My life in outer space

Icehenge – Kim Stanley Robinson (1984)


‘It stands at Pluto’s North Pole – a mesmerising icehenge. Slabs of ice frozen harder than stone, towering two hundred feet above the crater-pocked surface. The central slab bears an inscription in Sanskrit.

A message from an alien race? Or the mark of a human-powered voyage that might have passed this way? There were vague rumours of such a ship, forgotten decades ago. But could the crew have survived? Did the ship exist at all?’

Blurb from the 1997 Voyager paperback edition

This marvellously structured book is divided into three sections, each telling a tale from a different viewpoint, separated in time by decades or hundreds of years. The first section (a diary of Emma Weill) begins in 2248 at the start of the doomed Martian revolution against the control of the Mars Development Committee, a conglomerate of Earth Companies who are determined to squeeze as much profit from the Red Planet as possible.
Emma is a hydroponics expert on board an asteroid mining ship and become embroiled in a plot by the Mars Starship Association, who are planning to connect three separate ships and attempt to escape the Solar System; their aim being to settle on a new planet on one of our neighbouring stars. Emma sees no possibility of their completing their mission and, with many other of the crew who refuse to join the rebellion, returns to Mars where the revolution is being ruthlessly quashed.
Nearly three hundred years later, Hjalmar Nederland, an eminent archaeologist and opponent of the MDC, has been given permission to excavate the ruins of a crater, which once was a domed community, and which was destroyed during the revolution. Hjalmar is seeking to prove that it was not – as history would have it – the revolutionaries who blasted the crater, but the Committee police. During his search he discovers an abandoned vehicle containing the diary of Emma Weill.
Hjalmar has a vested interest, since he was a child living in the crater when the dome was breached. Since then, his life artificially extended by gerontology treatment, he has been driven to find the truth and expose the committee’s actions of three hundred years ago.
Sixty years later, Hjalmar’s grandson, Edmond Doya, becomes obsessed by the discovery at the North Pole of Pluto of an icehenge, a monument which is thought to prove that Emma’s starship revolutionaries left a sign of their departure, since there is mention in her diary of plans for a henge existing on the ship at the time.
But as he investigates further, he realises that what he suspects will discredit his grandfather’s life’s work.
‘Icehenge’ is interesting to read as a presage to Robinson’s Magnum Opus ‘Mars Trilogy’ in which another Martian revolution takes place, again fighting against the exploitation of Mars by Earth Multinational companies. Although a much shorter work, this is a very clever piece of writing which examines the ethics of rewriting history, and allowing the populace to believe in something which is not true. Is it morally right for any population – even if it is for their greater good – to be living in a society with a fictional history.
There are many precedents in World History, but Robinson by cleverly placing this outside our time, and bringing it down to a personal level by involving three main individuals, cuts through the obfuscation and allows us to contrast this future situation with our own.
There is also much – rather as in the work of Fred Hoyle, and which also shown in Robinson’s later work – which is critical of the relationship between politics and science, here shown by Hjalmar’s determination to find the truth despite the efforts of the Committee.


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