Someone must have let his guard down because this story, The Martian Obelisk, by Linda Nagata, is an actual science fiction story, with bits of astronomy, space travel, technology, and all that jazz. Yes, unbelievable isn’t it? A Hugo story which is an actual science fiction story?! You could give this story to a random person whose only understanding of sci-fi is “stuff with rockets and futuristic gadgets” and he would concur with you: yes, this is, indeed, a science fiction story. Unfortunately, it overextends, misses the mark, and fails at it.
This may explain why proper science fiction stories have been on the decline and most Hugo finalists prefer “personal” narratives with a sci-fi garb thrown over it: they are easier to write. The moment you make a scientific fact or a piece of technology part of the plot, things can get awfully complicated very fast. You can miss obvious solutions, ignore unexpected consequences of this or that scientific law, and so forth. Something like this may have happened to this story.
Aside from that, the main problem I had with this story is that I couldn’t believe the premise, and the story kept throwing stuff at me that undermined its message and supposed drama. The premise is that the world is ending, slowly, and I simply could not believe that.
Perhaps to subvert the usual cataclysmic apocalypses one finds in most stories, the writer chose a protracted ending, which unfortunately made the story weaker. This is the list of disasters that have befallen humanity:
Sea levels rose along with average ocean temperatures. Hurricanes devoured coastal cities and consumed low-lying countries. Agriculture faced relentless drought, flood, and temperature extremes. A long run of natural disasters made it all worse—earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions. There had been no major meteor strike yet, but Susannah wouldn’t bet against it. Health care faltered as antibiotics became useless against resistant bacteria. Surgery became an art of the past.
After reading this, my reactions was, “is that it?” Keep in mind that the story is not about a cataclysm that killed, let’s say, 90% of humanity, but The End, the point of no return. Nothing in that list, which is, by the way, too good (well, bad) to be true, implies such an apocalyptic scenario. There are many countries in the world that have never (and never will) experience hurricanes, tsunamis, dangerous earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions. The threat to agriculture is a more dangerous one, but did you know there’s agriculture in Iceland? Yeah, that in ice hole; they even grow bananas in greenhouses there. I can imagine famines and massive megadeaths as a consequence of these catastrophes, but… The End of the World, a point of no return? Nah. You need something bigger for that.
Note that no numbers are given either. We don’t know how many people have died, how many meters the sea has risen, and so forth. This is just a list of local events, some of which are clearly temporal and a consequence of bad luck (“a long run of natural disasters.”) The Black Plague killed between 30-60% of Europe’s population… and a century after that came the Renaissance, the Age of Discovery and Sailing and the rise of Europe as a world power. So, really, I need more than a few nasty, ecological disasters to assume humanity is irrevocably screwed.
To be fair, there are more disasters listed, but this piling of small horrors until we reach infinite crap doesn’t help as much as you may think:
Out of the devastation, war and terrorism erupted like metastatic cancers.
Eh, even the Second World War didn’t kill that many people (as a percentage of the global population, that is,) and terrorism is an awful way to achieve mass casualties.
There were reactor meltdowns, poisoned water supplies, engineered plagues, and a hundred other, smaller horrors. The Shoal War had seen nuclear weapons used in the South China Sea.
I don’t know, this all seems… not enough, really, and too good to be true, to be honest. What, did all nuclear reactors suddenly decide they have no will to live anymore? Now, engineered plagues… that’s more interesting, unfortunately, since it’s just another horror more in the list, there’s no way to know it’s relevance or importance.
You could argue that I’m overthinking things. Well, I disagree, I believe I’m merely thinking them, but I get your point. I could ignore those details if the story didn’t try to remind me of them all the time:
Still, the tipping point was long past, the future truncated. Civilization staggered on only in the lucky corners of the world where the infrastructure of a happier age still functioned.
Wait… I think people underestimate the amount of knowledge, energy, and population required to maintain that infrastructure. We are talking about cities here. If modern cities are still standing, why would be the tipping point be long past?
And this I’m saying here goes on throughout the whole story. It starts with the protagonist, Susannah, an 80-year old woman and an engineering/architect, jogging along the Pacific Coast, which is fine — the world may be ending but there’s no need to simmer in misery, right? But here’s the problem, a lot of very specific technologies, jobs, occupations, and events are mentioned that make the assumption of “the world has ended” hard to believe. For one, she has a wrist-link with a personal AI, linked to what is clearly a global communications system, and satellites are also mentioned.
There’s more. She is working for a very wealthy man, probably a billionaire, who has been bankrolling her Martian project (more on that later.) It is mentioned that this man “owns” the project, the materials, the equipment, “the satellite accounts,” or that he has a “staff” and so forth. There’s even some talk about who owns the remains of the (apparently abandoned) Martian colonies. This implies business, paperwork, lawyers, office buildings, infrastructure, money, banking, etc. This is a strange End of the World scenario.
There are many details like these, some more obvious, like the fact that there’s still an economy that allows the existence of quite advanced capitalism, and other smaller, like Susannah brewing coffee. Think about it — coffee is a tropical plant, and you are certainly not going to grow it in the cold North Pacific near Seattle, aren’t you? Did she import it, and if so, from where and how? Are Brazilians still growing it and sending it to rich gringos? No, I’m sorry, but this is NOT the End of the World. Just because the story says so I don’t have to believe it.
