Tag Archives: archaeology

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.

A partial eclipse of Brunner’s talent

I just finished up with Total Eclipse (1974), the fourth of Brunner’s novels I’ve read so far, the others being Children of the Thunder (1988 ), The Crucible of Time (1983), and Stand on Zanzibar (1968 ). So far I’ve been fairly impressed with Brunner’s work (enough to keep reading his books, obviously), but this time around his normal brightness seems somewhat dimmer. In some ways this novel is very well done, but in others….. well, not so much.

In 2020 humans discover the ruins of an alien civilization on another planet. The evidence suggests that they rose from a Neolithic stage to the beginnings of space flight in a mere 3,000 years (half the time it took humanity) and then mysteriously went extinct. A team of about 30 scientists is dispatched and sets up camp for an ongoing investigation to discover the how and why. Meanwhile, things on Earth are touchy, and there is barely enough world support to maintain the costly spaceflights to and from the alien planet to periodically exchange personnel and ferry home artifacts and reports. The story follows these scientists (archaeologists, linguists, biologists, engineers) as they try to unravel a seemingly impenetrable enigma.

I liked the presentation of a profound mystery, and the ongoing endeavor to solve it. I’ve read very few sci-fi books in which archaeology plays any significant role, and it’s nice to see a discipline that’s not one of the “hard” sciences get some time in the spotlight. I also really liked the big picture, the overall theme: the attempt by one intelligent species to understand the demise of another in order to learn from it and hopefully not repeat it — although that hope later gets dashed. Eventually, it is discovered that the alien species met its end through its own actions, because it was unable or unwilling to change its nature. This fact is obviously meant as a mirror in which to examine our own nature and its shortcomings. By the end of the book, the research team is stranded, presumably because Earth collapses in war and chaos and is unable to send a ship for their scientists. Although the ending is extremely pessimistic (and what happens to the scientists is not pretty), there is a structure there that is convincing, a symmetry between the two species and their inability to get past their own flaws. It is unclear whether Brunner is suggesting this is an inevitable fate for any intelligent lifeform, or if he believes it can be avoided. At any rate, the basic message seems to be that our own worst enemy is always ourselves.

All that being said, the novel has some serious flaws.

Foremost among them is the overuse of that familiar didactic device whereby one character asks questions so that another character may answer them in order to inform the reader. We’re all familiar with this tool, and a certain amount of it is fine, but it’s a bit annoying when it’s so obvious, and there’s no attempt to disguise it at all. In this case, the person asking the questions should already know the answers; they are somewhat related to her field, and, after all, these are supposed to be some of the most brilliant people around — that’s why they were chosen for the mission. The questioner comes off sounding like a moron, and the reader is fully aware of being lectured to.

Compounding that problem, some of these lectures themselves leave something to be desired. Several times I was bothered by what I viewed as garbled explanations or even downright errors (in particular relating to both linguistics and to evolution) which were supposedly coming from a character who is a genius. That kind of thing tends to distract me from a story.

Furthermore, often the characters engaged in discussions and debates about their discoveries and theories, and some particular idea they put forth would carry some implication that seems obvious to the reader (at least to me), but the characters don’t pick up on it until pages (minutes or days) later. Again, these are supposed to be Earth’s best and brightest, but sometimes they don’t live up to their reputation.

This book was written during what some call Brunner’s heyday, the late 60’s and the 70’s, when he was writing his most important novels. But I get the feeling he didn’t put his full effort into this one. It was worth reading, and the basic concept was a good one, but the craftsmanship just wasn’t up to Brunner’s usual standards (as I know them thus far). It wasn’t a total eclipse; but it was less than he’s capable of.