Thursday, January 21, 2016

Future of Mars

This past weekend, I sat on a panel at Arisia entitled the Future of Mars. All things considered, it was a great panel, and I was happy with my contributions.

I did have a few thoughts about the panel afterwards, about what the conversation might mean, and where I’d like to take my thoughts regarding Mars in the future.

First a quick biographical note. The first story I ever wrote was about Mars but I have an ambivalent relationship with it. Not that Mars cares, being a planet, but I go back and forth on the whole idea of what happens next to this planet. Mars, as a topic of speculative fiction, is the setting that never quite leaves science fiction. We're always twenty years from going there. We always learn some new discouraging fact about the planet. Dust, perchlorates, and even the possibility of microbial life, all make the effort to reach Mars that much harder to realize

We keep talking about Mars and yet, year after year, we somehow fail to be on Mars.

To be sure, Mars is having a big couple of years. From the landing of Curiosity, to the discovery of liquid water, and the increasing amount of work to bring humans to the surface of the Red Planet, Mars is getting a well-deserved second look. Is this a place where Mankind can establish a second home? Is this a blank slate for humanity to use to take use somewhere different?

My own personal view is that Mars, as a place, has already been colonized. It was colonized mentally, psychically through the efforts of generations of speculative writers. Part of the problem in summoning up the collective will to put a person on the fourth planet is that the adventures we’ve already had there, as a species, will never be surpassed by what an exploration of Mars is actually going to be like. To put it bluntly, Mars is a very cold, nearly airless rock with very little of what human beings need to survive.

I don’t think the drive to colonize Mars ever quite survived the hit it took from the Mariner and Viking probes. Where Mars was once a dry and inhospitable world, filled with Martian cultures and ancient cities, we now have a cratered and barren wasteland. Instead of a world that presented an abstract challenge to colonization, we have a world that seems a little less suitable to human life every year.

Yet, I’m not signed up to any anti-colonization newsletter. I’ve never written a story where the point was to not go there. I follow Curiosity on Twitter and post articles about how awesome it would be to live on Mars.

Part of my fascination with Mars stems from recent writers who’ve shown how the stark, inhuman wilderness of Mars could be a compelling stage for human drama. Kim Stanley Robinson, in particular, adopted the conceit that Mars was a sterile laboratory for human experimentation. Through his Martian Trilogy, the drive to make Mars suitable for human life doesn’t only alter the planet, but also the humans that dwell upon it. Mars makes humans Martian. This is of course the same basic point of Ray Bradbury’s classic tale, Million Year Picnic, but when translated into hard sci fi, the terraforming process assumes the glory of epic poetry.

As the panel went on, I found myself meditating on a comment from +John Scalzi, a natural reaction considering I was the target of the comment.

+Nalin Ratnayake, a fellow panelist, had made the point that Mars might function as a clean slate for humanity, a place where a new type of human being could develop. He meant this both figuratively and literally, I think, pointing out that Mars could inspire new, more rational political and economic systems and also require genetic tinkering of the human species. Thinking back on all the stories and dreams that the fourth planet has gathered to it, I wondered if that past should simply be thrown aside. Perhaps our future efforts there need to pay homage to the works of creativity about Mars.

Finishing my thought, Scalzi leaned back in his chair and made a “wait-just-a-minute” grimace.

“What is an Indian or Chinese (I’m paraphrasing here, by the way) colonist going to care about our culture’s science fiction?" he asked. "Why should he care about Barsoom?"

Which is a good point. I meant what I said in an inclusive sense, that all of human civilization’s musings on Mars should be incorporated into whatever Mars becomes, but that wasn't obvious.

Nevertheless, I stand my basic point. History is forgotten at the peril of the present. I don’t think that every particle of Mars should be named after science-fiction authors, but I do think the lessons from that body of fiction have a place in the discussions about Martian colonization. Because when you get right down to it, Martian literature is about survival. How do humans survive someplace where they’re not supposed to survive?

Speculative Fiction suggests three possibilities to answer that question:

One) Humans can’t survive on Mars. For whatever reason - reduced gravity, lack of some crucial nutrient or environmental factor - humans can’t colonize the planet. This means that we really belong on this planet. Maybe that’s not such a bad realization to have.

Two) Humans can survive on Mars WAY easier than we think. Mars One has it right. We have everything we need for a colony right now. This would be great. Mankind would have a new home and would be well on its way to becoming an interstellar civilization. It's possible we'll discover unicorns there too.

Three) Humans can survive on Mars but only after considerable adaption. New technologies, new biologies, and new cultures are required before we can successfully colonize Mars. Personally I think this might be the best option of all three. If there is one lesson I drew from my research on Mars for this panel, it’s that Mars SHOULD change us. That going into space is hard and dangerous and we shouldn’t pretend anything different.

For me, the final possibility is the most compelling reason to try colonizing Mars.
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