Book Review by Steve Solomon


by Kim Stanley Robinson

THE YEAR IS 2547 A.D., AND A MONUMENT HAS BEEN DISCOVERED ON PLUTO. At the north pole of that distant, desolate world stands a ring of megaliths reminiscent of the "giant's dance" structures of northern Europe--only the megaliths are made of ice, and the central lith bears an inscription in Sanskrit, plus hash marks that might be a date: 2248 A.D.

Meanwhile on Mars, outside the ruined city of New Houston, archaeology professor and Martian patriot Hjalmar Nederland has made an astounding discovery of his own: a journal that contradicts the official version of Martian history promulgated by the Earth-dominated Mars Development Committee. The accepted history records that rebels treacherously destroyed New Houston's airtight dome during the period of political upheaval known as the Unrest, preferring to cause the deaths of most of the population rather than surrender to the besieging police force. According to the journal's purported eye-witness account, however, the dome was destroyed by the Committee's police as a brutal method of suppressing the rebellion. More astonishing yet, the journal records the efforts of a rebel subgroup, the Mars Starship Association, to build an interstellar craft and flee our solar system. In the cabin of Oleg Davydov, the starship's captain, the journal's author claims to have found plans for a monument identical to the one discovered on Pluto. The starship allegedly departed in the year of the Unrest: 2248 A.D.

Edmond Doya is Hjalmar Nederland's great-grandson. Until recently, Doya was also Nederland's greatest fan and an ardent supporter of his explanation for the Pluto monument--that it was constructed by the crew of the Davydov starship to commemorate the organized Martian resistance to Earth. But during the New Year's Eve revels on Titan at the end of 2589 A.D., Doya meets a 515-year-old man who claims to have helped build the monument. Something in the old man's manner and the tantalizing hints he drops convinces Doya that he is telling the truth. Doya becomes his great-grandfather's most ardent critic and devotes all his time and energy to debunking Nederland's theory. In 2610, Doya at last gets a chance to see the structure in person--he is part of an expedition to Pluto. His mission: to determine whether the monument was in fact constructed in the year 2248 A.D.

This is the premise of Icehenge, Kim Stanley Robinson's novel of archeology and mystery. Who built Icehenge, and why? Is it an authentic political monument or a revisionist fraud? Intriguing questions, but the unraveling of a political and archeological mystery is only a backdrop for Robinson's real concern. The structure of true importance in Icehenge is not the eponymous Pluto monument but the much more fragile ediface of human memory, both individual and societal.

Icehenge is divided not into chapters but into three independent first-person narratives. "Part One: Emma Weil 2248 A.D." recounts the adventures of a survivor of the fall of New Houston. Weil is an engineer aboard the asteroid mining ship Rust Eagle. She specializes in the design of biologic life-support systems and is instrumental in helping the Mars Starship Association transform two hijacked conventional craft into one interstellar vessel. Part One is Weil's journal, the very journal discovered in "Part Two: Hjalmar Nederland 2547 A.D." Nederland comes to worship Weil for taking action against the Mars Development Committee. Her journal becomes the centerpiece in his theory about the construction of Icehenge and the revisionist history of Mars. "Part Three: Edmond Doya 2610 A.D." presents Nederland's great-grandson, a man as driven to find the truth--and as convinced that he already knows it--as his great-grandfather.

I found Part One very slow going. In fact, I almost abandoned Icehenge  several times before reaching Part Two. What originally drew me to the novel and sustained my interest (and what may have been partially responsible for my frustration as well) was a fascination with the monument and its Sanskrit inscription. I was thus ill-prepared for Part One's focus on Weil's introspections and struggles in deciding whether or not to assist the rebels in constructing their starship. Also, this novel has the feel of early science fiction--and I don't mean that as a compliment. I mean to say that, for a variety of reasons, it seems slightly out of date or out of touch. As a matter of fact, I was astounded to discover that Icehenge   was published in 1984--I expected a much earlier date. One anachronism concerns politics: Icehenge   depicts the Soviets still firmly in power in Russia; the Unrest on Mars was allegedly fueled by a secret alliance of Russians and Americans opposed to their respective governments' joint rule of the Red Planet.

The level of technology depicted is another problem. Writing science fiction is always risky because technology can suddenly and unexpectedly catch up with or even surpass an author's predictions, and that has happened to Robinson: In this novel, people have the equivalent of e-mail and a communication network that spans the solar system, yet the Martian bureaucracy still has enough paper documents to warrant the existence of a Physical Annex to house them--in fact, the presence of a file in a certain file cabinet at a certain time becomes a pivotal bit of evidence in the debate over the building of Icehenge. Given the growing popularity of electronic data warehousing at the time of this writing (1997), it seems odd that paper files should exist in such a great number in the twenty-sixth century. An admittedly more subjective criticism concerns Waystation, a hollowed-out asteroid used as cheap transportation to the Outer Satellites. The whole concept is very much in the tradition of early sci-fi, back when the mere idea of space travel was sufficiently novel to generate interest. I fear I may have been spoiled for relatively low-tech hard science fiction by years of space opera. Ships without the ability to generate artificial gravity or travel faster than light seem tame compared to the vessels featured on "Star Trek" and "Babylon 5," and Emma Weil's weeks of tinkering with algae tanks to increase oxygen production make for somewhat tedious reading.

