History is Lamarckian

I just finished this novel, and loved every bit of it. It’s a plodding epic chronicling the colonization of Mars, and the first of a trilogy (Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars) which I plan to continue.

Here’s one of my favorite exchanges, between the fiery revolution-minded anarchist Arkady and the group of more conventional thinkers among the first one hundred colonists of Mars. While I’m inclined to dismiss Arkady-types in the real world as wild-eyed idealists whose dreams are not anchored to the realities of human history, this was a passage that made me think hard, through the sheer force of its eloquence and originality.

Over a dessert of strawberries, Arkady floated up to propose a toast. “To the new world we now create!”

A chorus of groans and cheers; by now they all knew what he meant. Phyllis threw down a strawberry and said, “Look, Arkady, this settlement is a scientific station. Your ideas are irrelevant to it. Maybe in fifty or a hundred years. But for now, it’s going to be like the stations in Antarctica.”

“That’s true,” Arkady said. “But in fact Antarctic stations are very political. Most of them were built so that countries that built them would have a say in the revision of the Antarctic treaty. And now the stations are governed by laws set by that treaty, which was made by a very political process! So you see, you cannot just stick your head in sand crying ‘I am a scientist, I am a scientist!’ ” He put a hand to his forehead, in the universal mocking gesture of the prima donna. “No. When you say that, you are only saying, ‘I do not wish to think about complex systems!’ Which is not really worthy of true scientists, is it?”

“The Antarctic is governed by a treaty because no one lives there except in scientific stations,” Maya said irritably. To have their final dinner, their last moment of freedom, disrupted like this!

“True,” Arkady said. “But think of the result. In Antarctica, no one can own land. No one country or organization can exploit the continent’s natural resources, without the consent of every other country. No one can claim to own those resources, or take them and sell them to other people, so that some profit from them while others pay for their use. Don’t you see how radically different that is from the way the rest of the world is run? And this is the last area on Earth to be organized, to be given a set of laws. It represents what all governments working together feel instinctively is fair, revealed on land free from claims of sovereignty, or really from any history at all. It is, to say it plainly, Earth’s best attempt to create just property laws! Do you see? This is the way entire world should be run, if only we could free it from the straitjacket of history!”

Sax Russell, blinking mildly, said, “But Arkady, since Mars is going to be ruled by a treaty based on the old Antarctic one, what are you objecting to? The Outer Space Treaty states that no country can claim land on Mars, no military activities are allowed, and all bases are open to inspection by any country. Also no martian resources can become the property of a single nation —the UN is supposed to establish an international regime to govern any mining or other exploitation. If anything is ever done along that line, which I doubt will happen, then it is to be shared among all the nations of the world.” He turned a palm upward. “Isn’t that what you’re agitating for, already achieved?”

“It’s a start,” Arkady said. ”But there are aspects of that treaty you haven’t mentioned. Bases built on Mars will belong to the countries that build them, for instance. We will be building American and Russian bases, according to this provision of the law. And that puts us right back into the nightmare of Terran law and Terran history. American and Russian businesses will have the right to exploit Mars, as long as the profits are somehow shared by all the nations signing the treaty. This may only involve some sort of percentage paid to UN, in effect no more than bribe. I don’t believe we should acknowledge these provisions for even a moment!”

Silence followed this remark.

Ann Clayborne said, “This treaty also says we have to take measures to prevent the disruption of planetary environments, I think is how they put it. It’s in Article Seven. That seems to me to expressly forbid the terraforming that so many of you are talking about.”

“I would say that we should ignore that provision as well,” Arkady said quickly. “Our own well-being depends on ignoring it.”

This view was more popular than his others, and several people said so.

“But if you’re willing to disregard one article,” Arkady pointed out, “you should be willing to disregard the rest. Right?”

There was an uncomfortable pause.

“All these changes will happen inevitably,” Sax Russell said with a shrug. “Being on Mars will change us in an evolutionary way.”

Arkady shook his head vehemently, causing him to spin a little in the air over the table. “No, no, no, no! History is not evolution! It is a false analogy! Evolution is a matter of environment and chance, acting over millions of years. But history is a matter of environment and choice, acting within lifetimes, and sometimes within years, or months, or days! History is Lamarckian! So that if we choose to establish certain institutions on Mars, there they will be! And if we choose others, there they will be!” A wave of his hand encompassed them all, the people seated at the tables, the people floating among the vines: “I say we should make those choices ourselves, rather than having them made for us by people back on Earth. By people long dead, really.”

Phyllis said sharply, “You want some kind of communal utopia, and it’s not possible. I should think Russian history would have taught you something about that.”

“It has,” Arkady said. “Now I put to use what it has taught me.”

