I did not like Red Mars (by Kim Stanley Robinson or just KSR) very much. I was pretty clear about this in my Goodreads review, where I gave the book a solitary star. I got a couple of responses to that review, and they asked me to go into more detail about the problems I had with that book. So, in this post, I shall. Along the way I can promise fun with economics and political philosophy for everyone!
I should point out that I’m aware that you can’t automatically attribute to an author the thoughts, actions, or beliefs of the protagonists in their story. However, I think there are some pretty strong textual reasons to conclude that KSRs beliefs run close to the consensus view of his protagonists: Arkady, John, Dmitri, Marina, Vlad and a few others. I’m not the only person to draw this conclusion, and Jeremy Smith’s positive review of the book calls it “the most successful attempt to reach a mass audience with an anti-capitalist utopian vision since Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 novel, The Dispossessed.” That’s particularly interesting to me because I loved The Dispossessed, and I couldn’t even finish Red Mars.
The full name of Le Guin’s novel is “The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia”, and that’s what I liked the most about it: the ambiguity. In Le Guin’s novel the utopian society is both materially poor and, in realistic and important ways, it fails to live up to its own ideals. (Yet the protagonist remains a true believer.) It’s a touching story about the struggle to maintain ideals in a world that refuses to give us moral clarity and, as such, Le Guin’s sensitive and nuanced story involves both economic and human realities that complicate the utopian ideal. Because of her authentic approach, Le Guin is able to pose challenging questions. KSR, in stark contrast, makes outrageous demands on his reader’s credulity that preempt any serious engagement with political imagination. Le Guin’s utopian society fails, but her book–including it’s utopian idealism–succeeds. KSR’s society succeeds, but it’s at the cost of his narrative. In the end, and quite unintentionally, what he creates serves not as a genuine call to anti-capitalism utopianism, but a stark and severe warning against the extremism of his own philosophy.
The Key Scene
As I read the book, I folded over the corners of page to denote especially egregious violations of what I believed to be common sense and basic economic theory. For me the final straw wasn’t economics, however, but rather a bizarre paean to the assassinated hero of the book that included a permissive acceptance of statutory rape. John, we are told, didn’t believe there was such a thing as an ugly woman, and in fact loved all women without regard to age. At this point you might be thinking that he made tender love to octogenaraians, but it turns out that the story is about that one time when John (at this point well past middle age) got caught having sex with a 15-year old girl. He was just such a lover! Age didn’t matter to him! What a swell guy! When I realized that sci-fi’s Dirty Old Man Syndrome was rearing its ugly head in addition to all the economic missteps that had gone before, I decided that I had had enough. I shut the book for good, or so I thought.
In preparing to write this piece, however, I went back and dug up my old copy from a box where it had languished and started to assemble a series of quotes upon which to base this review. Instead, however, I found a single excerpt that–while long–serves to tie together the central flaws and damning implications of KSRs politics. Despite the length, I’m just going to include it all:
At Archeron this usually led directly to a consideration of ecology, and its deformed offshoot economics; these to them were much more critical than politics, or what Marina called “the supposed decision-making apparatus.” Marina and Vlad were particularly interesting on this topic, as they had worked out a system of equations for what they called “eco-economics,” which always sounded to John like “Echo economic.” He liked listening to them explain the equations, and he asked them a lot of questions, learning about concepts like carrying capacity, coexistence, counteradaptation, legitimacy mechanisms, and ecological efficiency. “That’s the only real measure of our contribution to the system,” Vlad would say. “If you burn our bodies in a microbomb calorimeter you’ll find we contain about six or seven kilocalories per gram of weight, and of course we take in a lot of calories to sustain that through our lives. Our output is harder to measure, because it’s not a matter of predators feeding on us, as in the classic efficiency equations-it’s more a matter of how many calories we create by our efforts, or send on to future generations, something like that. And most of that is very indirect, naturally, and it involves a lot of speculation and subjective judgment. If you don’t go ahead and assign values to a number of non-physical things, then electricians and plumbers and reactor builders and other infrastructural workers would always rate as the most productive members of society, while artists and the like would be seen as contributing nothing at all.”
