Monday music: Your life on Mars

Would you take a one-way trip to Mars? You could, you know. Do you think it might start out something like this?

The Dutch commercial enterprise Mars One aim to have the first batch of four people (2 men, 2 women) landing on Mars within a decade — although apparently the details of how they’re getting them there are still a bit sketchy. This leads me to suspect that the main reason it’s a one way trip is because they haven’t yet figured out how to get people safely back to earth. Or perhaps that’s just because returning to earth is not as exciting as the grand vision of colonising space.

Unfortunately, you’ve missed the first round of recruitment for the Mars One adventure, but don’t give up hope, you might make the cut for subsequent expeditions. In the honourable tradition of the Sci Fi & Fantasy genres, there will be a parade of sequels to the drama of the first landing, with another 4 people parachuted down to the fragile colony every 2 years. It’s not clear how long this will go on for. I suppose it depends on how many of them survive the experience.

Amazingly, 200,000 people have already applied for one of those one-way tickets and Mars One now have a short list of 705 people who are prepared to not only give up their earthly lives and never touch friends or family members again, but also turn over their lives to reality television for the duration of their quest. Yes, if you make it to the final 40, an international online audience will vote to help Mars One decide if you make the grade for the mission. And then they’ll watch you go slowly mad in the far distance of space …. … I mean, and then they’ll be glued to the set watching your magnificent small steps for mankind. At least you’ll know someone cares.

I hope the people organising this gig have been paying close attention to Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels about the human colonisation of Mars. There are some good lessons to be learned from his Mars trilogy, about what a one way trip to another planet would really entail. The perils of living in an environment with sub-zero temperatures and no breathable atmosphere are just the beginning.

Robinson tells his ‘future history’ of Mars from the perspective of several different characters, over around two centuries from first landing to independence (at the time of writing, I’m not quite at the end of the trilogy). He explores the psychological challenges of being an interplanetary explorer and the inevitable power struggles among early colonists. As his characters become settled on Mars he lays out diverse perspectives on the ethics of extracting minerals and terraforming the land, imagining a fraught relationship with the mother planet and political domination by transnational corporations. It’s (mostly) uncannily plausible.

There are certainly spooky parallels between current plans and the first book in Robinson’s trilogy, Red Mars: 

1. The Red Mars colonisers were also on a one-way trip. (In Green Mars, the second book, Mars independence activists graffiti the slogan: ‘You can never go back’ (to Earth). 

2. They’re working to a similar timeframe (Red Mars colonisation: 2027; Mars One: 2025)

3. Robinson had the idea for it being a reality show for ‘Terrans’ way before Big Brother did (Red Mars was published in 1992).

4. Right now, the Japanese in the real world are planning their very own Mars expedition. In Red Mars, Japanese colonists are next on the scene after the initial joint US/Russia/UN party. They initially keep to themselves, yet have a profound influence on Martian society and politics, creating a city which hosts a radical university for the education of subsequent generations.

Unlike Mars One, however, Robinson had the unlimited budget of the imagination to play with, and so his first interplanetary expedition is massive in comparison to Mars One, consisting of 50 men, 50 women and [SPOILER] … a stowaway. 

And unlike Red Mars, which basically perpetuates the stereotype of Africa as a basket case, there are 41 Africans on the Mars One shortlist. Which reminds me of how arrogantly Westerners assume that Africans have no space aspirations.

The film in the trailer above was inspired by a Zambian space program in the 1960s. The program failed, but it still begs the question … What if …? What if it had succeeded? What would the space race look like with Africans involved? What if there were afronauts?

The Zambian program also inspired this photographic project.

Africa is about the only continent not adequately represented in Robinson’s books. Even Australians get a few cheery mentions. This is a failure of imagination in a man who, in a series written at the end of the cold war, could envisage Americans and Russians collaborating in a future space program, populate the Martian deserts with Iranian Sufi caravans, and establish kava as a popular Martian beverage (sometimes mixed with coffee, as in KavaJava).