“Advocating an ill-defined revolution? Fomenting a crisis situation? Getting everyone upset and at odds with each other?”

A lot of people nodded at this, but Arkady waved them away. “I decline to accept blame for everyone’s problems at this point in the trip. I have only said what I think, which is my right. If I make some of you uncomfortable, that is your problem. It is because you don’t like the implications of what I say, but can’t find grounds to deny them.”

“Some of us can’t understand what you say,” Mary exclaimed.

“I say only this!” Arkady said, staring at her bug-eyed: “We have come to Mars for good. We are going to make not only our homes and our food, but also our water and the very air we breathe—all on a planet that has none of these things. We can do this because we have technology to manipulate matter right down to the molecular level. This is an extraordinary ability, think of it! And yet some of us here can accept transforming the entire physical reality of this planet, without doing a single thing to change our selves, or the way we live. To be twenty-first century scientists on Mars, in fact, but at the same time living within nineteenth century social systems, based on seventeenth century ideologies. It’s absurd, it’s crazy, it’s—it’s—” he seized his head in his hands, tugged at his hair, roared “It’s unscientific! And so I say that among all the many things we transform on Mars, ourselves and our social reality should be among them. We must terraform not only Mars, but ourselves.”

History is Lamarckian, in exactly the sense declared by Arkady. But this of course does not imply that the social systems we build are not subject to the same forces of selection that have caused the downfall of so many past societies.

***

Anyway, I highly recommend this book, and to give you a flavor, here are a few more of my favorite quotes, presented with zero context…

“We were too old!”

“We were not too old. We chose not to think of it. Most ignorance is by choice, you know, and so ignorance is very telling about what really matters to people.”

“Come on,” he said. He propped himself up on an elbow to look at her. “You really don’t know what beauty is, do you?”

“I certainly do,” Nadia said mulishly.

Arkady ignored her and said, “Beauty is power and elegance, right action, form fitting function, intelligence, and reasonability.”

“We didn’t mean to be selfish,” Hiroko said slowly. “We wanted to try it, to show by experiment how we can live here. Someone has to show what you mean when you talk about a different life, John Boone. Someone has to live the life.”

Sax Russell rose to his feet. He looked the same as ever, perhaps a bit more flushed than usual, but mild, small, blinking owlishly, his voice calm and dry, as if lecturing on some textbook point of thermodynamics, or enumerating the periodic table.

“The beauty of Mars exists in the human mind,” he said in that dry factual tone, and everyone stared at him amazed. “Without the human presence it is just a concatenation of atoms, no different than any other random speck of matter in the universe. It’s we who understand it, and we who give it meaning. All our centuries of looking up at the night sky and watching it wander through the stars. All those nights of watching it through the telescopes, looking at a tiny disk trying to see canals in the albedo changes. All those dumb sci-fi novels with their monsters and maidens and dying civilizations. And all the scientists who studied the data, or got us here. That’s what makes Mars beautiful. Not the basalt and the oxides.”

He paused to look around at them all. Nadia gulped; it was strange in the extreme to hear these words come out of the mouth of Sax Russell, in the same dry tone that he would use to analyze a graph. Too strange!

“Now that we are here,” he went on, “it isn’t enough to just hide under ten meters of soil and study the rock. That’s science, yes, and needed science too. But science is more than that. Science is part of a larger human enterprise, and that enterprise includes going to the stars, adapting to other planets, adapting them to us. Science is creation. The lack of life here, and the lack of any finding in fifty years of the SETI program, indicates that life is rare, and intelligent life even rarer. And yet the whole meaning of the universe, its beauty, is contained in the consciousness of intelligent life. We are the consciousness of the universe, and our job is to spread that around, to go look at things, to live everywhere we can. It’s too dangerous to keep the consciousness of the universe on only one planet, it could be wiped out. And so now we’re on two, three if you count the moon. And we can change this one to make it safer to live on. Changing it won’t destroy it. Reading its past might get harder, but the beauty of it won’t go away. If there are lakes, or forests, or glaciers, how does that diminish Mars’s beauty? I don’t think it does. I think it only enhances it. It adds life, the most beautiful system of all. But nothing life can do will bring Tharsis down, or fill Marineris. Mars will always remain Mars, different from Earth, colder and wilder. But it can be Mars and ours at the same time. And it will be. There is this about the human mind; if it can be done, it will be done. We can transform Mars and build it like you would build a cathedral, as a monument to humanity and the universe both. We can do it, so we will do it. So—” he held up a palm, as if satisfied that the analysis had been supported by the data in the graph – as if he had examined the periodic table, and found that it still held true – “we might as well start.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s