Kathleen Ann Goonan
Review of
MOVING MARS
by Greg Bear

Tor, 1993
ISBN 0-312-85515-X

MOVING MARS, Greg Bear's new novel, may seem, at the outset, to contain an utterly outrageous and unbelievable event. Mars is moved ten thousand light-years. Moreover, it is moved by the combination of a human and an artificial intelligence thinking real hard.

But the premise is firmly rooted in science--science on the edge, to be sure, which is an exhilarating place to be. And like science on the edge, MOVING MARS is exciting, intellectually challenging, and enormously rewarding.

Ed Fredkin, an intellectual eccentric who once held a professorship at MIT despite the fact that he never earned a Ph.D., believes that the universe most basically stores information in a binary fashion. In THREE SCIENTISTS AND THEIR GODS, Richard Wright, a science writer, interviews Fredkin and tries to pin him down on various physical and metaphysical extrapolations which might be true if this were the case. Stephen Wolfram, a MacArthur Foundation "genius," sums up these ideas succinctly in a 1984 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN article quoted in the abovementioned book: "Scientific laws are now being viewed as algorithms . . . Physical systems are viewed as computational systems, processing information much the way computers do . . . A new paradigm has been born." Fredkin baldly goes a step further: the universe is a computer.

Fredkin's embryo paradigm, presently the mutterings of those regarded as fringy by fellow scientists--except for a few people like Marvin Minsky and Richard Feynman--fully and powerfully blossoms in the year 2184, MOVING MARS time.

Charles Franklin, chief mover in the novel though his accomplishments are paralleled by Casseia Majumdar's political groundwork, has an intuition similar to Fredkin's, which he pursues to the nth degree. Cellular autonoma in a computer universe in which the rules are embedded in the initial conditions evolve according to those rules. If one rule is changed, the whole game changes. What if the algorhythm of the initial condition of this universe was always present, and what if humans could access it? What if humans could then tweak with the conditions we call time and space?

In MOVING MARS, humans do.

MOVING MARS takes the form of an account written by Casseia Majumdar, the other prime character in this play of mirror-matter and political smoke and mirrors.

Her account begins with her political awakening in 2171. She has been voided, with other students, from the University of Mars for being suspected of subversive activities against a new political move to unify Mars which would entail taking power from the Binding Multiples, or the BMs.

The political organization of Mars, as well as its dependent situation, is roughly analogous to that of the original thirteen American colonies. Binding Multiples, large economic units loosely based on family ties, have the ultimate free-trade situation. Efforts to form a common government are looked upon with suspicion by many "red rabbits," the term by which Martians describe themselves because the majority of their life is spent beneath the surface of the red planet. Each BM acts, essentially, as an independent unit--and this has the potential to cripple all of Mars should one or more agree to ally with Earth concerning any of the issues which wrack the planet during Casseia's political coming-of-age. Of course, Mars is dependent on Earth in many ways, mostly technological. For instance, the Thinkers, Bear's marvelous sentient artificial intelligences, are grown on Earth, as are the QL's--the Quantum Logic thinkers.

The moon is already under complete Earth control, but Mars is different. During the previous hundred years, it has been largely settled by those who wished to escape the nonviolent tyranny of the "therapied" on Earth.

Casseia and Charles meet during the student strike. Immediately Charles comes through as intelligent and thoughtful, more than a cut above the rabble-rousing leader of the strike. Throughout the book, it might sometimes difficult to understand, on the surface at least, why Charles is so drawn to Casseia. She is often quite blunt with him, to the point of rudeness. But he sees in her a depth of purpose and integrity (which surfaces painfully in her interactions with Charles) which she herself does not see.

If human politics and character are one essential leg of this book, and wild physics the second, the third leg which stabilizes MOVING MARS, as if it were a three-legged stool, is a vividly realized Mars.

For the planet itself is a character. Martian geologists and "diggers" have fathomed its geological and biological development and constantly, eagerly, search for more clues. According to them, Mars came to life about the same time as Earth, and progressed in as stunningly a unique fashion as did the Burgess Shale for over a billion years until the atmosphere was lost.