“Sounds about right to me,” John joked, but Vlad and Marina ignored him.
“Anyway, that’s a large part of what economics is—people arbitrarily, or as a matter of taste, assigning numerical values to non-numerical things. And then pretending that they haven’t just made the numbers up, which they have. Economics is like astrology in that sense, except that economics serves to justify the current power structure, and so it has a lot of fervent believers among the powerful.”
“Better to just concentrate on what we’re doing here,” Marina put in. “The basic equation is simple, efficiency merely equals the calories you put out, divided by the calories you take in, times one hundred to put it in the form of a percentage. In the classic sense of passing along calories to one’s predator, ten percent was average, and twenty percent doing really well. Most predators at the tops of food chains did more like five percent.”
“This is why tigers have ranges of hundreds of square kilometers,” Vlad said. “Robber barons are not really very efficient.”
“So tigers don’t have any predators not because they’re so tough, but because they’re not worth the effort,” John said.
“The problem is in calculating the values,” Marina said, “We have had to simply assign certain calorie-equivalent numerical values to all kinds of activities, and then go on from there.”
“But we were talking about economics?” John said.
“But this is economics, don’t you see, this is our eco-economics! Everyone should make their living, so to speak, based on a calculation of their real contribution to the human ecology. Everyone can increase their ecological efficiency by efforts to reduce how many kilocalories they use—this is the old Southern argument against the energy consumption of the Northern industrial nations. There was a real ecologic base to that objection, because no matter how much the industrial nations produced, in the larger equation they could not be as efficient as the South.”
“They were predators on the South,” John said.
“Yes, and they will become predators on us, too, if we let them. And like all predators their efficiency is low. But here, you see—in this theoretical state of independence that you speak of—“ she grinned at John’s look of consternation—“you do, you have to admit that that is ultimately what you talk about all the time, John—well, it should be the law that people are rewarded in proportion to their contribution to the system.”
“Dmitri, coming in the lab, said, “From each according to his capacities, to each according to his needs!”
“No, that’s not the same,” Vlad said. “What it means is: You get what you pay for!”
“But that’s already true,” John said, “How is this different from the economics that already exist?”
“They all scoffed at once, Marina most persistently: “…there’s all kinds of phantom work! Unreal values assigned to most of the jobs on Earth! The entire transnational executive class does nothing a computer couldn’t do, and there are whole categories of parasitical jobs that add nothing to the system by an ecological accounting. Advertising, stock brokerage, the whole apparatus for making money only from the manipulation of money—that is not only wasteful but corrupting, as all meaningful money values get distorted in such manipulation.” She waved a hand in disgust.
“Well,” Vlad said, “we can say that their efficiency is very low, and that they predate on the system without having any predators, so that they are either the top of the chain or parasitical, depending on how you define it. Advertising, money-brokering, some types of manipulation of the law, some politics…”
“But all of these are subjective judgments!” John exclaimed. “How have you actually assigned caloric values to such a variety of activities?”
“Well, we have done our best to calculate what they contribute back to the system in terms of wel-being measured as a physical thing. What does the activity equal in terms of food, or water, or shelter, or clothing, or medical aid, or education, or free time? We’ve talked it over, and usually everyone at Archeron has offered a number, and we have taken the mean. Here, let me show you…”
Let’s start with unpacking exactly what “eco-economics” boils down to. It starts with a kind of cool idea (although KSR did not invent it) of trying to scientifically value human contributions to the economy through calories. But, as KSR notes, the problem is that this privileges folks who build nuclear reactors over poets. There’s a disconnect between the austere materialism of calorie-counting and human intuition about the merit of intangibles like love or beauty.
