Pop Culture
Jun 06, 2024, 06:28AM

No Matter Where You Go

Kelly and Zach Weinersmith's A City on Mars shows that humanity won't be saved by simple relocation.

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Kelly Weinersmith is a bioscience researcher. Her husband Zach Weinersmith is the artist behind the webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Together, they’re space bastards.

The Weinersmiths, who collaborated on the 2017 pop-science book Soonish, were turned to space bastardry by working on their recent book A City On Mars. As they describe it, they set out to write about one of their enthusiasms: space, and the human settlement of space. They found that humanity’s a long way from off-world colonies. And the more they researched extraterrestrial colonies, the more conceptual problems they found—notwithstanding a very vocal set of believers in the idea, some of whom are frighteningly well-funded. Thus, “space bastards”: they and their book are throwing cold water on what sounds like a cool idea.

As far as I can tell, though, the book’s been reasonably well-received by space enthusiasts, notwithstanding the occasional cranky Substack about the poisonousness of Martian soil. A City On Mars is thorough. The first half mostly looks at practical problems with the physical realities of trying to make a human colony work in low- or zero-gravity without a breathable atmosphere. The second half deals with legal questions of how a colony off Earth would be governed, who’d be in charge of it, and to what extent private or national exploitation of space is a good idea. Would establishing a human settlement beyond this planet be politically destabilizing.

The book gets its ideas across effectively. The prose is consistently clever, not as well-turned as that of Douglas Adams or Harry Harrison, but maintaining and modulating a constant voice. They’re able to get serious as the occasion demands it. The greatest weakness is it’s too broad in playing for a general audience, enjoying the real-life bathroom humor of zero-gravity toilets, and self-consciously making too much of the writers’ nerdiness.

Zach Weinersmith contributes cartoons that’re nicely drawn, though mostly illustrating the text rather than contributing further gags. That’s useful when we get charts, or diagrams of hard-to-describe items like zero-gravity sex aids. But overall it’s a missed opportunity. Similarly, an attempt in the prose to build up a recurring character, a space colonist named Astrid, never comes to life and remains vestigial.

It’s effective at what it does. What may be most distinctive, and what’s often elided when space colonies are discussed seriously, is the Weinersmiths’ focus on the practical aspects of life. As they write: “We should always remember that these settlers will be regular people, and regular people’s daily concerns are much less about grand narratives than about their homes, their jobs, and their groceries.”

They consider where those groceries come from, and how one grows food where there’s no air and no carbon in the soil. If you’ve got a job, who’s the boss, and are they also your landlord and power company? How would a space colony power itself?

The Weinersmiths give a good sense of the practical issues with a space settlement. To get a meaningfully independent colony, one that’ll have a cross-section of the different skills needed to keep human beings thriving and one that can survive without inbreeding, you need a large population base. That means sending many tens of thousands of people off Earth in a short period of time, along with everything they’ll need to survive—even if they can mine an asteroid or two for resources, there’s still a lot of material that, as of this moment, you only find on Earth.

The problem with these questions is that they’re technological issues. If humanity started seriously to plan and build an off-world colony, the state of technology by the time it was up and running would be different—partly because of the amount of time it’d take, and partially because inevitably human being learn by doing. I wonder how obsolete the book will inevitably be.

The second half is liable to hold up longer, with its discussion of space law and how colonies might be governed. You can always imagine the development of technological solutions to technological problems, but techno-optimism can’t do anything about basic human nature. That nature might not be as bleak as often imagined, but it’s far from perfect. What happens when you isolate human beings somewhere far away from the planet they evolved? How do you deal with the manifold kinds of scarcity that emerge without the terrestrial biosphere?

Once you start getting into questions of what it’d be like to live in a scenario where you’re totally dependent on Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos for air, water, food, power, and everything else, you realize how much serious planning is necessary on the legal fronts. A City On Mars reminds us that techno-optimism is too often an imaginative projection of longed-for power out into space; that it’s usually based on a messianic idea of the future, an anti-apocalypse in which heroic engineers guarantee a meaningful future for humanity as a whole—whatever that future is, and however humanity is defined.

Idealists enthusiastic about space settlement talk about the need for a backup planet. Even leaving aside how unsuitable every other planet we know about is for the role of surrogate Earth, if humans screw up this planet why should we think they won’t screw up any other planet? The Weinersmiths remind us here of the value of Earth, how we’re evolved specifically for Earth’s gravity and atmosphere and chemistry. The Weinersmiths remind us of the saying made popular by noted science-fiction character Buckaroo Bonzai: no matter where you go, there you are.


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