Bear's invented Mars life-form is beautifully detailed. Charles takes Casseia "up," to the surface of Mars, where they are able to stand in a rare fossilized aqueduct bridge. These were organic arteries, six feet in diameter or more, which pumped water in a vinelike network across Mars, feeding the next generation of evolution. They were the first stage of growth to spring from great pods called mother cysts, now fossilized and cherished.

"A single mother cyst, blessed with proper conditions, could "bloom" and produce well over ten thousand different varieties of offspring, plant-like and animal-like forms together, designed to interact as an ecos. These would spread across millions of hectares, surviving for thousands of years before running through their carefully marshalled resources." (P. 239)

Bear hints that the entire Mother Ecos, held in trust in the mother cysts, information for the future, was never fully realized--but could be, under the right conditions, if any of the cysts were still viable.

Here, appropriately, in the heart of Mars, Charles declares his intention to "strike a contract" with Casseia.

Casseia has no need of a feminist ideology--instead, she embodies candor, and eventually the anguish of consciously assumed great responsibility, in a stubborn and straightforward fashion of which any human would be proud. She does not quite understand why she is unwilling to lawbond with Charles Franklin, budding genius and generous, adoring courter. She agonizes over rejecting his proposal. Yet she really fears sacrificing her own goals, however nebulous they are to her at the time, to his. She does not want to emotionally support a genius, and particularly not one willing to link with a Quantum Thinker, for she harbors the typical Martian distrust of all enhancements.

Casseia pursues her studies of government, and eventually is appointed as an apprentice to her uncle Bithras, the elected syndic, or representative, of several Binding Multiples. His mission is to travel to Earth and present an economic proposal which will ensure Mar's independence, at least temporarily. The trip to Earth by the envoy, of which Casseia is a member, is wonderfully detailed, technically and emotionally.

Bear set up the concept of "therapied" in QUEEN OF ANGELS. The therapied are highly intelligent, socially adaptable, sane, and polite. The untherapied fall across the spectrum of human possibility, although there are "high naturals"--those able to perform in the positions normally reserved for the therapied. To be therapied is a nanotech process whereby one's psychological rough spots are understood and smoothed from within, roughly analogous to the idea that various incidents from one's past block access to the entire range of information one encounters as an adult, possibly resulting in unpredictable and antisocial behavior. It is not mandatory to be therapied on Earth--but there is great discrimination in every area of endeavor against those who are not.

The conflict between the therapied and the untherapied, between Earth and Mars, between Casseia and Charles, parallel one another throughout the book. Casseia is Martian through and through. "We value our kinks," she says; she is descended from settlers escaping "the new tyranny" of the therapied on Earth.

Bear does not fully explain how nanotechnology has been successfully limited to serve humans positively in a fully controlled fashion. It's a rather nice touch for the nano food to so often seem inferior or bland, but why need this be so? Clothes conveniently form beneath bed mats, "fresh" medical kits squirm when poked. This is fun. But why does the post-nan world need money?

The use of nanotechnology in Washington, D.C. and in New York City seems to reflect the perceived present-day personalities of these two important cities. In the diplomatic circles in which Casseia moves when in D.C., though people may or may not be "enhanced," there is certainly not the weirdness she encounters when she visits NYC, guest of a young, fully enhanced shipboard friend. In D.C., though a former Martian may be playing a vid on her fingernail, the nan-world is rather stodgy and dull--much like the current New Yorker's vision of Life in D.C.

NYC is a complete contrast. Why do New Yorkers and not Washingtonians engage in wild nanotech body changes? Where, in D.C., are the wonderful advertisements broadcast by people's very bodies? Surely there would be enough otherwise aimless people there to jump at the chance of using mere biological existence in order to make a living. In short, though this may reflect a stereotypical version of the two cities, a bit like Los Angles/San Francisco or Tokyo/Osaka, it seems hardly believable that politicians and diplomats would eschew all but the most basic nano enhancements. This makes them seem almost like Martians--when they are really anything but! It is downright insulting to the Washingtonians to make them so bland. Of course . . . the fact that I hark from Washington may have something to do with this reaction.

