Thursday, June 25, 2009

Bookends

Today I finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trillogy (+1 for the short story collection) for the second time. Robinson's work has always had an interesting element of the objective for me; it's a product of the amount of research that goes into his books. At times, this can make him a hard author to read, but there are dividends to be paid to a patient audience. I know that it took me several tries to get into Antarctica, but it was well worth it in the end. But even in a work so well plotted, with so much hard science and engineering for a background, it was a completely different experience for me this time around.

You see, when I first read the books, I was involved with my udergraduate work. At the time I was studying to be an engineer, but I'd always had an idle interest in science fiction since I was young. In fact, I might have gone straight into astronomy, had it not been for the frustration I had experienced with a certain telescope in my youth. Since then, the idea of space travel always seemed a bit disconnected from reality for me. The type of thing you might daydream about, but not something you would actually do as a career.

But these books showed me that there was something more. Perhaps I could turn my interest into my career. And so, I enrolled in and completed a doctorate in planetary science after finishing up my undergrad. As a result, I now know much of the background material inside and out. So while I was interested to read the books once more, just to meet all the familiar characters over again, I was even more curious to see what I would think now that I knew the language.

You see, reading a book is not a passive activity, but depends highly upon what you bring to the table. This is something I've encountered before with the Ender's Game series from Orson Scott Card. When I first read the books at 16, it just could not get better then the first book where the main character is a child and then a teenager. Later, when I was 25, I re-read the series and now I've come to feel that the second book "Speaker for the Dead" is the better one. Will I prefer the third book when I am fifty? I would not be surprised.

And so this time when I reread the books, it felt more like summing up. Mars is a place I've visited, if only by proxy, over the course of the Phoenix mission and in my research. What interested me more this time around wasn't the excitement of the initial exploration and colonization or even the terraforming ("Red," "Green") but what comes next ("Blue," "Martians"). How is it that people choose to live their lives and all the little stories that come together to make up a culture.

I know these last two have earned the derision of many, but I really appreciated the tapestry being put together, even if it was less technical and less plot-driven then the others. I even appreciated how Robinson brings in short stories written before the books that mildly contradict what happens in the 'canon.' Each of us sees reality in subtly different ways, and neither of us ever walks the same road twice, changed as we are by the interviening time.

Perhaps this also appeals to me because I feel like I am at a bit of a cross-roads. I've completed my training, discovered, explored and constructed my world, so to speak. So now it is time to figure out how to live in it. However, this year, I seem to be stuck going sideways. Even though I've entered a new field, (out of necessity, admitedly) I feel like I'm just rehashing the past five years over again. And I'm ready to return to planetary science. I'm ready to forge on ahead. I'm ready for a new challenge.

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