Books Inside One Big Book

Marcel Proust.

I recently read a book that explores the immense role of books and literature in Marcel Proust’s complex, oceanic novel, “In Search of Lost Time.” It takes many different forms, some of which are easy to detect; others, not so much. 200 characters populate the world created by the French penman and some 60 writers preside over it.

If Proust’s heptalogy isn’t easy to read, what of the memoirs of the duke of Saint-Simon, a courtier at the Louis XIV’s court? They run to 40 volumes.

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Building Seas On Mars

A thermal plume rises from the bottom of a “mohole.”

I began reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Green Mars,” one day this past December. It took me a little over four months to trudge through a little over 600 pages. And just as in the case of “Red Mars,” I came away from this volume too, with a sense of sadness.

It’s the 22nd century and the red planet is home to a mixed population of those born on it—the natives—and those born on Earth—the settlers. They’re spread over a network of settlements, some of which are concealed in geological features as odd as a “lava tube”; some, exposed to eyes in the sky.

The members of the original crew that had landed in the mid-21st century have had to go into hiding. They’re being hunted down by the United Nations for waging an insurrection that had crippled the two-world economy. But they’re slowly emerging from their shelters and regrouping to launch another round of revolution.

The governance of this emergent civilization is, in effect, in the hands of colossal corporations, running it from offices on Earth. Much to the resentment of the locals, they continue to mine valuable minerals out of this outpost to replenish Earth’s dwindling supplies and to fill their own coffers.

No one on Mars wants this to go on forever. But how far they’ll be able to take control of their baby civilization will depend on their ability to shape the efforts at terraforming their alien world. There’s a rift between those who want to tweak its planetary DNA gently, such that it can harbor lakes and trees and animals and those who want it to be left untouched, just as it has been, cold and toxic.

But the businesses that rule Mars want it made habitable rapidly, for they see it as a bolt-hole, a place they can escape to if conditions on Earth—overpopulation and climate-change—suddenly, made it unlivable. They’re pumping in ungodly sums of money into replicating the evolutionary process and at a speed much, much faster than it’d happened on Earth.

Everything about constructing a biosphere was big.

Lumbering, Zamboni-like machines trundled across the rusty terrain in search of frozen water, just as in the 19th century, explorers roamed the land in quest of deposits of oil and coal metals.

When they hit a mother lode in a region of lowland that extended in a band all around the planet from its north pole down south to about 50 degrees, they filled it with enough meltwater to turn it into an ocean in the shape of a ring. In the southern hemisphere, they converted the Hellas, another enormous plain, into a circular sea.

To change the climate, they drilled holes some 10 miles into the planetary crust—towards its boundary with the mantle—so as so vent heat from the planet’s interior to the outside. Called a “mohole,” these gargantuan shafts were rimmed by a belt of beveled concrete, funneling down at an angle of 45 degrees to a depth of 650 feet that would fit about half the Empire State Building.

They created towns by tenting entire canyons or doming whole craters. Burroughs, the capital of Mars, is an archipelago of nine mesas on the Isidis plain, separated by grassy boulevards, their rocky walls broken by wide, horizontal glass windows of copper or gold or lustrous green or blue.

To make the Sun shine brighter and hotter, they placed in orbit around Mars two colossal mirrors: one, 60,000 miles in diameter and another, a “soletta,” 6,000 miles across. A structure twice as wide as the United States, it looked like a “lens made of circular Venetian blinds.”

By the end of the book, much has gone to waste. Two of Mars’ best metropolises are destroyed; one burns; the other, drowns. But for what it’s worth, it’s free of industrial exploitation.

A Horror Story With No Horror In It

Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” is a Victorian novella, published in 1894. Its reputation as a timeless tale of horror, I feel, is misplaced because it has neither blood and gore nor spooks and demons or killers and cannibals.

It has a blasphemous take on the story of Jesus Christ, yoked together with Pan, the Greek god of the wild and a pagan symbol. It also obliquely alludes to dark sexual revelry. Taken together, all this must have come as a horror to the prudish citizenry of the 19th century.