Having used my Get Out Of Blogging Free pass last week, I missed writing about the first half of Red Mars. So please pardon my going back to go forward.
I was particularly drawn to section 5 of the book, because, I think, Robinson was so conspicuously playing with the hard-boiled detective genre. John is by no means a Marlowe or a Sam Spade, even though he frequently self-identifies as "the first detective" on Mars (242). He is too hot to be cool. He lands the ships he pilots with an ostentatious zoom-and-break, hoping someone in the trailer he's visiting has seen him do it. A detective—a beat-up, streetwise mug like Bogart—would be in the trailer before anyone knew he was in the trailer.
But that's not really being fair to John: he imagines himself in a Sherlock Holmes tale, even though his has much more to do with the corruption and betrayal of a Chinatown. This inability to see himself as others see him is one of the most persistent devices in the book. Using it, Robinson twists and turns a narrative which otherwise would stagnate.
To digress somewhat: although I enjoyed the book's deep descriptions, its themes, its sprawling plot, I found little to admire in these twists of narration. When each new character took center stage, Robinson would make it very clear if the character should be loved or despised. They became less complex rather than more interesting (although the opposite holds true for Maya). Often I was left with the feeling that those watching the reality show of Mars on Earth would be treated to a more diverse point-of-view of the First 100.
Back to the mystery.
At one point John looks up from the bottom of a mohole, a mine, deep in the crust of Mars:
The sheer size of the shaft was hard to grasp; the muted light and vertical lines reminded him of a cathedral, but all the cathedrals ever built would have sat like doll-houses at the bottom of this great hole. The surreal scale made him blink, and he decided he had tilted his head back too long. (237)
Of course it has to remind him of a cathedral. Few other structures have the luxury of devoting so much of their square footage to empty space between floor and ceiling. That is the very purpose of the cathedral effect: to draw the believer's eyes (and spirits) up to a marvelous fresco, to a golden dome, to God. However, the shaft that John gazes up is an incomplete reminder. There is no dome. The interiority opens to an exteriority. It is as if he gazes up a decapitated skyscraper.
And this is not the first reference to a cathedral on Mars. Later, when a band of scientists-turned-actors descend to perform a rendition of Hamlet, the mohole becomes not just a cathedral, but a cathedral as stage:
Hamlet caught sight of Claudius kneeling to pray, and the camera tilted up to show the mohole as cathedral walls, rising about Claudius to an infinitely distant shaft of sunlight, like the forgiveness he would never receive. (267)
If a cathedral is meant to channel the attention, like a flume, towards the grace of God in heaven, then these moholes run a different course. The depth, the concentric circles, the stratified levels of megaregolith and regolith, the light above, so distant and so empty, the forgiveness never received—this is no cathedral; this is an Inferno.
Inferno and Paradiso: are these not the great topian ur-texts?
Strange that we have managed to avoid them for so long: all this talk of paradiso and inferno, utopia and dystopia, and so little said about the spiritual resonance of the wor(l)ds. We came close with Quakerism in A Door Into Ocean, but so much of eschatology has been Left Behind (ahem). The Book of Daniel. The Talmud. Tantra. It's interesting to gaze up and wonder, even if the neck does become sore after a while.
There is a third use of the word "cathedral" in the book. The third and final (yet first in the book). It comes from Sax Russel, the proponent of terraforming the planet:
We can transform Mars and build it like you would build a cathedral, as a monument to humanity and the universe both. (178)
The cathedral no longer directs eyes to God, but to human beings themselves, "to humanity and the universe both." The gaze has been turned upward and inward. This Faustian energy must crumble under its own excess. The promise of the First 100, as with any Utopia, fragments. (As John remarks, you would have to poll at least 80 of them to find a representative sample.) The dream descends into the dystopia of exploitation and consumption. We fall into the mohole.
Or perhaps not. There is Hiroko's garden: an Eden apart from Eden. And it is there too in Dante. He offers the idea of a third space, a place between utopia and dystopia. This is, after all, a trilogy. Purgatorio is its middle, the place of exile, where dreams of utopia are fragmented and split, put on hold in a time outside of time.
Like the remnant of the 100, the topian critic and artist must dwell in this third space. Huddled together, a fragmented few in Hiroko's garden, we assess our time outside of time, taking account of utopia and dystopia, raising our eyes in the cathedrals, craning our necks in the moholes, until we return to the garden, put soil in our mouths, and muster the courage to speak.