Last spring, Richard Rothaus and I had a few conversations with with Andrew Reinhard about the idea of archaeogaming. Andrew has loosely described archaeogaming as archaeology in and of video games and talks about it at great length on our podcast here.
This past month, I’ve done the unthinkable. I decided to read a novel. I know, this is usually something I do in the summer, while trying to fall asleep after a long field day, in an unfamiliar bed, surrounded by the sounds of a Greek or Cypriot village. This mid-year departure for my normal routine was prompted by the announcement that Kim Stanley Robinson would participate in this years University of North Dakota Writers Conference. So I decided to pick up his Mars trilogy and (re?)read the first book – Red Mars – over the last couple of weeks.
For those of you unfamiliar with the book, it details the first human efforts to colonize Mars in the early 21st century. The main characters are the “First Hundred” of permanent human residents of Mars who established the first colony there, argued about the future of human habitation on the red planet, and continued to shape Martian politics and policies once the planet became open to more extensive immigration and exploitation. This drama is set against a well-researched and engaging topographic and scientific backdrop which convincingly establishes the potential character of Martian colonization (within the constraints of mid-1990s technological imagination…. in other words, very little internet, but rather extensive use of robots, artificial intelligences, and transnational corporate influences). The book covers the first 20 years of life on Mars.
Reading Robinson’s detailed descriptions of Mar got me thinking that his novel could represent a nice venue to extend the idea of archaeogaming. Robinson take immense care in his description of the Martian landscape. A number of the main characters spend weeks at a time traversing the sparsely populated planet and describing both natural and man-made features on their trips. Moreover, the 20 year span of life on Mars and the rapid development of technologies necessary to establish sustainable and permanent settlement there left behind a significant quantity of objects. Robinson clearly has archaeological sensitivities in his work. Certain objects appear periodically even after they no longer feature in the plot of the book. For example, Sax Russell’s solar-powered windmills (scattered across the planet’s surface in a failed attempt to increase surface temperatures) continue to appear in the book long after their initial purpose (both in the plot line of the book and in the Martian landscape) had lapsed. The first settlement on Mars, Underhill, undergoes formation processes as larger settlements with more amenities arise across the planet. The apartments that the “First Hundred” occupied at Underhill are turned over to storage and sections of the settlement are repurposed as research, habitation, and industrial sites spread across the Martian landscape.
Red Mars will undoubtedly resonate with folks in North Dakota as a major aspect of the plot involves the exploitation of the planet by transnational companies who bring thousands of short term workers to Mars. The living conditions for these workers are functional, but modest, and most workers (at least initially) accept these conditions because their goal is to work hard, make money, and return to an increasingly restive Earth with the additional security of wealth. At the same time, there are those among the First Hundred who have grave reservations about those who are exploiting the Martian environment and work the thwart efforts to turn Mars into a massive industrial zone.
The idea of archaeogaming is that the objects and landscapes present in video games represent a way to engage with challenging ideas in archaeological method, ethics, and practice. Documenting fictional artifacts in a novel as detailed and panoramic as Red Mars is not substantively different from exploring a fictional world of a film or video game. Whatever autonomy is lost because the reader has to follow the authors narrative (rather than the relatively more user-centered experience of a video game) is made in Robinson’s use of subtle detail that presents an elaborate backdrop of archaeological detail without quite allowing the reader to engage fully with objects or the landscape. The elusiveness (and allusiveness) of Robinson’s landscapes feels far more real than the detailed, cartographic, and hyperreal landscapes of video games. This does not discount the potential of archaeogaming, but perhaps expands its scope to include the textured landscapes of the science fiction novel as the immersive realm of pixels.
Go read the book and mark the UND Writers Conference on your calendar.