Everything is political. The election year makes the proverbial elephant in the room more prominent than usual.
But as our WWE style-election campaigns play out, interest and optimism turn to indifference and cynicism. Trump and Hilary still fill our social media feeds and drunk conversations.
After the horrifying attack in Orlando at the Pulse Nightclub this morning, the political will fill the discourse for the coming weeks: gun control, ISIS, and hate crimes. Many will disavow any allegiance or interest in politics.
Kim Stanley Robison Red Mars tell us why this stance is wrong.
Red Mars imagines the colonization of Mars in the realest way, considering all the technological, scientific, environmental, and political components of the task. A professor of mine once called Red Mars the greatest literary feat since DFW’s Infinite Jest. And it really is impressive in craft, scope, and research. This is a sci-fi novel, but it elevates itself to an important political conversation. Red Mars uses the genre to experiment, to ask what if humanity had a chance to start again. How would it work?
Much of the novel revolves around specially selected scientists sent to figure out the problem of colonizing Mars. Lots of society changing decisions, political debates, and underground revolutions follow. These problems include everything from terraforming ethics to the architecture of work spaces:
They are rectangular,” Arkady said. This got a laugh, but he perservered: “Rectangular, the conventional shape! With work space separated from living quarters, as if work were not part of life. And the living quarters are taken up mostly by private rooms, with hierarchies expressed, in that leaders are assigned larger spaces.”
“Isn’t that just to facilitate their work?” Sax said.
“No. It isn’t really necessary. It’s a matter of prestige. A very conventional example of American business thinking, if I may say so.”
There was a groan, and Phyllis said, “Do we have to get political, Arkady?”
At the very mention of the word, the cloud of listeners ruptured; Mary Dunkel and a couple of others pushed out and headed for the other end of the room.
We’ve all seen this scene before. Two particularly spirited people on the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum fight. We cringe.
Everything is political,” Arkady said at their backs. “Nothing more so than this voyage of ours. We are beginning a new society, how could it help but be political?
A few paragraphs later:
Rya Jiminez said, “I’m not interested in politics,” and Mary Dunkel agreed from the other end of the room: “That’s one of the things I’m here to get away from!” Several Russians replied at once. “That itself is a political position!” and the like. Alex exclaimed, “You Americans would like to end politics and history, so you can stay in a world you dominate!”
This is one of the my favorite pieces of dialogue in the book. It seems so obvious when said out loud, but the political cannot be separated from our interactions. Wherever there are breathing, thinking human beings there are politics.
The position of indifference not seen as political highlights the way which ideological status quo becomes the default way of thinking.
The default perpetuates itself in nuanced ways: “it’s not about race” or “it’s about ethics in games journalism” or “it’s about objectivity.” The default way of thinking goes unchallenged for so long that it becomes invisible.
When we refuse to acknowledge the political nature of human interaction we succumb to laziness. Arkady gets to the root of it while defending his stance to rethink society on Mars.
That’s true,” Arkady said. “But in fact Antarctic stations are very political. Most of them were built so that countries that built them would have a say in the revision of the Antarctic treaty. And now the stations are governed by laws set by that treaty, which was made by a very political process! So you see, you cannot just stick your head in sand crying ‘I am a scientist, I am a scientist!’ ” He put a hand to his forehead, in the universal mocking gesture of the prima donna. “No. When you say that, you are only saying, ‘I do not wish to think about complex systems!’ Which is not really worthy of true scientists, is it?
And isn’t this the truth regarding those who refuse to be political: “No. When you say that, you are only saying, ‘I do not wish to think about complex systems!”
100 pages into Red Mars and you realize Robinson isn’t talking about Mars. He’s doing what every great sci-fi writer before him has done: use the future to discuss the present. Swap “scientists” with “humans” and we’re suddenly back on earth.
To be twenty-first century scientists on Mars, in fact, but at the same time living within nineteenth century social systems, based on seventeenth century ideologies. It’s absurd, it’s crazy, it’s—it’s—” he seized his head in his hands, tugged at his hair, roared “It’s unscientific! And so I say that among all the many things we transform on Mars, ourselves and our social reality should be among them. We must terraform not only Mars, but ourselves.”