Posting continues to be light and rare around here because I’m still slaving away at two books — one and two — but I am not a machine, so I spend some time each day reading for fun. And the other day I was possessed by an unexpected, sudden, and irresistible urge to re-read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy.

I’m about halfway through Red Mars now and it is just thrilling to be back in this fictional world again. Does KSR put a foot wrong in the whole 2000 pages of the trilogy? I think not. It’s simply a masterpiece.

But in addition to the pure enjoyment of it, I find myself mulling over a possibility: What about teaching an interdisciplinary course built around these books? It would be a way to explore, among other things,

  • the distinctive social value of SF
  • environmental politics
  • the economics and politics of colonialism
  • the future prospects of internationalism
  • the nature of science and the Oppenheimer Principle
  • aesthetics and human perceptions of value
  • geology and areology
  • robotics and automation in manufacturing
  • designing politics from Square One (or what looks to some like Square One)

And that’s just a short list! So, friends, I have three questions.

First, does that sound like a useful and/or fun course?

Second, have I neglected any key themes in the trilogy?

And third, what might be some ancillary texts to assign? For instance, to help us about the ways that SF enables political thought, I might want at least some students to read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed; on the possibilities of Martian colonization I might suggest Robert Zubrin’s The Case for Mars on the questions of what science is and what its ultimate values are, I might assign Ursula Franklin’s The Real World of Technology.

But I’m not sure what I might assign on the hard-science side. I’d love to find a book on robotics that is technically detailed but has some of the panache of Neal Stephenson’s famous report on undersea cables and international communication, “Mother Earth Mother Board,” but that might be too much to ask for. I’d love to find an introduction to geology that had some of the clarity and power of John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World but at one-tenth the length. Any help would be much appreciated.


  1. It's a brilliant idea, I think. As for other key themes: all the material on memory in Blue Mars might merit its own strand in your course: KSR does as I remember clever things coming 'at' Proust (whom he studied as a student, I believe) via contemporary neurophysiology and brain science. I also love the way the books handle their intertextuality, the games they play with the backlist of SF and so on; but maybe that's not a 'theme' in the sense that you mean it.

  2. Adam, thanks! — and you're right about memory as a theme, especially as related to human longevity, which KSR also handles with real imaginative subtlety.

    You're also right about the intertextuality, but that's probably something for me to mention rather than for my students to explore (though they'll get a taste of it if we read The Dispossessed, on which the political parts of the trilogy often seem to be an extended midrash).

  3. Some of your students would almost certainly be interested in a corpus linguistics approach in this course, exploring such things as how agency–who and what makes things happen in the narrative–is presented in the novel.

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