Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Sci-Fi Bike Commute: Part VII

"When I bought my bike last August [2012] and committed myself to riding to work, I added the following spontaneous and bizarre stipulation: I would listen exclusively to science fiction audiobooks." [edit: and some fantasy]

The Book: 
Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars is the finest piece of science fiction I have ever read. It really is. It's so good that I actually began to hate it (and its sequels). Let me try to explain...

Most of the science fiction I've read is either space-fantasy, space-opera stuff, or gritty techno-future stuff. Red Mars is neither. It's far more rooted in reality than what I'm used to. It presents a research-based look at a near-future event. It is tightly tethered to our own scientific reality. When we do colonize Mars, this is exactly how it will happen.


Yes! Exactly.

And that's the problem. Red Mars is so comprehensive, so ridiculously plausible, that I can't imagine the colonization process happening any other way. It's like it already happened. And when it did happen it was kind of shitty and depressing. It was all greed, nationalism, politics, religion, environmental destruction, and war.

So here's to you Mr. Robinson, for the Tharsis Bulge in my underpants. And damn you all the same for the Midas-in-Reverse reality check.

The Ride:
I’ve had to cut back on the number of days I can ride to work. This has a lot to do with having a baby that doesn’t sleep very well. I find I often need every last second in the morning, and it’s too convenient to steal those seconds from my bike commute. Driving gets me to work fifteen minutes faster (and is no faster coming home in traffic). But on many of the days I don’t ride, I’m just using the morning chaos as an excuse. Which is completely baffling. 

This is why commuting by bicycle is great:

1. I don't use any gas (it costs me about $100 to drive 400 miles in my truck)

2. I don't have to deal with any Los Angeles traffic

3. I get a good workout twice a day

4. My ride takes me along the ocean, beach, and the costal wetlands

5. In the winter there are stars and meteors and moonsets

6. There is fresh ocean air, which is a big deal in polluted Los Angeles

7. There is a nice camaraderie with other bike commuters (not with the "cyclists", those sneering self-important dickwads in their goofy Lycra bodysuits)

8. Wildflowers

9. Seabirds

10. Marine mammals 

Despite the daily reality of these life-affirming benefits, my own laziness reigns supreme. Laziness is tricky. It's a deceptively benign concept. You wouldn’t name a battleship the USS Lazy. But if you wanted to invoke true power, and threaten your enemies with the destruction of everything good they believe in, the name would certainly fit.

The Confluence:
Riding to work in the wintertime is nice from a sci-fi perspective. I can see the moon and stars, then the sunrise. Occasionally, while listening to Red Mars, I was able to look up at the planet itself while I pedaled. This, it seems, is one of the scenarios that makes me so enthusiastic about audiobooks. They allow you to transport the narrative experience into a particular setting, ideally a relevant one. Sure you can do this with books – read John Muir on the banks of the Merced River or something – but you still have to tear your eyes from the pages to fully experience your setting. I was literally staring at the red planet, listening to Red Mars, and this gave the story tremendous force and power. Size, scope, distance, as described in the novel, were there for me to visualize in a completely literal sense.

Elsewhere on my ride, passing the refineries, the power plants, the sewage processing plant, the airport, the towns, colleges, roads, house, etc. I started thinking about how much crap we need. Red Mars is largely about setting up camp. Throw in the additional complications of the Martian environment and it gets overwhelming. Ultimately the book is about baggage. We are such a messy, dirty lot - physically, socially, and personally. It takes so much for our societies to flourish, and at such a great cost, to the land and ourselves. We carry this burden wherever we go. Looking up at all the stars, imagining the exoplanets we will one day inhabit, doesn't exactly fill me with a sense of boundless hope. Ultimately, when we get there, it'll still be us. 

