Friday, 4 March 2011
William Morris on the Red Planet
As a boy, I often used to go fishing on Southend Pier, which is still officially the longest pleasure pier in the world (at one and a quarter miles in length). With a flask of steaming hot tomato soup and the packed lunch my Mum had made, one could brave the chilliest of conditions; and the catch might include flounders, dabs, mackerel, codling, mullet, the occasional starfish, and sometimes the highly disagreeable (because poisonous) weaver fish. So imagine my surprise and delight when I reached volume three of Kim Stanley Robinson’s stunning 1990s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) and found that Southend Pier actually features in it – though I am not going to give away any key narrative secrets of the book here by explaining why my boyhood Pier suddenly pops up in Robinson’s great s-f epic.
A little less surprisingly, Blue Mars also contains references to William Morris (whose name is given to one of the square harbours being built on Mars), to Hammersmith (an underground station on the mobile city on planet Mercury), to ‘the almost forgotten guild socialism of Great Britain’; and the Martians have even formed their own version of Morris’s Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (‘committees to protect the earliest buildings from destruction’). And all this is eminently appropriate because the Mars trilogy is not only about the physical process of terraforming the Red Planet, but also about the political attempt to build a good new human world there too.
One could take such references as graceful allusions on Robinson’s part back to an important utopian precursor, as a respectful nod back from the 1990s to the 1890s; but I think they are more than that. Such allusions announce to us, in my view, that the Mars trilogy in effect is the contemporary form of News from Nowhere, that it is Morris’s utopia postmodernised and science-fictionalised as we now need it to be; and that Morrisians will, over the years to come, have to read and engage and debate it as such.