3 lessons for Spike TV’s adaptation of Red Mars

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Jun 22, 2016, 1:34 PM EDT

As a sci-fi loving lady, I was intrigued when the news came that Spike TV, the home of Lip Sync Battle and MMA, was doing an adaptation of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy. I was first introduced to the series as a junior in college, during the pre-requisite literary science-fiction course that many English majors take because the syllabus included something other than Shakespeare. I found myself not just drawn to the detailed descriptions of the desolate, yet still oddly beautiful, Martian landscapes, but also to the cast of colorful characters who made up the first colonists. Ladies! Doing science! On Mars! Science-fiction is the genre that a lady built, after all. Thanks, Mary Shelley!  In Red Mars, written in 1992 at the trailing end of the Cold War, women took their place as major characters on a far-off planet, and I loved it.

I’ve watched the inevitable Red Mars TV adaptation announcements come and go with trepidation. Syfy, when it was still the Sci-Fi Channel, wanted to adapt the series as early as 2006. Eventually, the rights lapsed from that agreement and development shifted to AMC, pre-Breaking Bad. Now, Spike TV wants to have a go at adapting the story. It doesn’t bode well that this project has been passed around for the better part of a decade. But it’s a great story, filled with fascinating characters; characters with ambitions and flaws, who are all too recognizably human, and have agendas and loyalties to different beliefs, are all vying for control of the planet. And yes, there is murder. In the right hands, the story could play out like a Martian version of Game of Thrones.  And with renewed interest in the Red Planet thanks to the blockbuster book and movie The Martian, the time is certainly right for a television show set on Mars.

Under Spike TV, the production has hit some roadblocks. The show lost its prospective showrunner back in March, thanks to “creative differences”, and now the entire production is on hold while the network scrambles to find a new boss. Major names in sci-fi entertainment have all been interested in adapting the show in the past; James Cameron, J. Michael Straczynski, and Gale Anne Herd, to name a few. And while we wait for news on whether this adaptation is still scheduled to go forward, here’s what I think the network needs to do in order to keep to the spirit of the novel as well as keep to their dedication to attracting more diverse viewers.

Remember the Ladies

There is no central main character in Red Mars. Each section of the book is told from the point of view of different characters. Because of gender parity among the one hundred colonists, it stands to reason that many of the POV characters are women. The biggest fear I have with a TV adaptation is that some of the characters will be shoved to the side, or even gender bent in order to bring more dudes into the forefront. Don’t do this. Don’t change my beloved Nadia, my practical bad-ass structural engineer, who can MacGyver her way out of any problem. Don’t turn her into a guy. I know, the temptation to have a Mark Watney-ish character is extremely great, but there can be Mark Watney-esque female equivalent. To show that even an older female character can change the future of an entire planet would bring a powerful message to viewers. There’s no shortage of older male characters who can carry a drama. Why not give the women a chance, too?

What is so amazing about Red Mars is the diversity of female characters. Yes, John Boone is awesome. Frank is interesting in his own way. But the bulk of the female characters is impressive. There’s the aforementioned Nadia. There’s Maya, the leader of the Russian contingent. There’s Ann the environmental activist who laments that they’re changing Mars even as they’re studying it. Phyllis, who sees in Mars an unprecedented financial opportunity. And last, but not least, Hiroko, the expert on biospheres who takes off with her team once she did the minimum work required to get the initial colony going. She is instrumental in creating a matriarchal society away from the Earth-controlled colonists. Mars as a matriarchy. This would be an amazing message in the show if Spike TV was brave enough to keep it. Let’s have the women in charge.

Trash the Racism

I reread the first book in my excitement for the possible adaptation, and the thing that stuck out at me now versus when I was still a college student was the degree of Islamaphobia in the novel. Granted, the reader only sees the Muslim background characters through the eyes of the white male characters, so they might bring in their own prejudices to the depiction of Muslim characters. However, the use of a Muslim character to carry out a suicide bombing at a festival gave me pause. Frank Chalmers, a white male character, basically eggs the bomber on by playing on the man’s fears about the future of the colony and the future of the Middle Eastern colonists. It’s a dangerous narrative, especially in light of current world events. An easy rewrite can still paint Frank as the manipulator he is without the controversial angle from the book.