The Book:
Green Mars deals with life on Mars after the initial colonization phase and a disastrous attempt to establish Martian independence. The story is often lumbering and tedious, as it checks in with all the little factions and camps. At times the approach feels journalistic. The story continues to be outrageously plausible and fascinating, but I had trouble mustering Red Mars levels of enthusiasm. For me, the honeymoon was over. Green Mars isn't packed full of fascinating factoids about the geology and geography of the planet. And, again, I find the basic premise that humans can't escape their nature, to be ultimately depressing. I'm sure Robinson is right that evil, multi-national corporations will exploit Mars and its resources. I'm sure he's right that there will be insurrections, revolutions, and then inept leaders to fill the power vacuums. I'm sure he's right that idealism will always lose out to pragmatism. But I'm not sure if it's fun to read a book hell-bent on reenforcing such a bummer of a notion. I still love reading about the characters, the technologies, the brazen tactics of the revolutionaries (crashing moons?!?!), and the rise of the true Martians. And the final scene, though I did see it coming, is stunningly dramatic, and would look great on a movie screen.

The Ride:
One of my favorite things about riding to work is observing certain natural cycles. The time and place of the sunrise, the moon phase, the smell and color of the ocean, the bird populations and the variations of species, the ebb and flow of beachgoers. One section of my ride takes me along a jetty that is flanked on both sides by dense growths of Brittlebush.

I've watched this stuff for two years now, usually while zoning out listening to my audiobooks. For most of the year it's just a tiny, nondescript bush. It's colorless, featureless, and ordorless. Then in the spring it comes to life, growing and blooming. The flowers are brilliantly yellow and the plants smell pungent and earthy. For an entire month I ride through a gauntlet of the stuff. It's staggeringly beautiful and entirely surreal. Due to the drought in California, the Brittlebush only grew half as high as it did last year. I'm not sure why I find that observation so interesting. 

The Confluence:
Plants on Mars. Green Mars is full of plants (and animals), though the title is a bit misleading. The Mars in the novel is not a planet covered in forests. It's still very much a red planet. The humans involved have figured out how to construct enormous greenhouses where they grow crops and trees and generate artificial atmospheres. The abundance of life in the novel is often juxtaposed brilliantly against the harshness of the true Martian outdoors. How do they slaughter pigs on Mars? They just let them run outside (while placing bets on which one will get the farthest). One of the core ethical debates in the novels has to do with humans and their environment. How much do we have the right to alter? What are the consequences of these alterations? Was there anything good and unexpected? Like Brittlebush forests on paved rocky jetties?

The Book:
Where's Blue Mars? WellI just couldn't do it. Not now at any rate. I needed a change of pace. 

And boy did I get one. This book, this Dreamsnake, is one of the strangest books I have ever read. I wouldn't recommend it. I can't believe it won the Hugo award. And apparently a lot of people can't believe it either. It's one of the most controversial award-winners and it's certainly the only award-winner to go out of print. It's not exactly a bad book so much as a pointless one. The best part of the book was the narrator. Her name is Kate Fleming (aka Anna Fields). I was so impressed with the sweetness of her voice that I looked her up to see what other books she narrated. That's when I discovered something horrible. She drowned in her basement in Seattle when flood waters broke through her house's foundation. Descriptions of the event can be read here and here. The tragedy had interesting implications in the same-sex marriage debate, as her partner was initially denied permission to see her in the hospital. The whole thing is just awful. I should have read Blue Mars instead.

The Ride:
Lets talk about WD-40.

I spray my chain and gearing components with WD-40 at least once a month. The results are astounding. Nothing squeaks or rubs, and I swear my pedal pushing becomes more efficient. This is a cheap and essential product for anyone riding a bike near the ocean. Yet many people don't use it, or anything like it. I'm no gear-head, and I take no part in the cycling community. And I'm not big on giving or getting advice. But I feel like the world needs to know. For five bucks and thirty seconds of your time, your bike will run like it's brand new. Plus you can catch a buzz on the fumes.

The Confluence:
What do Dreamsnake and commuting to work on a bike have in common? It would be too easy to say the book could use a good dousing of WD-40, to get the rust off and rejuvenate a clunky narrative. But the metaphor doesn't fit. It's not a bad, or clunky book at all. A better comparison would be to say reading Dreamsnake is like getting up, showering, riding all the way to work, only to realize when you got there that it was Saturday and you could be home in bed, or drinking Mimosas, or playing with your kid, or doing all three at the same time. 

Coming up next next time on the Sci-fi Bike Commute : zombies, hermaphrodites, and soulcasting bridgemen!