Long after Casseia returns from a fascinating but ultimately disappointing visit to Earth, dramatic and powerful nano weapons--evolvons--do come into play.

These weapons, though, don't hold a candle to "tweaking."

Fredkin believes that the universe is a giant computer. So does Charles Franklin, who learns how, with simply the power of thought, to "rebalance the books," to tweak with time, space, and matter, and to move the file which is Mars to another directory.

Charles says (on page 287),

"The universe stores the results of its operations as nature. I do not confuse nature with reality. At a fundamental level, reality is the set of rules the results of whose interactions are nature. The results change if the rules change."

And Charles could almost be Ed Fredkin when he says that the universe is ". . . a kind of computational system . . . nothing but information talking to itself. . . I want to know how it talks to itself, and how we can listen in, . . and maybe add to the conversation. Tell it what to do." "You mean, we can persuade the universe to change?" "Yes," he said blandly."

The strata at which the universe can be persuaded to change--basically, as I said, by thinking real hard (though Bear dresses it up quite a bit) is called the Bell Continuum, which stems from a new physics called "descriptor theory." In the history of quantum theory there is a fellow named J.S. Bell who wrote several seminal papers on quantum mechanics. One wonders if the Bear's Bell Continuum is somehow extrapolated from J.S. Bell's thought, or if the dataflow aspects of theory into information owe anything to Shannon's work for Bell Labs.

At any rate, this is not your normal everyday person thinking real hard. This is Charles Franklin hooked to a Quantum Logic thinker, one time inadvertently exploring truths of our own universe--and taking others with him--where subatomic operations could be slightly, but disastrously, different. The Olympians, a group of Martians scientists, have devoted their considerable intellectual prowess to discovering how to manipulate "descriptors." According to one of them (page 279) "The universe is bounded in a nutshell. Distance and time mean nothing, except as variations in descriptors."

Casseia, by now married and the Vice-President of a provisionary Martian government formed in response to pressure from Earth to relinquish independence, decides to acquire a particular enhancement in order to better understand the ramifications of accessing the Bell Continuum. Experiencing the enhancement through her eyes--through her mind--is one of the most satisfying parts of the book. Would that we could do the same, now. Bear drops the slightly hallucinatory, enhanced feel after we get the picture, but I was a bit disappointed that Casseia could seemingly put it away so easily. It returns though, in key moments, and helps the moving of Mars seem more real.

To those who complain that Casseia is present at too many seminal events in the history of Martian Independence, I say pshaw! Mars is sparsely populated, and most Martians seem to spend their time in as provincial a fashion as those on Earth believe, including going to barn dances. They are burrowed in, they are surviving, trading, deeply involved in life on this new frontier. Most of them seem not to care for the big picture as Casseia does.

Bear's handling of emotional prose, filtered through Casseia, achieves a Hemingwayesque understatedness. A sentence of only two words has the power to transmit great depths of anguish. The pivotal scene in which the abilities of the Olympians are fully demonstrated is one of the most poignant, affecting passages in the book. Casseia Majumdar and Charles Franklin are complex, fully realized characters--so real you might miss them once the book is finished.

MOVING MARS is a great achievement, in my opinion. Bear has here fully merged the human with the theoretical. Humans working in tandem with artificial intelligences use scientific knowledge to forge through to a truly epiphanous outcome. In the history of consciousness, and in the history of what humans can know about the universe, what might the next paradigm shift be? What is the evolutionary purpose of thinking? We already model "tweaking"--changing the bookkeeping of the universe--via imagination: books; movies; a billion powerful interconnecting fictions which net the planet. Are we readying for a paradigm shift? What great intellectual push will break through to the currently unimaginable next stage of being and thought?

MOVING MARS is a grand, deep look at the possibilities which pure thought might accomplish, once we better understand the universe, and ourselves.

The end

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Last Update 11/10/98
Copyright 1993 Kathleen Ann Goonan All Rights Reserved.