Another adjustment is letting Hiroko Ai, the only major East Asian character, play more of a substantial role in the show versus the books. Let the story be told from her point of view, and allow her to be a more fully realized version than her book self. She disappears a third of the way through the book, only reappearing at the most unlikely moment to “save” the colonists from certain death. It’s disappointing that she is the only Japanese female character, one that seems to reinforce the dragon lady stereotype. She uses everything within her power to destroy what the “Westerners” have built, and she exists in a hidden city separate from the other colonists. She is a scientist, a woman who takes the future of an entire planet into her own hands, and she’s relegated to an outdated racist trope. In the age of whitewashing and yellowface, positive Asian representation in media is still sorely needed. 

Embrace the Weird

This is science-fiction, after all, and even in a hard sci-fi book like Red Mars, there have to be contingencies in place to illustrate the technological and social advancements that humanity would witness in the future.

The colonists create a treatment to make humans essentially immortal. On the surface, this is a plot point solely created so the first colonists can experience 200 years of Martian development without having to hand off the point of view duties to their offspring. But “the treatment” is also a commentary on the questions of what makes us human. Not all of the colonists are willing to take the treatment. Are they less human or any less “Martian” than those who accept the treatment wholeheartedly? Would these altered humans be accepted if they ever returned to Earth?

Another side effect of the process, which is addressed in the last book of the trilogy, Blue Mars, is the deterioration of mental processes after the longevity treatment. Although the body can keep on existing technically forever, the brain might not be able to keep up. Characters suffer from extreme memory loss and even a change in personality as they reach the second century of their lives. Are these people still human? Are they the same people they were when they were born on Earth two centuries ago? Does an Earth-based identity matter when they’ve lived most of their lives on Mars? Are humans born on Mars still human? Eventually, humans genetically alter their bodies so that they can live on less hospitable planets. Rather than terraforming planets to fit a “default” human, humans change themselves to fit the environment. The consequences for this process could make for great drama. Commentary on medical advances and transhumanism, with a hint of ecology. Sci-fi fodder to the max.

Part of Hiroko’s plans to make a world that is completely separate and independent from Earth’s influence consists of adhering to the philosophy (some would argue religion) of Areophany: The belief in and the worship of life no matter its form and no matter where it is found. This somewhat mirrors the first religions on Earth, which were dedicated to the worship of nature. In Areophany, the most important thing is life, and life is extremely important on Mars, since Mars is a dead world until humans arrive. Let’s just say Areophany is kind of like belief in the Force. There is an all-encompassing power that exists within life, and that power should be honored and protected. Earth-based religions, Christianity in particular, don’t hold as much sway in the novel. The idea of manifest destiny, that God has preordained His followers to use Mars however they wish, is seen as selfish by the followers of Areophany. The conflict between old religion and new can explore why humanity needs religion in the first place. Perhaps not a religion based on rules, but a philosophy based on morals. This could be a way to explore humanity’s complex relationship with religion and belief.

Humanity thrives on storytelling, which ties in somewhat with religion. A mysterious figure only known as “The Coyote” appears in various places on Mars. Like the Coyote of Native American legend, this figure is only spotted during events of great significance. Red Mars’ Coyote is a stowaway on the Ares who helps Hiroko with carrying out her plans to separate from the main colony. In doing so, in establishing the second city on Mars, Coyote becomes a mythological figure. One mythological Coyote brought fire to humans on Earth millennia ago. This new Coyote brings civilization to a wild Mars landscape.

Despite the outright ridiculousness of the story, and despite the ludicrousness of hiding a whole other person on the colony ship, I really would like to see the Coyote subplot appear on the show. While Areophany offers a philosophical belief system which teaches people why to live a certain way, Coyote’s actions show people how to live according to that way. It would be a neat contrast to the stories that humanity made up about Mars from the first time we looked up and saw a glowing red point of light in the sky. 

There’s no question that Red Mars would make for a compelling story if placed into the right hands. On Mars, we’re going to be the aliens, until we learn how to truly live on the planet, how to truly be Martians.


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