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31 July 2010

Red Mars

I've recently been reading Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. After reading several mentions of the book by Levi Bryant at Larval Subjects, I looked it up and decided it could be a good summer read. It is way more than that, though.
I've always liked science fiction, because it explores the boundaries of humanity and turns a mirror on ourselves without being moralistic or preachy. In Red Mars, Robinson provides a well-written, engrossing example of the recent ontological theory that has been emerging. I don't know if Robinson is familiar with Latour, De Landa, Deleuze, Whitehead, Prigogine, Stengers, Law or any of the others, but they couldn't have asked for a better illustration of their theories.
The story follows a group of 100 people - called the first one hundred - who land on Mars and begin to colonize it. In a short time other colonists begin to arrive, bringing with them their own ideas and interests. Corporations begin to gain a stronger presence, Terran governments begin to send up police and security to protect corporate interests. Meanwhile, those in the first one hundred are trying to build a new world, a new society without all of the baggage from Earth, and a resistance emerges among those who want Mars to be left alone.
There's a lot going on here. There's politics and intrigue, but there's also science and philosophy and sociology. It's very anthropological in the sense that we are seeing the emergence of a new culture and society, though it's being composed of many different elements Terran societies. I don't know if I'm getting the same things out of the book as Levi, but I certainly understand why he likes the book so much, and I now share his enthusiasm for it.
Below are a few excerpts that I found particularly interesting. These are just ideas and speculations, though. The real value of the book is in the story as a whole. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in ontological theory, or if you're just looking for a good sci-fi novel.

On Eco-Economics p. 297
Marina and Vlad were particularly interesting on this topic, as they had worked out a system of equations for what they called "eco-economics." [John] liked listening to them explain the equations, and he asked them a lot of questions, learning about conceptslike carrying capacity, coexistence, counteradaptation, legitimacy mechanisms, and ecologic efficiency. "That's the only real measure of our contribution to the system," Vald would say. "If you burn our bodies in a microbomb calorimeter you'll find we contain about six or seven kilocalories per gram of weight, and of course we take in a lot of calories to sustain that through our lives. Our output is harder to measure, because it's not a matter of predators feeding on us, as in classic efficiency equations - it's more a matter of how many calories we create by our efforts, or send on to future generations, something like that. And most of that is very indirect, naturally, and it involves a lot of speculation and subjective judgment. If you don't go ahead and assign values to a number of non-physical things, then electricians and plumbers and reactor builders and other infrastructural workers would always rate as the most productive members of society, while artists and the like would be seen as contributing nothing at all."
"Sounds about right to me," John joked, but Vlad and Marina ignored him.
"Anyway that's a large part of what economics is - people arbitrarily, or as a matter of taste, assigning numerical values to non-numerical things. And then pretending that they haven't just made the numbers up, which they have. Economics is like astrology in that sense, except that economics serves to justify the current power structure, and so it has a lot of fervent believers among the powerful."
"Better just to concentrate on what we're doing here," Marina put in. "The basic equation is simple, efficiency merely equals the calories you put out, divided by the calories you take in, times one hundred to put it in the form of a percentage. In the classic sense of passing along calories to one's predator, ten percent was average, and twenty percent doing really well. Most predators at the tops of food chains did more like five percent."
"This is why tigers have ranges of hundreds of square kilometers," Vlad said. "Robber barons are not really very efficient."
"So tigers don't have predators not because they're so tough, but because it's not worth the effort, " John Said.
"The problem is in calculating the values," Marina said. "We have had to simply assign certain calorie-equivalent numerical values to all kinds of activities, and then go on from there."
"But we were talking about economics?" John said.
"But this is economics, don't you see, this is our eco-economics! Everyone should make their living, so to speak, based on a calculation of their real contribution to the human ecology. Everyone can increase their ecological efficiency by efforts to reduce how many kilocalories they use - this is the old Southern argument against the energy consumption of the Northern industrial nations. There was a real ecologic basis to that objection, because no matter how much the industrial nations produced, in the larger equation they could not be as efficient as the South."
"They were predators on the South," John said.
"Yes, and they will become predators on us too, if we let them. And like all predators their efficiency is low. But here, you see - in this theoretical state of independence that you speak of - " she grinned at John's look of consternation - "you do, you have to admit that that is ultimately what you talk about all the time, John - well there it should be the law that people are rewarded in proportion to their contribution to the system."
Dmitri, coming in the lab, said, "From each according to his capacities, to each according to his needs!"
"No, that's not the same," Vlad said. "What it means is, You get what you pay for!"
"But that's already true," John said. "How is this any different from the economics that already exists?"
They all scoffed at once, Marina most persistently: "... There's all kinds of phantom work! Unreal values assigned to most of the jobs on Earth! The entire transnational executive classdoes nothing a computer couldn't do, and there are whole categories of parasitical accounting. Advertising, stock brokerage, the whole apparatus for making money only from the manipulation of money - that is not only wasteful but corrupting, as all meaningful money values get distorted in such manipulation." She waved a hand in disgust.
"Well," Vlad said, "we can say that their efficiency is very low, and that they predate on the system without having any predators, so that they are either the top of the chain or parasitical, depending on how you define it. Advertising, money brokering, some types of manipulation of the law, some politics..."
"But all of these are subjective judgments!" John exclaimed. "How have yo actually assigned caloric values to such a variety of activities?"
"Well, we have done our best to calculate what they contribute back to the system in terms of well-being measured as a physical thing. What does the activity equal in terms of food, or water, or shelter, or clothing, or medical aid, or education or free time? We've talked it over, and usually everyone at Acheron has offered a number, and we have taken the mean. Here, let me show you..."

