I thought I’d take the unusual step of plugging a series of novels in this post….
The ‘Mars Trilogy’ by Kim Stanley Robinson (1990s) may well be a work of science fiction, but it’s full of sociological themes. I guess you’d call the genre something like ‘ecological science fiction’ – a lot of his novels are set in a future in which ecological limits play a major role in the story-lines, and the characters, like it or not, cannot escape such limits. Similarly, his novels, although science fiction, tend to imagine a world where corporate capitalism still remains the dominant power in society.
I actually first came across the author thanks to a quote by Naomi Klein in ‘This Changes Everything’, I guess it’s no surprise to find her linking to him, given that capitalism and climate change is her bag too.
In this particular series of novels (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars) – the story follows Earth’s settlement of Mars, which starts with the ‘first hundred’ leaving for Mars and establishing a colony, soon to be followed by millions of other settlers.
The novels span about a couple of hundred years, and in the first novel (Red Mars) there’s lots of discussion among the first hundred about how to organise the environmental, social and economic aspects of ‘life on mars’.
A recurring theme is whether they should terraform the planet to make it suitable for human habitation – with views on the matter ranging between ‘Reds’ who want to leave Mars as it is and for humans to just live in ‘tents’, to the fullest supporters of terraforming, who want to turn the environment into one with liquid seas and breathable air.
Robinson also introduces the concept of ‘Aeroforming’ – a small group of the original settlers end up going ‘religious’ believing that the planet and themselves and their children need to co-evolve in a spiritual mutual-evolutionary process, and at various stages throughout the novel, Robinson comes back to the idea that New Mars needs some kind of religion to bind all of the disparate elements together.
Another major theme in the novels is the power of Transnational Corporations – which have become so powerful they effectively control the UN in the early stages of the of novels, but by the end they have effectively taken over whole countries on earth (because of bailing them out of their debts, sound familiar?).
The Transnationals basically see Mars as a place from which to extract resources to be shipped back to Earth, and idea which, in the second novel, is resisted by the third and fourth generation ‘Martians’ (who have never been to Earth) who have grown up in a world run largely on the basis of a ‘gift economy’ (made possible mainly by technological advances) rather than a profit economy.
Over the course of the novels, there are various conflicts between the TNCs, who have their own armed security forces, supported by various countries on Earth (rather than the other way around!) and the Martians, who actually reject the concept of ‘revolution’ because of it’s tainted history on Earth, developing a more selective and targeted, scientifically informed approach to getting rid of the TNCs.
Anyway, that’s a brief summary of some of the political and sociological themes in the novel, which also touches on issues of ageing (early on a treatment is invented that allows people to live well, well beyond 100 years); the issue of global warming (one key event on Earth is the collapse of a major Antarctic Ice Shelf) and obviously the role of technology in human relations (Robinson imagines it as mainly a liberating force); metaphysics (science vs religious frames of knowing the world); and the good old issue of cosmpolitanism (how can different cultures get along!?)
If you’re looking for sci-fi that imagines completely different futures, this isn’t it (so maybe it’s not actually sci-fi?), but if you want something that’s set in a future that seems like it’s a distinct possibility and in doing so reflects on many of the problems we face today, it’s a great read.
Just one criticism – each book is about 700 pages long, and each book IMO would benefit from loosing about 100 pages: too much unnecessary time is spent in ‘characters heads’ while adding little to the plot.