Response to VVEV: Section II – Mars

VVEV is illustrated by Maciej Rebis

This is Part 2 of a six-part response to Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, which is available for free from Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination thanks to a grant from NASA. I say “response” and not “review” because I intend to engage with the ideas presented from my own point of view.

Section II of VVEV is entitled Mars, and contains two short stories and two essays:

  • The Baker of Mars, by Karl Schroeder
  • Exploration Fact and Exploration Fiction, by Lawrence Dritsas
  • Death on Mars, by Madeline Ashby
  • Life on Mars?, by Steve Ruff

This blog post contains spoilers!

The stories and essays of this section are, on the whole, not thematically connected as tightly as those of Section I. Karl Schroeder’s The Baker of Mars and Lawrence Dritsas’s Exploration Fact and Exploration Fiction are the most in sync with each other, focusing on the economic questions of labor, resources, ownership, and return on investment that will come embedded with any permanent settlement in space.

Death on Mars, by Madeline Ashby, and Life on Mars?, by Steve Ruff, don’t really have much in common with each other, despite similar titles, nor to the rest of the writing in this section. The former is by far my favorite actual story of the lot so far, seeking to explore more human questions of group dynamics, privacy, gender, and (of course) death in an off-Earth setting. The latter focuses more on the geology and potential microecology of Mars and other potential places to settle in the solar system.

Section II being so loosely connected, it’s hard to find the kind of common thread to rant about as in my response to Section I. So I’ll respond to them one by one.

Three things about Schroeder’s story stand out to me. Firstly, I applaud him for seriously exploring a novel way of mediating ownership, property, labor, and commercialism on Mars. He proposes an AI-like, blockchain-validated, virtual avatar that legally personifies and represents parts of the geography of Mars. Would-be developers, residents, and stakeholders in that region would negotiate directly with the avatar, who embodies sustainable development as a measure of self-preservation.  Advances in modern computing make Schroeder’s idea plausible, even presently-possible; indeed the hurdles to such a system would be more social and political than technological.

Secondly, the idea that Mars could be developed via telepresence, with humans on Earth controlling smart robots on Mars, has some merit. The danger and expense of keeping humans alive and onsite during the construction of a permanent Mars colony might be prohibitively high until the colony and its systems were physically stable and self-sustaining. Of course, large amounts of equipment would need to be sent to Mars in advance to provide the tele-workers, not to mention vast investments in interplanetary communication bandwidth, which may be just as expensive if not more so than simply sending humans in the first place. But kudos for expanding the solution space in a creative way, and for proposing something different.

Which brings me to the third thing I like about The Baker of Mars: it’s different, particularly in the economic system it proposes. While we humans will certainly bring our past baggage and social conditioning along with us as we expand into the solar system, there really isn’t any particular reason that future settlement, social and political structures, and economic systems need to look like what they do today in Earth societies. The genre has a few standard templates for space settlement: the government / military / nationalistic archetype, the exploitative / commercial / corporate archetype, and the generation/ religious / migration archetype. These three have significant historical precedent here on Earth, but they certainly aren’t all-inclusive. Why not imagine something new?

Lawrence Dritsas picks right up on the economic thread of Schroeder’s story in his essay, which reflects on the history of commercial enterprise in colonialism and its implications for the future of human expansion into space. There’s a lot that’s interesting here, but I’ll focus on his discussion of the 2015 Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act, which I’ve blogged about at length myself.

How the eventual resources of space might be exploited commercially, and legally, is a very real concern. With the new law, the U.S. is asserting private property rights for its citizens in space. This raises interesting questions about sovereignty in space and some worry the legislation will destabilize the “fragile equilibrium” that has existed since 1967. The act of appropriating land on celestial bodies seems to require that a sovereign authority is endorsing it, or that a “new sovereignty” has been created.20 We can therefore see why the U.S. was so careful to state that they are only endorsing the rights of U.S. citizens to claim extracted resources, not celestial bodies. Nonetheless, without some sort of guarantee to property in space and on celestial bodies, the private investment that appears necessary for humanity’s next move into space will not occur.