The irony is that in the same passage where KSR castigates the traditional free-market capitalist economy for using “unreal values”, he advocates doing the same thing for his own economic system. In particular patches the holes by just polling 100 scientists to find out how many calories they think poetry or music is worth. That’s right: an exchange rate for running on the treadmill, buying a loaf of bread, or composing a poem. The idea of attaching a numerical value to the beauty of a work of art to make it commensurate with the functional utility of a toilet valve makes a Dead Poet Society reference inescapable:
“Excrement,” as Robin Williams puts it, “We’re not laying pipe. We’re talking about poetry.” It’s genuinely confusing to me that someone with an MA in English would be the source of such an apparently anti-artistic aesthetic. It doesn’t really matter how high the valuation is, the mere suggestion of reducing all human endeavors to a single numerical value restricts us unavoidably to the poverty of a single, commensurate dimension of experience.
Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t even have the advantage of being genuinely scientific. Michael Crichton’s takedown of the Drake Equation from a lecture he gave at Caltech (courtesy of the Wall Street Journal) is directly applicable:
The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. […] As a result, the Drake equation can have any value from “billions and billions” to zero. An expression that can mean anything means nothing. Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless…
It’s probably not a concern that others would share, but to me the fact that KSR picks the average of the scientists’ poll results made things even worse. The average only works to summarize statistics when the underlying distribution is both continuous and symmetric and it is particularly susceptible to outliers. Continuity may hold, but it’s doubtful that symmetry does as well, and we don’t know anything about potential outliers, so it would be wiser to use the median. This small misstep frustrated me. Did it make me angry enough to think that we ought to write a law banning authors from writing on topics without first demonstrating their expertise to a committee?
Of course not. Sometimes the price of implementing a solution is not worth the cost, but KSR doesn’t even stop to consider the costs associated with the authoritarian control that would be necessary to implement eco-economics. Because the panel of experts is going to arbitrarily assign values to everything from shower to sonnets, KSR’s proposed social organization is fascist in the true sense of the word: an all-encompassing state. to implement it. This isn’t a harsh mischaracterization of KSR’s political philosophy, it’s right there in the text. First, the scientists invent values for everything in society, and then they say: “it should be the law that people are rewarded in proportion to their contribution to the system.” Well someone has to enforce the law, or it isn’t actually a law. The tiny population of first-wave colonists could conceivably run this show by consensus (more on this later), but in the context of the novel we’re talking about a small, elite cadre deciding what rules they are going to force on the thousands of freshly arriving second-wave colonists.
In the 75% or so of the novel that I read it is never discussed who this kind of enforcement might be accomplished. KSR has a clear love of consensus, but what happens when a unanimous decision can’t be reached? Either the policy has to fail, or there seems to be no bound to stop government authority. In any case, there is no doubt that when it comes to handing all authority over the lives of the people to the state, Mussolini would approve:
For the fascist, everything is in the state, and no human or spiritual thing exists, or has any sort of value, outside the state. In this sense fascism is totalitarian, and the fascist state which is the synthesis and unity of every value, interprets, develops and strengthens the entire life of the people.
This is KSR’s fatal misunderstanding of the free market system. He disparages the fact that in a market economy “people arbitrarily, or as a matter of taste, assign numerical values to non-numerical things,” but then he does the same thing. Only worse. In a market society they let just anybody have an opinion. It’s messy and irrational at times, but that’s what freedom looks like. On the other hand, he is proposing a society where an unscientific equation calibrated by an unelected elite and enforced in an unspecified manner can literally tell you what your contribution to humanity is. Down to the nth significant digit.
Forget valuing poetry, we’re talking about valuing human lives. Which at a rate of a few kilocalories per gram of bodymass, seems to mean larger people are the new aristocracy. Could one pay off debts using a literal pound of flesh in this brave new world?