On Gift Economics p 315 - John dining with some Sufis...
One of the old women around him picked up the pot and poured John's cup full. SHe put down the pot, gestured: "Now you fill mine," John did so, unsteadily, and then the pot went around the room. Each pourer filled someone else's cup.
"We start every meal this way," the old woman said. "It is a little sign of how we are together. 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. Each of us has a gift, you see, given us freely by the universe. And each of us with every breath gives something back."
"Like the equation for ecological efficiency," John said.
"Maybe so. In any case, whole cultures were built around the idea of the gift, in Malaysia, in the American northwest, in many primitive cultures. In Arabia we gave water, or coffee. Food and shelter. And whatever you were given, you did not expect to keep, but gave it back again in your turn, hopefully with interest. You worked to be able to give more than you received. Now we thing that this can be the basis for a reverent economics."
"It's just what Vlad and Ursula said!"
"Maybe so."

On the Politics of Science p. 340
"You see, John, the economic basis of life on Mars is now changing," Arkady said. "No, don't you dare scoff! So far we have not been living in a money economy, that's they way scientific stations are. It's like winning a prize that frees you from the economic wheel. We won that prize, and so did a lot of others, and we've all been here for years now, living that way. But now more people are flooding onto Mars, thousands of them! And many of them plan to work here, make some money, and return to Earth..."
"... When we first arrived and for twenty years after that, Mars was like Antarctica but even purer. We were outside the world, we didn't even own things - some clothes, a lectern, and that was it! Now you know what I think, John. This arrangement resembles the prehistoric way to live, and it therefore feels right to us, because our brains recognize it from three millions of years practicing it. In essence our brains grew to their current configuration in response to the realities of that life. So as a result people grow powerfully attached to that kind of life, when they get the chance to live it. It allows you to concentrate your attention on the real work, which means everything that is done to stay alive, or make things, or satisfy one's curiosity, or play. That is utopia, John, especially for primitives and scientists, which is to say everybody. So a scientific research station is actually a little model of prehistoric utopia, carved out of the transnational money economy by clever primates who want to live well."
"You'd think everyone would join," John said.
"Yes, and they might, but it isn't being offered to them. And that means it wasn't a true utopia. We clever primate scientists were willing to carve out islands for ourselves, rather than work to create such conditions for everyone. And so in reality, the islands are part of the transnational order. They are paid for, they are never truly free, there is never a case of truly pure research. Becaust the people who pay for the scientist islands will eventually want a return on their investment. And now we are entering that time. A return is being demanded for our island. We were not doing pure research, you see, but applied research. And with the discovery of strategic metals the application has become clear. And so it all comes back, and we have a return of ownership, and prices, and wages. The whole profit system. The little scientific station is being turned into a mine, with the usual mining attitude toward the land over the treasure. And the scintists are being asked, What you do, how much is it worth? They are bing asked to do their work for pay, and the profit of their work is to be given over to the owners of the businesses they are suddenly working for."
"I don't work for anyone," John said.
"Well, but you work on the terraforming project, and who pays for that?"
John tried out Sax's answer: "The sun."
Arkady hooted. "Wrong! It's not just the sun and some robots, it's human time, a lot of it. And those humans have to eat and so on. And so someone is providing for them, for us, because we have not bothered to set up a life where we provide for ourselves."
John frowned. "Well, in the beginning we had to have the help. That was billions of dollars of equipment flown up here. Lots of work time, like you say."
"Yes, it's true. But once we arrived we could have focused all our efforts on making ourselves self-sufficient and independent, and then paid them back and been done with them. But we didn't, and now the loan sharks are here..."

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