I disagree that private property is the only way to have commercial incentive to venture into space. As I mentioned in my response to Part I, there are plenty of ways for private industry to be involved and make a profit even in the service of wholly publicly-controlled goals in space.

Idealism aside, I do admit that Dritsas’s emphasis on the guarantee of private property rights and his historical emphasis on government-sanctioned private exploration (and exploitation) by massive, chartered corporations is will be much closer to our actual path into the stars than more equitable scenarios. My own novel, Red Soil Through Our Fingers, explores a future Mars colony in which the fictional Rekos-Breland Xenomaterials (RBX) Corporation behaves very much like a British East India Company might have were it given the chance to invest in off-planet business opportunities, only with the contemporary neo-liberal approach of say, Amazon or Shell Oil.

I’m forced by the subject text to veer away from economic exploitation towards human psychology, though the shift is welcome. Though VVEV contains no shortage of intriguing ideas, Ashby’s Death on Mars is the component that stands best on its own as a story so far, providing the most interesting characters and remaining blissfully free of the technological info-dumps that tend to plague these kinds of collections. And yet its principal subject matter is no less important to the settlement of other worlds than technological considerations: How will we live (and die) in space?

The optimal crew composition for a space mission is highly dependent on the goals, duration, location, and nature of the mission — and even then, it is a subject of much debate. Is the mission exploratory, military, or civil in nature? Who is paying for the mission and what are their goals? Will it be “out and back”, or are these people going out into the black to stay? Even if they are supposed to come back, is the mission days in length or decades? Are only the best of the best cleared for launch, or is a cross-section of society more desirable? Should any attempt be made at representation and equity on any axis, or does cold, hard mission efficiency rule the day? How do we appropriately measure — let alone factor in — social, emotional, and psychological concerns? And finally, does the basic human relational unit on another world need to look anything remotely like the “traditional” Western nuclear family on Earth?

These issues are, from my point of view, the most understudied and under-explored questions in human space exploration, with biological, ecological, and medical considerations not far behind. Rockets and spaceships are loud, exciting, and have a hallowed place in science fiction canon. I hope stories that focus on the human element of spaceflight continue their growth in the genre, and I was very glad to see a story like Ashby’s included in this collection.

In Life on Mars?, Steve Ruff makes a few perfunctory references to the other works in Section II before abruptly segueing into what he clearly actually wants to talk about, which is the search for microbial life on Mars. Ruff spends a few paragraphs summarizing the current status of this search, and what aspects of the Martian environment make sustaining life as we know it very difficult.

Though most of it is interesting, the major takeaway for me from this essay is towards the end, when Ruff makes the connection to human settlement of Mars:

Some view Mars as a new frontier to be settled, like the American West, or as a place to create a new and better human society. But the Western pioneers didn’t have to worry about how they were going to breathe, or keep out radiation, or farm land devoid of organic matter and covered in toxic salts. Such conditions would challenge even the most committed founders of a new Mars society. It would be much easier to establish a colony in the Atacama Desert or any other of the most barren and uninhabited places on Earth.

There is no question that, for a whole host of reasons, settling a world for which our biology is definitely not evolved is going to come with serious short- and long-term challenges. The contemporary king of the hard sci-fi Mars novel, Kim Stanley Robinson, expounds at great length on the biological and ecological hurdles facing spacefarers in Red Mars (and its two sequels, Green Mars and Blue Mars), as well as his more recent Aurora, a story set in a generation starship on which ecological cycles become unsustainable.

If the goal is actually settlement, and not exploration or national pride, then some would claim the enormous challenges of Mars colonization as a point for the Lunatics in the great “Moon or Mars next” debate. I’d take it one step further back myself:

In the meanwhile, I’m always happy to read (and write) about life on Mars, human or otherwise.

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