Kim Stanley Robinson’s Icehenge — a novel about politics, archaeology, the future, and the past

I’ve been wanting to read something by Kim Stanley Robinson for a while now; but rather than delving into one of his several trilogies, I decided I’d try one of his standalone novels, just to get a feel for his writing, to see if he’s my kind of writer. I’m happy to say that he is, and I look forward to reading more. Icehenge, from 1984, is not easy to characterize, as there are several different strands that intertwine to create a complex whole. It’s about politics. It’s about archaeology. It’s about how politics and archaeology can influence each other. It’s about conspiracy theories, and about different interpretations of historical events that may never be known with certainty. It’s about the psychological issues associated with an extremely long life span. That’s a lot of angles, but it’s a very tight novel, and all those elements are bound together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

The book is divided into three parts. Part one takes place in 2248 and centers around the crews of several Martian mining ships. These miners decide to defy their repressive, authoritarian government (known as the Committee) by converting the ships into an interstellar vessel, and risking their lives to see if they can reach another star. This occurs against the backdrop of an imminent revolution on Mars, which takes place shortly after the starship departs. Several miners who were unwilling to take part in the risky voyage go back to Mars and join the uprising, which ultimately fails.

Part two begins in 2547 and is the tale of a Martian archaeologist named Hjalmer Nederland, who manages to get government permission for a dig at one of the many restricted sites related to that old revolution attempt. He’s looking to find the truth and poke some holes in the “official” history, which says the revolution was strictly a small-scale disturbance by a few violent thugs. When Nederland uncovers evidence of a large, well-organized rebellion that was slaughtered by government forces, he is deeply embittered to learn this knowledge won’t shake things up as he had hoped, as the Committee puts its own spin on things:

So they would explain it all away.
I left the room feeling sick. They would admit what they had to, and twist everything else to fit their new story, which would constantly change, constantly protect them. I tasted defeat like copper coating my tongue. Everything I stabbed them with they would accommodate with elastic facts, until the thing was absorbed and dissolved.

Rings very true, doesn’t it? While all this is going on, a new discovery is made: a Stonehenge-like structure is found on Pluto, made of giant ice slabs and containing an ambiguous inscription in Sanskrit. Nederland is extremely interested in this, and has a theory that it may have been built by those rebels who left the system on their starship centuries ago. Once again he goes in search of evidence for his theory, in the hope of giving the Committee (who denied the existence of the starship) a black eye. And once again, he is disappointed. His theory becomes widely accepted, but the Committee goes on, undamaged by news of its past sins.

Part three takes place in 2610, and the central character is an amateur historian named Edmond Doya, who thinks Nederland’s theory is wrong, and makes proving it his goal in life. Doya’s alternative explanation is a wild conspiracy theory, but one with a lot of circumstantial evidence in its favor. That may be a short description, but this was actually the most exciting part of the book, and Doya the most interesting of the book’s three main characters.

In the end, Robinson doesn’t tell us which theory about Icehenge is the correct explanation. Instead, we are left to ponder the successive layers of historical interpretation and make up our own minds. And this was exactly the right way to go, since this is the way it usually is in understanding history — we can never be 100% certain we truly understand past events or have all the relevant details. We do the best we can with the information we have.

One of the other major threads of the novel was the fact that humanity has achieved long lifespans (500-1000 years), but unfortunately memory can’t keep up with the body. A major problem faced by those who are several centuries old is that they can’t hold on to many of their memories from earlier ages of their lives. Such people face a subtle psychological stress, and an ever-present crisis of identity. Furthermore, these longer-living people of the future seem somehow less alive, less focused, more apathetic, just drifting through life. Robinson sums it up beautifully here:

Once we were taut bowstrings, vibrant on the bow of mortality — now the bow has been unstrung, and we lie limp, and the arrow has clattered to the ground.

I think there’s an obvious parallel in the novel between this personal loss of memory, and the loss of historical memory by society as a whole.

This novel is full of sharp observations on politics, the workings of science, and human psychology. I don’t think I’ve really done it justice in this review, so let me just say that I highly recommend it if you want a complex and thoughtful read. I’ll leave you with one last quote as an example of Robinson’s incisive insight on the human condition:

Perhaps we undertake the solution of mysteries as a sort of training, so that we can attempt with some hope of success the deciphering of ourselves.

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2 responses to “Kim Stanley Robinson’s Icehenge — a novel about politics, archaeology, the future, and the past

  1. Pingback: Monthly Reading: October 2008 « Books Worth Reading

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