March 2016

Will George


Keep Mars Weird by Neal Pollack

When my great-great-great-grandchildren visit Mars, someone should keep them clear of Starbucks, the Mars Hilton, and Disneyland Mars, and get them right out there among the indigenous population. Mingle. See nature. I assume that by this point aboriginal relations will be on the up, so that humans can roam the Red Planet without too many disintegrations. I want my descendants to offer the handshake of friendship to their tentacled hosts. Martians should regard Earthlings not as their conquerors, but their baristas and hoteliers, their real estate speculators and Mickey Mousified kiddie entertainers. And their pals.

Keep Mars Weird, the new sci-fi novel by Texas-based satirist Neal Pollack, focuses on the Martian real estate speculation angle. In fact, native dwellers of Mars appear only once, and fleetingly, in the book: "They stood at least ten feet tall, their faces and bodies mostly hidden beneath great cloaks, save some webbed, six-toed feet, which clung to the soil like roots." (That description is wrong, by the way. Martians hover daintily above the terracotta sands, naked to their violet skin, save for filigree briefs. Their tentacular magnificence rarely surpasses eight feet.)

In some ways Pollack's story plays like a melodramatic rewrite of Total Recall. The year is 2650. Mars, sparsely colonized under hermetic domes, hosts an tiff between the paramilitary Martian Development Corporation and aggrieved revolutionaries who bewail the Corporation's urban planning. Seems the MDC has cruelly gentrified half the planet, shunting hippies out of their communes, artists out of their inner-city studios, everyone else out of their livelihoods. That means war. The crumbled housing projects and slums of old Mars become a literal battleground under the MDC's armed redevelopment. Into the hail of high-tech bullets fly antiheroes Jordan and Leonard, two shiftless, exiled Earth buddies looking for jobs and drugs. Mars has both, with strings -- you have to pick a side: the Establishment or the Resistance? So, in a too-familiar development, Jordan joins the profiteering MDC and Leonard the collectivist rebellion -- two chums divided in a good old-fashioned communism-versus-capitalism punch-up. On the surface, it's the usual tale of friendship split by politics, sugared with a faintly sappy subplot involving Jordan's estranged dad. Will father and son reunite? Or asphyxiate separately in the airless canyons of Mars? Cue violins.

Good thing the space-operatic plot isn't the main attraction of Keep Mars Weird. Unlike Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall, which is perhaps the finest Mars-themed social satire in any medium (including Philip K. Dick's 1966 classic short "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," which Recall retells), Keep Mars Weird has the word count to elaborate on the kind of Martian gentrification struggle briefly depicted in the film. Suitably, the book indulges a social commentary that well exceeds its action storyline. Of course, Pollack delivers lashings of sci-fi violence, space travel, galactic shag-fests, and a respectable body count. But the book's deeper interest lies in some of its quieter passages, marked by perspicacious, sardonic reflections on urban planning.

Gentrification, under the Martian Development Corporation, went like this:

Gradually, the MDC started buying up all the properties, putting up fancy buildings with fancy security, jacking up rents. Wages didn't keep up, and gradually Mars began to change. All these Earthpeople started coming in and "investing." They'd buy property for what was a fortune to Martians, tear down the structures, and put up new buildings. [...] Mars started getting fancy. [...] All the graffiti was gone, all the old businesses were gone, all that crazy ingenuity that poverty breeds in a population was gone, and in its place was nothing but shiny buildings and fancy restaurants and traffic.

Redevelopment has an obvious cultural price, yet it's no longer obvious once the old culture is gone. Because they're made less visible, the displaced become too easy to forget. Worse, once those pricey districts sprout up, they impose economic constraints that drastically affect the population even in remote neighborhoods. Take this account of the plight of school children under the MDC's regime:

They all worked part-time at garment factories and abattoirs after school so they could have money to buy the things they made. By going to school, they got access to good entry-level jobs, like slinging ice cream or repairing broken holo-cubes. That gave them valuable experience while they pursued their mostly crushed dreams during their very limited spare time. The MDC taught that inequality was the surest sign of economic progress.

Suddenly Martian kids have a spanking new career path: a workforce for the gentrifications. Pollack's criticism here isn't limited to the irony that people have to work to buy stuff they could otherwise just make, or that education and work often crush the dreams they should enable us to pursue. It's that these injustices aren't necessarily the natural result of competitive free enterprise; instead, they might reflect a doctrine inculcated artificially from the top down. Though it's beyond the scope of the novel to discuss this issue, just raising it so pithily and bitingly, in the context of science fiction, amounts to a small triumph. Thoughtful passages like this dramatically lift the tone of the satire.

Soon Pollack turns evenhandedly to the other side of the question. Is capitalist gentrification really an absolute social evil? What were the domes of Mars like before redevelopment?

Everything was filthy [notes the admittedly biased head of the MDC]. The city had completely decayed. People lived in houses without roofs. They had to. One out of every three didn't have a job, and those who worked didn't make much. People shot one another. In the streets. Over bread. I saw kids playing in open sewers. I saw pregnant women eating garbage to survive. [...] This is what the resistance wants back.

Though gentrification is motivated by profit, it has its salutary effects. Increasingly Pollack ridicules gentrification's critics, portraying them as jaundiced or deranged. So the head revolutionary, one drug-addled, scruffily garbed Captain Ted, hankers for the bad ol' days in these dubious terms:

"Back then, art was real," he was saying, while horking weed vapor out of a plastic bag. "It was something you could stick your dick into. Everyone was poor, everything was shitty, you could get murdered on a hover-train for a dollar. I had a friend who put nails through her palms. On stage. In front of an audience. Every week for a year. To prove a point. And she loved it, right?"

Right. What real artist wouldn't love pushing nails through their palms?

About punk rock, soundtrack to any anti-capitalist revolution, Pollack offers this laconic socio-musicological explanation: "[T]he people were angry. They didn't have access to a lot of good equipment, and they were poorly educated. This led to simple three-chord songs." Clearly Pollack is no Captain Ted. He deplores gentrification but has no nostalgia for primitive or crude forms of protest.

How does Keep Mars Weird finally come down on gentrification overall? Can there ever be a Third Way, a compromise between the Establishment and the Resistance? I can't spoil the moral of the story, set down fairly unambiguously in the closing pages. I think I can say (with some hesitation) that in Pollack's view, not just real estate speculators but the mass of ordinary people are somehow to blame for the blight of gentrification. At the book's catastrophe:

Everyone could see that they were on an alien planet, millions of miles from anywhere good, and that they were alone. They stared into the night and pondered the wonders of infinity and the smallness of their hastily and shoddily constructed personalities. After a few minutes of that, they turned on their Devices and amused themselves with holograms.

Maybe I have the wrong interpretation. Maybe that passage just means we're all idiots.

Keep Mars Weird by Neal Pollack
ISBN: 978-1503951471
240 pages