Almost a thousand people stand on Olympus Mons, the tallest volcano in our solar system, and watch as an ice asteroid leaves a gash in the newly minted Martian atmosphere. The asteroid has been commandeered by UN-approved robotic ships that have landed and converted the material of the asteroid itself into fuel, altering its trajectory for this calculated near miss. The assembled crowd aren’t in it for the fireworks, though. They are a thousand among many Earth expats who have undertaken every project conceivable to turn Mars into a surrogate for Earth, the planet humanity has exhausted. This ice asteroid will inject valuable heat and water into the Martian atmosphere, bringing it one step closer to being able to support life—even as it takes the planet one step further from what we think of as “Mars.”
By the end of Red Mars, the first in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, we have witnessed atmospheric alterations as modest as the cultivation of ever-hardier bacteria and as audacious as drilling enormous holes through the Martian crust to tap the heat closer to the planet’s core. By the end of the third book (Blue Mars), humans native to Mars lounge on the beach of a Martian ocean. But just as important to the novel’s mission as these atmospheric changes are the economic, political, and philosophical shifts that come with them. The creation of an atmosphere can only happen by facing the challenge of deciding what a Martian constitution will look like, or, more relevant to my purposes, of adapting Earth-based understandings of environmental activism to a planet without a biosphere.
“Science fiction” and “sustainability” seem made for each other: both are vexed terms, and both arguably take on too much. The most serious examples of both require us to think through the intersections of technology, ecology, sociopolitical systems, and the place of the human in the universe. At the intersection of these two fields, Robinson uses the space of the “dead” planet as a laboratory for social-ecological experiments, both testing the limits of our environmental concepts and imagining the possibilities of human development without the constraints of Earth’s particular biosphere. I want to isolate one product of this experimentation in particular for discussion here, namely, the role of technology in what we might call the novel’s “ecotopian imaginary,” or the utopian social ecology its narrative creates.