In some ways, fiction about Mars is the scion of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” except set in a different, and much more difficult, wilderness.
The Yukon of “To Build a Fire” is, surprisingly, about as cold as Mars. Mars sometimes even gets up to the temperature where water melts. But the atmosphere of Mars is way too thin to support life, and there is, so far as we know, no vegetation, probably no life whatsoever.
To authors like Leigh Brackett, Kim Stanley Robinson, Geoffrey Landis, Andy Weir, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur C. Clarke, Greg Bear, Robert Heinlein, Greg Benford, Roger Zelazny, C.L. Moore, and Frederick Pohl, this creates an excellent chance to write classic tales of the conflict of man versus nature. True, Bradbury, Brackett, Burroughs, Moore, and Zelazny wrote before science had a handle on exactly how hostile Mars is to life as we know it. But to all, it was a marvelous opportunity to explore human ingenuity as it would play out on the surface of a strange world that, frankly, would like to kill us fast.
So I was chomping at the bit to try my hand.
Like Robinson, I postulate a Mars that has been partially domesticated by humans. As a founding member of the Mars Society, I copped technical ideas about how Mars would be colonized from papers I heard at Mars Society Conferences: underground architecture, power from radioisotopes and solar installations, farms like Biosphere II.
That left me with the social, medical, and psychological issues of Martian colonization: lawlessness, cosmic ray damage, light deprivation, and isolation from Earth and other colonists.
Elsewhere, I wrote about the reasons people emigrate to an unpopulated land, and one reason is the license to do whatever they want without legal repercussions. We speak of religious freedom in the colonization of the Americas, but it’s gone further into creating polygamous cults where children are acceptable brides. So might Mars be a haven for those who disdain terrestrial law. Then too, corporations could do human research that would be unthinkable on Earth. Remoteness and secrecy would aid this violation. Think wild, wild west.
Even if the crimes were known to Earthly law officers, sending enforcement all the way to Mars would a problem. I don’t know of other writers who explore this, but in this novel [Mars Girls] and the two I’m finishing right now, legal protection from inhumane or dangerous research is shown as far too difficult. Thus, my Kapera discovers her household invaded, and nobody can get there in time to help her family.
Cosmic rays form a physical danger, but they also create socio-economic problems. Meat animals and plants grown in Martian biospheres would probably just die, but might also change into something useless or toxic. In “Mars Is No Place for Children” (Science Fiction Age, May 1999), I explore the issue of leukemias that might arise in colonists. Birth defects from radiation would also endanger human reproduction.
We know that circadian light changes influence everything from mood to reproduction, and light on Mars is less than half what falls on Earth. The length of the day is similar to Earth’s, but the year is almost twice as long. Seasonal affective disorder strikes people in arctic and Antarctic winters; it might be much worse in long Martian winters.
We know that calcium metabolism and bone maintenance on Earth are normalized through our resistance to gravity. How will the bones of Martian colonists develop? Even if Martians’ bones are adequate to living in Martian gravity, only about 38% of Earth’s, would a person born on Mars or a long-time colonist be able to return to humanity’s home planet for a visit?
Cultural isolation would mean that colonists would be deprived of interaction with terrestrial entertainment and memes. Yes, they’d get a feed from Earth, but the lag time (radio waves travel only at light speed, so one-way messages could take from four to 24 minutes) would mean they could not have real conversations with their left-behind terrestrial families. It would be more like writing emails back and forth. Terrestrial popular entertainment would seem less and less relevant to Martians, because feedback would be truncated. A Martian colony might prove, culturally, somewhat backward.
On my Mars, some colonists stake out pharms where they can do useful research hundreds of kilometers from cities or other pharms. My Mars girl, Nanoannie, seems a boy-crazy teen who wants to date, date, date. But her social drive makes sense from a survival standpoint. As she matures, she’ll need to find a mate and friends. Her isolation is not just an inconvenience; it may threaten her very survival, not to speak of reproductive opportunities. She’s a smart cookie to look for a guy, any guy.
I mentioned I’m a member of the Mars Society, which means I do believe humans should go to Mars and expand civilization. Why then, you may ask, do I expound on all these dangers and threats?
Each one, I think, has an upside.
Isolation means ethical experimentation that would be too dangerous on Earth could be conducted in the near-sterile atmosphere of Mars. An Ebola or smallpox virus could not get loose and burn through a whole city. Of course, this means the scientists would have to agree to radical quarantine. More opportunity for a writer to explore human relations and personalities.
Then there is frontier personality. People in extreme environments learn to be self-reliant. The space age will get a whole new shot in the arm from explorers and thinkers brought up in Martian individualism.
Cultural isolation might actually stimulate creativity. I think of the outdoor dramas and music I enjoyed when I led a tour-group of Kent State students on the Al-Can highway through the isolated territories of western Canada and Alaska. The values and experiences of Mars colonists would blossom into a creative community unlike any Earthly culture.
Cosmic radiation gives rise to genetic change. The damage to human and animal DNA would be harrowing, but new strains of bacteria, especially probiotics and beneficial yeasts, might, if carefully husbanded, provide commercially viable new products.
I believe in my heart that humans should colonize Mars. In Mars Girls, I try to show how promising that new territory, a territory as vast as the entire land area of Earth, would be for the human race. This is my declaration of exploration. Though my generation will be left behind, we’ll send our children and grandchildren. They’ll have problems. They’ll solve them brilliantly.