Sunday, May 9, 2010

Icehenge - Kim Stanley Robinson

I'm reading (or in some cases rereading) Kim Stanley Robinson's older novels at the moment. This will probably result in a reread of his famous Mars trilogy in the not too distant future but we're not there yet. Icehenge is Robinson's second published novel. It was published the same year as his first novel The Wild Shore, the first part in his Three Califonias Triptych. The subject of Icehenge is very different from The Wild Shore. It would be selling the book short to say it is a first step towards his popular Mars trilogy, Icehenge is a very good novel in it's own right, but fans of the Mars books will find many themes in this book have returned in the trilogy.

On the north pole of Pluto a mysterious construction of ice is found, reminiscent of Stonehenge. In this book consisting of three linked novellas Robinson explores the origin of this construct. The first two novellas had been published before under the titles On the North Pole of Pluto (1980) and To Leave a Mark (1982). In this book all three novellas are named after the main character. The first novella consists of the diary of Emma Weil. In an age where gerontological treatment has enabled people to live for centuries, memory has been proven the weak link in the system. Many people keep diaries for the day when they will no longer remember the events they witnessed. Emma's diary tells us about her days on a hijacked spaceship, her work as life support engineer and events during the Martian rebellion of 2248.

This rebellion will be brutally crushed, it's very existence swept under the carpet by the powers that be. In 2547 this is not a situation archaeologist and historian Hjalmar Nederland will allow to exist much longer. Not relying on untrustworthy memories he means to organize a dig at the site of one of the battles of the revolution. Physical evidence cannot lie after all. Emma's diary proves to be instrumental for his work but also leads to an even larger discovery, the origin of Icehenge. In 2610 Nederland's theory on the origins of Icehenge is widely accepted but Edmond Doya is not satisfied with that explanation. He means to prove the monument is a hoax and comes up with some convincing arguments.

Robinson uses a number of very interesting themes in this book but the one that, to me, stands out is memory loss in extremely long-lived people. In this book lifespans of up to five centuries are possible. As a result pretty strict measures have been put into place to prevent overpopulation. Emma, who at the time of her diary is 80 years old has realized this is going to be a problem and starts writing things down. Hjalmar, who is 310 by the time he is allowed to pursue his ideas of the Martian revolution has already experienced life as a sequence of several lives. With memory stacked upon memory only the last 'normal' lifespan can be reliably recollected. His life before that may as well have been someone else's. It's a frightening concept in a way. Think for a moment on how we base most of our decisions on previous experience. What if that becomes unreliable? What if someone confronts you with something you may or may not have done a century ago?

The reader gets a taste of this over the course of the novel. After reading Emma's diary you're pretty convinced you know what has happened but Nederland's histories and Edmond's revisions cast doubt upon just about every part of the story. Nederland's science seems solid and Edmond's theories have an air of conspiracy around them that makes it hard to credit his findings. And yet, he may well be on to something. Which in turn casts doubt upon the veracity of the statements in Emma's diary. Who's right? I guess that Robinson leaves that for the reader to figure out. It does put what we think we know about the past in an interesting perspective.

The cover of this reprint edition proclaims this is "The Award-Winning Author's First Martian Novel". When I first read this novel in 2005 I did notice the themes they have in common but the proclaim it the first Mars novel is a bit too much in my opinion. The focus of this novel is not on the colonization of the red planet, many of the ideas Robinson would later use in the Mars books are used as a backdrop in this book. Political struggles on Mars or Mars-Terra relations do not dominate the story. The political realities of 'Icehenge' Mars are, at least initially, more or less accepted by all main characters, making it a darker future than where the planet ends up in Blue Mars. That book leans more towards utopia. Still, together with Pacific Edge and The Memory of Whiteness it clearly shows Mars was on the author's mind.

The book is a bit dated in some aspects. Written before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union is still a major player in this book. Something that returns in many of his early novels. At the moment it looks doubtful the Russians will be able to keep their space exploration going at the rate they have in the past. Then there is the status of Pluto, recently relegated from planet status to Trans-Neptunian object or dwarf planet. In Icehenge the characters see it as the last place to stop before hitting the vast emptiness of interstellar space. Another small but interesting item is the way information is stored. Paper is still important in the 27th century it seems, with characters printing hard copies of electronically stored books. Makes you wonder what the ideas of the author about the current development of e-books are.

I liked this book a lot when I first read it and this second read has probably raised my admiration of the author another notch. It's a very well constructed tale, designed to make the reader doubt, puzzle and think. Icehenge is a good read for people who enjoyed the author's Mars trilogy but it's also a good place to start if you are not sure you're ready for three large volumes of detail on the red planet. Personally I loved the descriptive passages in those books but quite a few readers seem to think it could have done with a little more editing. In Icehenge Robinson keeps that aspect of his writing a bit more in the background. Whatever your preferences Icehenge is a fascinating read and I highly recommend it.

Book Details
Title: Icehenge
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orb
Pages: 287
Year: 1998
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-312-86609-7
First published: 1984

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