Native Plants, Habitat Restoration, and Other Science Snippets from Athens, Georgia

Sunday: 8 November 2009

Woo  -  @ 06:53:37

Blue Mars is the third book in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy. The trilogy begins with Red Mars, a treatment of the early years of the settlement of Mars, the introduction of the First Hundred who will largely populate the rest of the stories, and the conflicts between the two extremes in the terraforming of Mars. Green Mars continues with the revolution for independence from Earth, the terraforming of Mars over the next half century, and the conflicts between the Reds and Greens. And Blue Mars concludes with the resolution between those who wish to terraform Mars completely, and those who wish it left as it is.

And that's about as cruelly brief and incomplete a summary as could be made, since to do otherwise would require pages of exposition. The Wikipedia article is quite a good synopsis.

I've mentioned the Mars trilogy before in the manner of picking out one of these ideas (the timeslip), and that's pretty much what I will do here. Robinson introduces and elaborates on so many things that it's just about impossible to do a review. So let's just choose one of his many ideas: longevity.

The First Hundred are beginning to get a little creaky, and it's on Mars that the longevity treatments are developed. There is no reason now why anyone can't live to be a thousand years old, and if you've developed the characters to this point, you might like them to. This doesn't pose on the lightly settled Mars quite the problem that it does on Earth, with its fifteen billion, but that's just the beginning.

So by the time of Blue Mars, the surviving members of the First Hundred are nearing the end of their second century, and beginning to experience some disturbing mental aberrations. All are associated with bizarre memory dysfunction.

Most familiar to us is déjà vu, which I suppose most of us experience fleetingly from time to time. The longevity pioneers, however, begin to suffer from it constantly, along with prolonged bouts of the sibling phenomena jamais vu and presque vu. There's something in the French phrasing of phenomena so related and symmetric that delights me. The words "uncanny," "weird," "startling sensation," and "unmistakable" were made for this.

Déjà vu (already seen) is the uncanny feeling that one has already experienced the current moment. I occasionally get it, and it's a truly interesting sensation. Some find it disturbing, and I imagine that if your experience of it went beyond a few seconds that it would be. Me? I just go, "oh wow." There's a wonderful long 2006 New York Times Magazine essay on déjà vu, and its more extreme fraternal twin déjà vécu (already lived through). Attempts at explaining déjà vu suffer from the inability to replicate the phenomenon on command, but usually involve a mismatch in timing between the extremely short term memory of what one is sensing, and the conscious mind's processing of it.

Jamais vu (never seen) is the feeling that a perfectly ordinary experience, perhaps one that has occurred hundreds of times, has just been encountered for the first time. Say, or write, the word "door," over and over. At some point it will suddenly sound like something totally alien. That's an approximation of jamais vu for you. And again, the sensation of it is unmistakable.

Presque vu (almost seen) is otherwise rendered as "tip of the tongue." It's that memory you know is there but that you can't quite retrieve. We all know it, surely, and it's often referred to as a "senior moment." More interesting though is the sensation when it finally comes to you. It is literally like something has clicked into place. In its most extreme manifestation it's like being on the edge of realizing some epiphany. The flip side of that, and most disappointing, is that the epiphany is not realized.

Not exactly an epiphany, but I went to bed the other night, for some reason thinking of an obscure Civil War movie that involved a girls' school in the South, a wounded Yankee soldier, and poisoning the latter with mushrooms at the end. What was the name of that movie - it's just on the "tip of my tongue." During the night, I probed this memory, and I distinctly remember going through it over and over, and suddenly: "The Beguiled." Oh, wow! Presque vu!

Of these, it's only jamais vu that I've had no real experience with, other than the odd feeling I get when a word is repeated over and over and suddenly seems unfamiliar. Eventually Robinson has the longevity treatment fine-tuned to solve the problem, more or less, but I can't imagine experiencing these phenomena on a constant ongoing basis. It would drive you nuts!

On longevity: it crops up now and then in science fiction, but usually as an incidental fact. The other treatment that immediately comes to mind is Isaac Asimov's, which I gave a glancing blow here and here. Asimov's contention was that human society could not endure lifespans of centuries. In his "Spacer" society, conceived over 50 years ago, the first wave of colonists choose to live up to four hundred years. Spread thinly over fifty worlds, the Spacers did not survive it. In that case there was no longevity treatment, per se; it was a matter of genetics and lifestyle. It was his contention that long lifespans would stultify progress and smother innovation, and he smote his Spacers most definitively. Robinson hasn't told us what happens beyond the first two centuries of life, but I get the impression that he will find a way out.

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