Study Guide

John Boone in Red Mars

By Kim Stanley Robinson

John Boone

John Boone is the Neil Armstrong of the 21st century. He was an American astronaut and the first man to walk on Mars. His popularity and blond good looks allowed him to jump aboard Ares for a second mission to Mars, despise a serious dosing of radiation on his prior trip. Knowing how to spread the charm, John quickly became the informal leader of the mission.

But John is also like another famous historical figure. Care to guess who?

John F. Kennedy? No, think further back. George Washington? Cold; go further. Jesus? Nope. We have to go even further back than that.

And the Answer Is…

Obviously the answer we were looking for was Socrates. Okay, so that answer wasn't exactly obvious, but we stand by it. There are many aspects of John's Martian life that remind us of that dear old Greek philosopher. But before we get into that, how about a small recap of the philosopher who would go on to influence, well, every philosopher ever?

We aren't sure how much we know about Socrates is, um, well, true of the actual Socrates. How's that for an introduction? See, Socrates never wrote any of his philosophy down, or if he did, it certainly didn't last long enough to reach us. So instead, everything we know about Socrates we've received through Plato's dialogues, which are considered to be varying degrees of accurate when it comes to the big S man.

So what can we say about Socrates?

For starters, he didn't teach in any school. He spent his time traveling in Athens and teaching anyone who would listen to him. His preferred teaching style was the dialectical method. This is a method of debate where one proposes a question, another provides an answer, and then the answer is scrutinized for its logic and reasoning. At which point, another question is proposed and so on. Good times. In other words, Socrates is all about the journey, man—he never comes to what we might consider definitive definitions.

Martian Philosopher

So you might have noticed a bit of John Boone in that tiny Socrates bio up top. For starters: the traveling. Both men travel their respective communities, meet with people, and discuss issues pertinent to their lives.

You could argue that John's discussions lean more toward politics or the environment or whatever, but the key feature of John's and Socrates's searches remains the same: the question of how to live a proper and good life.

And like Socrates, John never comes up with an answer. Instead, he receives various different answers that he finds truth within, but never an answer that completely encompasses the ideal of truth. When he talks with the Swiss, he realizes their way of looking at nation and government has some truth to it and desires the same for Mars—but it's not a complete truth. When he talks with the Sufis, he sees their religion as containing some truth, too, but again, it's not the entire truth Mars requires.

But that's okay because, as John says in his epic speech at the end of Part 5:

[…] so that it's in the nature of the an act of genetic engineering what we do here, we have the DNA pieces of culture all made and broken and mixed by history, and we can choose and cut and clip together from what's best in that gene pool, knit it all together the way the Swiss did their constitution, or the Sufis their worship, or the way the Acheron group made their latest fast lichen […] (5.10.105)

Sure, he doesn't have the complete truth, but he does have an idea of what he considers a truth worthy of crafting his unique visions of Mars around. He wants to include the Swiss and the Sufis ideals while removing the transnationalist capitalism and corrupt politics of Earth. And by stitching all these ideas together and examining others further, he and Martian society as a whole just might get closer to a truth worthy of their lives. But only by "paying attention in a new way [and] asking new questions" (5.9.48). Like Socrates, it's all about the trip for John.

Not in the Know

A couple other notes before we leave John's character analysis in your capable hands, Shmoopers.

The Sufis ask John which of the four mystical journeys he's currently on, and he responds, "I guess I haven't begun the first journey yet […] I don't know anything." (5.7.83). This answer is remarkably similar to one Socrates gives the Oracle at Delphi.

When the Oracle proclaims Socrates the wisest of all me, he rejects the notion, instead claiming that he knows nothing. After searching for someone wiser than himself, though, Socrates realizes that he is the wisest of men because he knows he knows nothing. John may not be the wisest man, but he's wise enough to be well aware of just how much he doesn't know.

Also, both men are killed for their beliefs. Socrates is sentenced to death for impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens. He drinks the poison hemlock and dies. John is likewise poisoned by carbon dioxide on the Martian surface because Frank thought his philosophy was dangerous to the future of Mars.

So, what do you think? Is John Boone the Socrates of Mars? Or does the character wear some other kind of mask for you?