The existence of an elite group who take upon themselves the obligation to tell the rest of society how they ought to live is eerily reminiscent of the pigs in Anirmal Farm (“Some animals are more equal than others”). And perhaps the most disappointing aspect to the dangerously flawed conception of a society based around eco-economics is that it stems, in large part, from a misunderstanding of market-based economies; it’s a terrible solution in search of an actual problem.
Understanding Free-Market Capitalism
In the previous paragraph I used “market-based economies”, which is a generic term, for a reason. The US is not a sterling example of a free-market economy. We have serious collusion between the private sector and government in the form of the military-industrial complex (exemplified by the wealthy suburbs of DC) and also in the financial sector. In fact, a cursory glance at our tax code will show you that virtually every sector of the American economy tries to game the system with varying degrees of success. This rent-seeking is both bad and anti-free-market. So I’m not defending any status quo, not in 2012 and not from the 1980s or 1990s when KSR was writing this book.
On the other hand, when you look for economic systems that are based more-or-less on markets, you will find them everywhere. Not just in the US, but in all of Western Europe, in Scandinavia, and even in modern China. Cuba is cautiously adopting economic liberalization, and North Korea is just about alone on the planet as a nation that intentionally eschews a market economy (plenty of struggling nations are too unstable or lack the social infrastructure for markets to flourish).
So, while KSR might see this as a grand battle of liberal values against capitalism, the rest of the world doesn’t see it that way. Whether you’re a Tea Party Patriot or a French socialist, virtually everyone understands the power and importance of harnessing the incredible power of the free market (although the exact definition of “free” is up for debate). In rejecting market-based economies entirely, KSR is not a good example of any serious left-wing political philosophy.
For example, it’s inaccurate to say that financiers don’t add value to the economy. We all know that there can be huge problems with the financial sector, but these markets provide liquidity and help ensure that our economic resources are focused (more or less) on the projects that are of the most value. They help funnel money from people who want to save for later to the people who have investment projects that could add value today, and therefore keep our economy growing to the benefit of everyone.
And “value”, remember, is in a free-market defined by the vote of the masses. A perfect scale? Surely not. The wealthy and powerful get more votes, and that’s not fair, but I don’t see how a panel of of experts with all the power is better. It makes the system even more skewed, not less.
Another major misunderstanding that KSR has is over the concept of money, which he appears to loathe. He talks about how the early colonists lived in a tight-knit society without any money, market, or buying or selling. That’s not only perfectly reasonable, but totally compatible with what we know about human sociology. It’s an unintended reference to Dunbar’s number:
Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group.
It’s all well and good this hundred or so well-educated, well-provisioned scientists to form a cozy little Utopia. They were, after all, hand-picked to be compatible with each other by the best psychological minds on Earth and then spent years of isolated hardship being fused into a unity first in Antarctica and later on a spaceship traveling to Mars. Perhaps they could even form the kernel of some larger, more self-sustaining utopia, but utopian ambition + authoritarian certainty = dystopia. In any case, the mere fact that they did OK without money doesn’t mean that a larger society should, too. Why would they want to continue to impose their deprivation on the thousands of ordinary folks migrating to the Red Planet?
KSR’s logic, as far as I can tell, is that money is icky. This downright puritanical anti-pecuniary prejudice demonstrates a fundamental failure to understand what money is for. There’s a reason, after all, that currency tends to crop up all on its own in the oddest ways. Like cigarettes as stable international currency or Honey Buns in Florida prisons, just to name two.
The primary reason is that currency solves the problem of the double coincidence of wants:
The coincidence of wants problem (often “double coincidence of wants”) is an important category of transaction costs that impose severe limitations on economies lacking money and thus dominated by barteror other in-kind transactions. The problem is caused by the improbability of the wants, needs or events that cause or motivate a transaction occurring at the same time and the same place. One example is the bar musician who is “paid” with liquor or food, items which his landlord will not accept as rent payment, when the musician would rather have a month’s shelter. If, instead, the musician’s landlord were to throw a party and desire music for it, hiring the musician to play it by offering the month’s rent in exchange, a double coincidence of wants would exist.