Ah, but here I’m digressing at full speed and I haven’t even told you about the story itself. Well, it was a necessary meandering because the plot is about the construction of a kind of Last Monument, a giant obelisk on Mars, the last work of art made by humans, something that would outlast them once they are gone. This makes sense only if we accept the premise that the world is, indeed, ending and that everything went beyond the point of no return. Otherwise, it’s just a story about some weird rich guy building a giant phallic object on Mars although his attention and money should be focused closer to Earth.
But this only increases the number of problems. Why Mars? Humanity may be ending, but Earth certainly isn’t. Can’t they find a nice acre of land (one without tornados or earthquakes) and built it here, on Earth? Or maybe on the Moon? It’s far away, but NOT as distant as Mars. And if you want to avoid natural disasters, I don’t know if Mars, known for its apocalyptic, continent-sized (or even planet-sized) dust storms, is such a good place. And why an obelisk in the first place, there are certainly more stable and easier-to-build shapes (like a pyramid.)
The explanation of how it’s being built is certainly interesting, and it includes some nifty science bits: it involves the use of the automated robots left from previous, failed attempts at colonizing Mars. So, the machines are slowly building the obelisk, processing Martian sand into more useful materials. When the short story begins, the obelisk is already 170-meters high, but it’s supposed to reach much higher. And at that moment, when I read that, I lost all my remaining interest.
A 170-meter high structure is already high enough if you want to signal to any passing alien that “we were here.” In fact, even a turd would do the trick since the fact that you have reached another planet indicates a pretty good technological development. But more seriously, if you want to build something to last, don’t make it tall. I’m no engineer, but I assume that the taller a structure is, the higher the risk of collapse. The massive base, the one that supports the whole structure, has already been built, and that base is what will last millions of years (or it will if a gigantic dust storm doesn’t destroy it, that is,) so… cap it as it is and call it a day.
End of the story, humanity wins.
Unfortunately, the protagonists disagree; they really want their miles-long spire, and I’ll admit it looks cool in the art of the story, but it makes little sense in the text. But that nonsense is precisely the focus of the story because, to the horror of the protagonists, a vehicle is approaching the obelisk. Keep in mind that Sussanah and the wealthy man are on Earth; they can only monitor and control the building process with some fancy 360º screen which shows them images (with a 19-minutes lag) of the site. They can send orders, but these take time to reach.
They discover that this vehicle is one used by the colonists, the ones that everybody thought dead, and when the vehicle reaches the construction site, they discover a man with this whole family, the only survivors of the failed colony. This man wants to build a refuge for his family and asks them to hand him the robots and, yes, he needs the materials that have been used to build the obelisk. I know this is supposed to be a dilemma, but… it isn’t.
First, because the obelisk (which shouldn’t even be on that planet in the first place) is tall enough already. Second, because I don’s see why they have to dismantle the whole obelisk (does he need a Martian mansion or something?) And, finally, once the home has been built, and even assuming you have to tear down the whole monument, the robots can go back to build the whole thing or something humbler but sturdier. In fact, one could argue that having a group of humans close by, supervising the construction, may be a good thing and may keep them busy.
So, presented with this false dilemma between Art and saving some Martian hicks, Sussanah decides in favor of the colonists, and orders the robots to dismantle her work of art. But really, it seems like an odd choice since all the other attempts at colonizing the planet failed, so this family will be dead in a few months, and if they are not, they’ll be forced to massive endogamy (their two children are twins, so imagine that.) If they survive, these new Martians will reach levels of hydrocephaly previously thought impossible.
But I digress. The work of her life, the Obelisk, is being torn down, and at that moment, the rich guy reveals her some important bits of information that maybe should have been mentioned before. One, she has a granddaughter (and a grand-granddaughter,) and two, she is unaffected by a virus that had kept her quarantined in Hawaii because an antiviral has been discovered.
“Wait, what?” You may say. Yes, that was my reaction, too. Towards the end of the story, it’s mentioned that Sussanah had a daughter once (who died in a nuclear war) and that Hawaii, where the daughter lived, is under quarantine because of an engineered virus (which, by the way, would have been an excellent Doomsday Weapons to use as a premise for this story. ) But before she died, she gave birth to a daughter, but since the place was closed off the world for many years, the news couldn’t get out. But now the virus has been beaten, and she gets the good news.
The story ends with her finding a sort of new hope and strength for the future, which is good at all, but it sort of undermines the whole story and only proofs my point: if the only thing needed to have some hope was beating a Hawaiian virus, perhaps this wasn’t really an end-of-the-world scenario after all.
With all that said, here’s the big question: How did this story fight so hard to defeat its own premise and why did nobody, not the editors or the hundreds who read it, saw its many holes? I believe the answer to both questions is the same: it appealed to their modern eco-sensibilities.
This story could have worked with a much simpler premise: a man-made virus that is slowly killing everybody, a giant asteroid, or something like that. But the author preferred the more difficult and cumbersome long list of ecological disasters, which looks like the list of horrors you can read in any fear-mongering global warming article in a big newspaper. But these are not good end-of-the-world scenarios, they are not Doomsday Plot Devices, especially not if the story itself keeps reminding you that there’s still a lot of advanced technology working or that there’s still coffee in Seattle. There’s nothing in the story that justifies the premise, that we are done, so we might as well build ourselves a nice tombstone ON MARS. And without that premise, the story falls.
You can read this story on Tor.com