That said, however, Robinson’s vision is broad and complex. His books make me want to go to Mars, not just for the descriptions of stunning, pristine Martian geology; or for the truly awesome conceptions of future tech (a 10,000 kilometre elevator between Mars and the docking asteroid for Terran spacecraft); and certainly not for the disaster porn (riveting as it is); but because the notion of a new frontier where humans can create a whole new society, with all its contradictions and complexities, is totally seductive.

So even though I may sound dismissive of the Mars One jaunt, there’s a part of me that would love to go. I would never put my hand up for a one-way ticket, because I am too attached to my friends and family, not to mention the beach and the bush and the sound of birds every morning.

I’m also a bit undecided about the ethics of colonising space. Some scientists argue that what we learn from space programs will benefit humankind even if we don’t end up living on other planets. I generally agree with the expansion of human knowledge for its own sake, but I think the money spent on Mars could probably be much better spent on fixing problems here on the home planet at this point in our history.

Anyway, by the time two-way tickets are feasible for ordinary people, I think I may be feeling a bit too old for the (minimum) 57 million kilometre voyage. Check out this animation for a sense of how far that really is.

The first return trip that includes landing on Mars will be the NASA mission, and that’s not until 2035, although Elon Musk is hoping his company, SpaceX, will get there within 10-15 years, and the Inspiration Mars Foundation is seeking a married couple who’d like to do a fly-by in 2018. So maybe it’s still doable. Especially if KSR’s invention of immortality treatment in Red Mars turns out to be as prescient as some of his other ideas. While I’m waiting, I can watch this video and imagine myself flying over … or perhaps hiking across … Ares Vallis.

Some final thoughts on the books

Like space exploration, the Mars trilogy is not for everyone. It’s a long journey. With 3 novels, a collection of short stories and a later spin-off (2312) it requires quite a time commitment. Once you’re on your way, there’s a lot of sitting around in planes, trains, zeppelins and rovers watching the (wonderful) scenery roll by, with perhaps a bit too much time on your hands for talking about (and doing) sex, religion and politics. As with any travel, there’s the occasional tantalising trail that leads … nowhere. There’s more introspection than action, but the action, when it comes, consumes all your attention.

There are also lots of things you’ve never encountered before, like planet-wide windstorms and 5 kilometre deep calderas; as well as massive feats of human ingenuity such as the aforementioned space elevator, tented cities in lava tunnels, and giant space mirrors that amplify the warmth of the sun.

So if you like that kind of thing, reading the Mars books may be the next best thing to actually going there. They’re certainly a whole lot safer. Just remember … they’re fiction.


If you want to find out what motivates some of the Mars One volunteers, you can find out here and here. Interesting reading. But not as good as Red Mars.

If you want to read more on terraforming Mars, try this article, which starts with a whole lot of rational arguments about why it is probably not as easy as KSR makes it sound, and ends up proposing floating cities above Venus as a possible alternative. Hmmm.

Postscript September 2015: More on the SpaceX mission, which may be the most likely contender for first humans on Mars, and has taken on board the notion that one-way tickets are perhaps not such a great idea after all.


The image on this page is an artist’s concept of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft approaching Mars, with the Curiosity rover tucked inside. It’s free for use.

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5 thoughts on “Monday music: Your life on Mars

  1. Love it Jill. Love the KSR books, and also shamefully was an avid reader of Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter series, and of course Ray Bradbury’s mars books. I wonder if there is any Chinese sci fi Mars literature and whether it imagines a Mars first colonised not by the US but by China?

  2. Thanks Paul, I really enjoyed writing this one – so much interesting reading to do when researching it. I would also love to know about any Mars books that imagine colonisation by China – or anywhere but the US really! Tell me if you find out.

  3. Great post, had me thinking about whether those people that sign up for the interminably long one-way trip have really thought about the emotional and psychological impact of such an undertaking…

    • Thanks, yes, I wonder the same thing. It’s actually an issue Robinson addresses in his novel & concludes no one was quite emotionally balanced and they all cheated on their psych tests to get onto the mission!

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