04 January 2014

"The Dharma Bums" and "Red Mars."

The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac
Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson

The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac

The 1950s began modern interest in Zen, as pacified Japan became a new cultural resource for America.  Great teachers, most notably D.T. Suzuki (whose work remains essential for American teachers of the religion) came to the States and went on lecture tours.  Conclaves of artists and poets seized these new ideas and selected from them what they needed, as always happens when culture meets culture.  In the process, the aspects of Zen most attractive to Western thought were embraced and encouraged, altering Zen and yielding up a new version of the philosophy.  There's probably a complicated set of jargon to describe the process, but I'll just call this the birth of Hippie Zen.

Hippie Zen is with us still, and thank goodness.  The exotic lure of the koan and the transcendent pleasure of not-being is something that everyone should at least know about, if not experience.  If you turn your nose up at it because you think it's somehow "lesser" than a mythical pure version of Zen, then you should pause to reflect that the only systems that remain static are the dead ones.

The Dharma Bums is a Beat work, and one of the greatest of them.  Raucous and childlike in all the best ways, it's a recounting of a brief period of Kerouac's life, mostly centered around a friend of his (renamed "Japhy") who introduced him to the Hippie Zen life (this was technically before there were any hippies, but Beatnik Zen just doesn't have the same ring to it, so to hell with it).  The narrator and Japhy go on great adventures of sex and hiking and drinking, dedicating themselves to the reality of experience so as to pierce the illusions of the world.
"Give me another slug of that jug. How! Ho! Hoo!" Japhy leaping up: "I've been reading Whitman, know what he says, Cheer up slaves, and horrify foreign despots, he means that's the attitude for the Bard, the Zen Lunacy bard of old desert paths, see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn't really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of 'em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures, that's what I like about you Goldbook and Smith, you two guys from the East Coast which I thought was dead."
One of the challenges of reading The Dharma Bums is not how to understand it or to enjoy it - neither process needs help - but simply how to read it as a text.  If you're not careful, you get caught up in associations and history and ideas, and you spin away from the experience of the book itself.

Needless to say, that's a great problem to have.  Read The Dharma Bums immediately.

Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson

There are different kinds of science fiction.  There are space operas, which emphasize smashing great romantic adventures (and which have increasingly resembled space westerns since the cult success of Joss Whedon's Firefly).  There are utopias and dystopias, popular enough to be considered genres of their own.  There's cyberpunk, about the underworlds that churn forth from the impact of machine on man.  There's steampunk, which embraces the past's vision of the future.  And so on - there are many, many more.

One of the most important distinctions made when speaking of all kinds of science fiction, though, is how "hard" or "soft" it is.  If a text is too speculative, it's "soft."  If it sticks to roughly the laws of nature as we know them, it's "hard."  There's some wiggle room: other critics claim that the two describe the degree to which a book focuses on the social implications of the future world.  The term comes as an extension of the "hard sciences" (biology, physics, etc.) and the "soft sciences" (psychology, political science, etc).

Before I go on, let's pause to look at the snobbery inherent in our terminology, here.  Hard/soft is a binary opposition - one of those pairs of terms that exist in opposition to each other, as identified by Ferdinand de Saussure.  Saussure would say that all words are binary opposites, but let's leave that.  Moreover, this is a privileged binary, as Jacques Derrida would call it (in deliberately obscure French) - one of the terms reigns over the other in our thinking, because the other is primarily defined in terms of its absence.  Science fiction is soft to the extent that it is not hard, but not really the other way around.  This is true, even if it's not necessarily logical when put in those terms.  When we talk about the hard science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, we speak of his emphasis on all the technical detail of how his spacemen made their flights.  When we talk of the softer science fiction of Isaac Asimov, we speak about how he fails to include those same sorts of details.  However much critics might object to this practice, it is nonetheless what occurs.  Hardness is a privileged and vaguely good quality for a text, while softness is just some degree of not-hardness.

That's all a long way of saying that hard science fiction is considered subtly better than soft science fiction by many adherents.  This has many reasons, but first among them is probably the barely-hidden belief that soft science fiction is just easier to write and requires less of the reader.  Gary Westfahl has written of this idea in an essay in  2008's A Companion to Science Fiction, writing that hard science fiction is sometimes thought to be the "most challenging and intellectually rigorous form of science fiction" - even though, as he notes, the "extrapolated aliens and future societies" of soft science fiction are "every bit as fascinating and intellectually involving as the technological marvels and strange planets of hard science fiction."

But while you and I and Westfalh and everyone else may reject a dichotomy of hard and soft when we discuss science fiction, and may scorn to say that hard science fiction really is more challenging, and we may even choose to move away from those labels entirely, the underlying mechanic is there.  This is apparent in the culture of science fiction: authors are proud to call themselves authors of "hard science fiction," and there are readers who actively seek it out.  And as Westfahl dryly comments, "There has never existed a community of soft science fiction writers or an audience clamoring for soft science fiction."

But as Kim Stanley Robinson shows us in Red Mars, hardness is overrated.