In other words, you need to have a seller who has what a buyer wants, and a buyer who has what a seller wants. Without this, you cannot have a trade. Trade might not have been necessary within an intimate community that had a shared vision and years of history with each other, but how are they going to interact with the strangers who arrive, and how are those strangers going to interact with each other? Money is the answer.
But there’s a much more important, although subtle reason, to want to have money, trade, and markets. Adam Smith’s invisible hand (see also: fundamental theorems of welfare economics) is one important reason, but the more compelling case was put forward centuries later by F. A. Hayek in The Use of Knowledge in Society (full text here, as a .pdf).
Hayek’s point is that the knowledge necessary for an economy to be efficient is distributed down to the level of individual people: what they want, what they know about their own circumstances, etc. There’s no realistic way that all of this information could be rapidly assimilated into a central planning bureau in order to coordinate economic activity. The cost of trying to do so would be staggering, and then how would that volume of information possibly be rapidly analyzed and synthesized to know what people should do? And, even if you could do that, how would you then get everyone to understand their role? And, even if you did that, how would you enforce it? This, in a nutshell, is why the Soviet Union fell. They tried central planning and they found that—in a large, complex economy—the results are always catastrophic. (See also: China under Mao, North Korea to this day, and every other nation that has tried to implement a planned economy in history.)
Remember: a planned economy is exactly what KSR is talking about. The ruling elite of experts are going to pick and choose what numbers to plug into those equations that will determine how much everyone’s efforts are worth and, through this tight-fisted and fascist control, they will dictate the economic rules that all of society will respond to. In addition to being disgusting, it’s terribly inefficient.
The solution, as Hayek pointed out, is the price system. When the price of a good changes, the people who could possibly supply that good don’t actually need to know why it has changed. Did the price of corn go up because there’s a corn shortage and people are hungry for more corn? Or did the price of corn go up because a scientist invented a way to use corn to fuel our cars, and so now there’s more demand? To a farmer deciding what to plant, it doesn’t matter. The price of corn goes up, so the farmer plants more corn, and so the need for corn—no matter what it is—gets met.
All the information you need to coordinate a complex economy is available to everyone, for free, in real-time, through the price system. The coordination is rapid, intelligent and—best of all—completely free. Human society itself becomes the supercomputer that runs the calculation for how best to allocate our resources. Milton Friedman talked about the miracle of the price system, including the ability it has to draw together people of different faiths and ethnicity into peaceful cooperation and greater understanding, in a video based on an essay called I, Pencil:
You could read all this and just reply: Hey, this is fiction. I suppose that’s valid, in a sense, but even as fiction I’d like to see some internal consistency in a book, and Red Mars lacks that. Magic might not be real, but it should seem real in a book that is largely about magic. The more magic is the focus of your story, the more important it is to explain it in a way that makes sense within the context of the narrative. In this case, Red Mars is a book about politics and economics, so they ought to make sense. They don’t. That’s a defect, even to a work of fiction. More importantly, however, it’s plain that this book was written to serve as a political text. Just like other reviewers who have also read it as a political work, I think it’s fair to subject the political theories to analysis. Sadly, what we find is lacking. Ultimately, KSR creates a plausible micro-Utopia, and then embraces the very path that would turn it into a dystopia by having them enforce their views.
In the end, however, this isn’t about making mistakes or believing things that are wrong. I can enjoy political theory as diverse as the overtly militant Starship Troopers or the forlorn collectivism of The Dispossessed or the biting critique of utilitarianism in Those Who Walk Away from Omelas, but in Red Mars the protagonists are all dumb and wrong and their adversaries are all dumb and evil. As a result, no one has any interesting ideas, and a sci-fi book without interesting ideas is in trouble by any reasonable metric.