterilized spacecraft that we sent to Mars, living on their inner surfaces. It isn’t even certain that a gigantic crash-landing and explosion would kill all that bacteria.

So Chris McKay has been suggesting that a site like the Beagle or polar lander crash site actually needs to be excavated and fully sterilized – the stuff may even have to be taken off-planet – if we really want to keep Mars uncontaminated. In other words, we’ve contaminated it already; if we find native, alien bacterial life on Mars, and we don’t want it mixed up with Terran life, then we might have to do something a lot more radical than an archaeological saving of the site. We might have to do something like a Superfund clean-up.

Of course, that’s all really hard to do without getting down there with yet more bacteria-infested things.
Maybe we'll make Mars like Earth whether we plan to or not.

For a free story about genetics and biodiversity, see Robinson's short short for Nature Futures "Prometheus unbound, at last"

(Time article via Heliophage via Science Fiction Awards Watch )

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