This book is the first in a trilogy about the settlement of Mars.  It describes the times and troubles of the first hundred settlers.  Traveling to the planet on a spaceship named Ares, they struggle through years of colonizing toil just to survive on the icy, red surface.  Their solutions to the inevitable problems are ingenious - they are perhaps the hundred most brilliant people alive, after all - and Robinson takes care to describe the principles involved.  Even their games have a scientific spin.
Sometimes she went with them up to the hub at the end of a work session, to play a game they had invented called tunneljump. There was a jump tube down the central shaft, where all the joints between cylinders had been expanded to the same width as the cylinders themselves, making a single smooth tube. There were rails to facilitate quick movement back and forth along this tube, but in their game, jumpers stood on the storm-shelter hatch, and tried to leap up the tube to the bubble-dome hatch, a full 500 meters away, without bumping into the walls or railings. Coriolis forces made this effectively impossible, and flying even halfway would usually win a game. But one day Hiroko came by on her way to check an experimental crop in the bubble dome, and after greeting them she crouched on the shelter hatch and jumped, and slowly floated the full length of the tunnel, rotating as she flew, and stopping herself at the bubble-dome hatch with a single outstretched hand.
The speculations of Red Mars are wonderful.  Robinson describes brilliant ideas, like robotic factories that churn out millions of automated windmills, to turn the whistling gales of Mars into atmospheric heat.  Or we can look at his description of how a space elevator might be built - his treatment of this innovation is perhaps the best part of the text, as he writes of the diamond-latticed, carbon-fiber cable slowly descending from orbit.

But as wonderful as this might be, and even though it's the hardest science fiction around, this story suffers from its attempts to make "hard" characters that act like "real people," while also weighting them down with symbolism.  It's a heavy load to carry, and his creations fail at the task.

Each character is laden with meaning, slathered on with a trowel:

  • John.  The most obviously symbolic character, John is both John the Baptist (as the forerunner and only character who has already been to Mars) and John the Evangelist, recklessly preaching a new world.
  • Frank.  The American leader, he represents realpolitik: he will do whatever is necessary to move forward in some fashion and maintain certain control.
  • Arkady.  A Russian revolutionary who disrupts systems.  He is all revolutionaries, and exactly as interesting as such a vague smear of rebels might seem to be.
  • Maya.  The Russian leader (remember this was back when they were the other major world player), her name means "illusion" - as in the complicated illusions of servant and master.  She spends most of her time caught between contradictions.
  • Nadia.  A nine-fingered character who's especially fond of the underground city Underhill, and whose earnest simplicity is intended to show up the ideological concerns of politicos?  How very like a certain hobbit.
  • Sax.  An owlish devotee of terraforming, he's named after a musical instrument, one of the heights of human achievement.  He works relentlessly to transform the planet.
  • Phyllis.  She represents major corporate interests.  Need I even describe her further?  She's exactly like the image that springs to mind.
  • Anne.  This geologist's last name is "Claybourne," and she is in love with Mars itself, unsullied.  She fights desperately to preserve it.
  • Hiroko.  The book was written in the early nineties, and Hiroko, the gardener and mysterious mother-goddess-of-fertility figure, is very much in vogue with the rush of japanophilia that struck during that era.

The basic moral of the book is that it is wrong to try to be involved with human society, and that you should instead try to separate and create your own world.  I'm not sure if that was the meaning that Robinson intended, but it's the one he gives us.  There are movements that try to work with others and change their minds (Frank, Anne, Sax, Maya, Phyllis, etc.) and they are depicted as petty and wrong.  And there are movements that abscond or stay aloof (Hiroko, Nadia, the settlers as a whole), and they are noble and exotic.

These flaws of characterization are a major weakness of an otherwise good book.  Each character flounders into pre-written scripts and cliches, united behind a single mediocre moral.  This is a shame, because otherwise the writing is fairly good.
Arkady cackled. “Still my same John Boone! I love it. Look here, my friend, I will tell you why these things are happening, and then you can work at it systematically, and perhaps see more. Ah, here’s the subway to Stickney— come on, I want to show you the infinity vault, it’s really a nice piece of work.” He led John to the little subway car, and they floated down a tunnel to near the center of Phobos, where the car stopped and they got out. They pushed across the narrow room, and pulled themselves down a hall; John noted that his body had adjusted to the weightlessness, that he could float and keep his trim again. Arkady led him into an expansive open gallery, which on first glance appeared to be too large to be contained inside of Phobos: floor, wall and ceiling were paneled in faceted mirrors, and each round slab of polished magnesium had been angled so that anyone in its microgravity space was reflected in thousands of infinite regresses.
Observe how the Russian revolutionary cackled good-naturedly, and the American adventurer was gamely interested - but also observe the obvious delight Robinson takes in the implications of technology, and how it ably includes us in his fascination.

Ultimately, this is a book only for science fiction fans, or for people who are particularly interested in giving the genre a try.  I would recommend it strongly for them, but not especially for general interest.


  1. Reading this 4-y.o. post, I'm not sure I get your rant against hard SF. What are you proving here, that seriousness is not the *only* criteria deciding whether a story is good?

    1. I was gesturing (clumsily) towards how Robinson's efforts to be as "hard" as possible conflicted with his simultaneous attempt to fill his books with symbolic characters and events. It gets in the way of the potentially richer characterization that would have improved the text. Or perhaps "conflicted" isn't the right word... rather, it seems almost as though the characters were all loaded up with the burden of adhering as closely as possible to a realistic narrative that they had little room for innovation in themselves. Now that I write that, though, it seems addled. I see no reason why you couldn't have entirely realistic characters enacting entirely realistic events and still have room for a well-crafted set of original themes. You have aptly struck upon some poor thinking here, thanks! This could have been improved.

      None of this was intended as a rant against hard sci-fi, though, only a meditation on its implementation here.

    2. Okay then, thank you for your answer.

      Thank you also for writing Significant Digits which I recently read, a great and dare I say quite /hard/ novel...