There is one exception to the relatively low level of technology in Icehenge, and not coincidentally, that area is gerontolgy. Children receive a series of longevity treatments that extend the human lifespan to as much as one thousand years. (This far surpasses anything depicted in television or movie sci-fi. Even in the newer versions of "Star Trek," the average human lives somewhat less than two hundred years with good medical care.) Robinson's reason for including this extreme element is clear: he wants to investigate the significance of memory and the loss of memory, both in the lives of individuals and societies.

As Robinson depicts it, living for up to a millenium has not been entirely a blessing for humanity. Birth control is strictly enforced; only people with wealth, status, or connections are allowed to have children. Youth has not been extended in the same proportion as life. People can theoretically attain an age of 1,000 years, yet consider themselves old after two or three centuries. Hence medical science has granted everyone a protracted old age. Now that the threat of mortality is less imminent, scientific progress has slowed down markedly--although the novel spans hundreds of years, little technological advancement is noticeable. Few people are able to maintain a monogamous relationship over the course of so many centuries, and thus the landscape of the future is littered with divorces and failed liaisons. Even more unsettling is the fragility of human memory. In stark contrast to Julian May's Saga of Pleistocene Exile   series, in which people who have undergone rejuvenation treatments eventually need "memory wipes" to delete useless trivia from their minds, charcters in Icehenge   who have lived for a century or two can no longer remember their early years at all. (Given how much I have forgotten of my own past already, I'd have to say that Robinson's treatment of memory is much more realistic than May's.) Most people write autobiographies or keep journals as the only method of maintaining some link with their own pasts. Perhaps the most prevalent fear that haunts Robinson's future society is the danger of "falling into a funk"--being so thoroughly overwhelmed by a sense that life is pointless that one is reduced to a zombie-like state lasting for decades or even until death. The depiction of characters in this state is as chilling as any treatment of Alzheimers I have ever encountered.

The story becomes much more interesting in Part Two, in which the concerns about memory and identity that were hinted at in Part One really gel. This section concerns Hjalmar Nederland and his excavations--both of ancient structures and of his own three-hundred-year old memories. Nederland's character is one of the triumphs of this book, not because Nederland is loveable, but precisely because he is not, yet we care about him anyway. It is a tribute to Robinson's skill as a writer that he can generate so much sympathy for such an unsympathetic character. By his own admission, Nederland is physically unattractive and has a personality to match. Despite professing that he is a very social person with a need to talk to people every day, Nederland knows that his interpersonal skills are lacking. He is a university professor who has forgotten how to talk to the young people he must teach. He is self-righteous, self-absorbed, and opinionated. His interactions with others are often characterized by argumentativeness and social blundering. It is perhaps not surprising that Nederland has been married and divorced three times. He is the progenitor of a vast and growing family, yet he makes almost no effort to stay in touch with his several generations of descendants. (He feels closer to the faculty and staff of his department at the university than to any blood relative.) In addition to his marriages, Nederland has been involved in at least one failed love affair (with a woman who was in love with another man), numerous casual liaisons with women in public bathhouses, and a long-time homosexual relationship with one Alexander Selkirk, the youngest member of the Mars Development Committee. Readers will join Nederland in wondering what Selkirk, who is young, suave, cynical, and handsome, sees in a quarrelsome, unattractive old archeology professor. While there seems to be some affection in the relationship, it is marked by mutual exploitation as well: Nederland profits from Selkirk's influence, which is useful in gaining access to otherwise restricted information and archeological sites, all the while fearing that Selkirk is trying to co-opt his criticism of the Committee and its version of Martian history.

All in all, Nederland is not a very pleasant person. Nonetheless his internal struggles evoke sympathy because they are so deeply felt, so universally human, and conveyed so skillfully by Robinson's prose. If Nederland seems cynical, it is because he is a disappointed idealist. He passionately believes that Mars represents a chance for humanity to start over and build a better society far from the contentious, repressive governments of Earth. For him, archaeology represents a search for lost historical truth, and he is galled at how quickly people forget and how skillfully the Committee accommodates and adapts to his discoveries and criticisms. While excavating New Houston, Nederland experiences an "epiphanic recollection" of the day the dome fell. He was a 10-year-old boy living in the city when the police attacked. Seeing the excavation uncovers a long-buried memory of that day. Thus, there is an intensely personal side to his quest for truth that makes it all the more poignant, and makes Nederland a far more effective character than either Emma Weil or Edmond Doya.

As a whodunit or a technological romp, I found Icehenge   mildly disappointing. But as an investigation of memory, identity, and truth, it is worthy of high praise.

Edited February 10, 1997/Updated March 24, 1997.

Copyright ©1997-2000 by Steven R. Solomon. All rights reserved.
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