Is there life on Mars? Maybe not yet, but novels such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy envision the colonisation and terraforming of the planet in the near future. In light of the recent film adaptation of The Martian and growing interest in exploring the Red Planet, READ interviewed Mars One finalist Hannah Earnshaw on how literature has influenced her own mission to get to that other world. Robinson’s trilogy was a particular source of inspiration for Hannah. She discusses her personal connection to the books and her thoughts on extraterrestrials on this distant world.
What initially drew you to the Mars trilogy?
Honestly, back when I first read the first book [Red Mars], I was simply looking for some sci-fi to read and was interested by the premise. After picking up Red Mars, I was quite struck by the idea of a story not just about the first people to land on Mars, but about the people who endeavoured to make a home there. I was very impressed with the amount of thought that went into every aspect of the story – it was like a history of the future, and I found that very appealing because it made the settlement of Mars and all that would result suddenly seem like something that could feasibly happen in my lifetime.
Do you identify with any of the main characters? Will their interpretation play an insightful role during your mission?
It is an interesting look at the pitfalls I may need to avoid, and a reminder that each of us will need each other as a support network to help us through the difficulties of living somewhere so new and remote.
On reading Red Mars nowadays, I do find myself cheering on the Russian socialist Arkady Bogdanov, who from the beginning wants Mars to be independent – its own society that isn’t just a remote settlement of Earth. In many ways he’s an idealist, and he later instigates the first independence revolution of Mars, but I hope that by the time that we leave that sort of idea is not quite as radical as it is in the books and that we will be free from the start to define our own society and culture. Another character I identify with on a personal level is Michel Duval, the mission psychiatrist, who is a somewhat melancholic introvert, and I recognise some of my own personality in him. He ends up becoming quite homesick and enters a spiral of depression early on. While I don’t think I would suffer homesickness to the same extent, it is an interesting look at the pitfalls I may need to avoid, and a reminder that each of us will need each other as a support network to help us through the difficulties of living somewhere so new and remote.
The trilogy is interested in the idea of terraforming Mars. Do you see this as a possibility, or purely science fiction?
I think we will inevitably change Mars just by being there, and introduce bacterial life that could eventually adapt to survive on the surface. The trilogy describes a process of terraforming that is very fast, but it is certainly possible that we will develop technology to change the surface of the planet into something to live on over a very long period of time. I suppose the key question is whether we will choose to do so. In the story, the ‘Reds’ want the planet to remain as untouched as possible are vastly outnumbered by the ‘Greens’ who support terraforming. In reality it might be different, but either way we will have to negotiate around differences in opinion.
The Mars trilogy speculates about the colonisation of other moons and planets in the solar system as well. Do you foresee this as likely? Where would we go from Mars?
I think that too will be inevitable after a time, especially once we have a good grasp of ferrying things from one place to another and setting up self-sufficient bases in a hostile environment, since that knowledge can then be applied to more challenging situations such as the moons of Jupiter or Saturn. I could see people going to Europa to try to find life there in the subsurface oceans. I think, however, that there will be a limit to the hostility of a planet or moon that we could try to survive on. Eventually, interstellar travel would be required if we wanted to seek out more worlds to explore and settle.
Do you think that the Mars trilogy presents the colonisation of Mars as more ‘utopian fiction’ with the evolution and positive transformation of the planet over a given period of time, or do you think there are dystopian aspects to it as well?
I think it is generally utopian. While it is brought about through disagreement, struggle and war, the nature of the Martian politics and economics by the end of the third book [Blue Mars] definitely seems to stem from an authorial discontent with capitalism and how the world works today, suggesting a more just and fair ecology-based social and political structure in the future. And the eventual surface of Mars, as it becomes possible to walk and breathe upon it without suits, and the strange, almost alien cultures of the younger generations of native Martians are all portrayed as uncannily different from Earth, but in a way that is hopeful and optimistic for the future.
Andy Weir’s recent novel The Martian features an astronaut who becomes stranded on Mars and must use his survivalist skills and instincts in order to survive. Is his story a possibility with the Mars One scenario?
It certainly presents a lot of ideas for the sheer number of things that could go wrong on a Mars mission. The difference for us is that there will be no return mission for us to catch, but circumstances in which we need to use science to figure out a problem will certainly happen. I just hope we’ll have more to eat than potatoes!
In his book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan writes ‘Look again at that dot [Earth]. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.’ Leaving Earth behind is such a huge step because it’s all we’ve ever known. Where do we begin to create an identity for ourselves on Mars?
We’ll have our own in-jokes and references and experiences that will be unique to people living on Mars, which will eventually evolve into a Martian identity. But I do think it will be the next generations that will truly be Martian natives.
The Mars trilogy gradually builds up a mythology of Mars that stems out of the stories the colonists make for themselves, of Big Man and the Ka, [who are] imaginary natives on Mars. I imagine a similar thing will start to happen for us – we’ll have our own in-jokes and references and experiences that will be unique to people living on Mars, which will eventually evolve into a Martian identity. But I do think it will be the next generations that will truly be Martian natives – everyone coming from Earth will take baggage with them, and we won’t be able to escape that.
Thinking about H.G. Wells’s leathery invaders in The War of the Worlds, do you think you’ll encounter other life forms on Mars? Do you think Earth would be ready for an extraterrestrial attack or encounter?
I think the most likely possibility is bacterial life [existing] a few metres below the Martian surface. It would be incredibly exciting to find, but it’s highly unlikely that we would find more complex life forms than that! If there was some sort of alien attack, I think Earth could defend itself, although I’m not convinced that Earth is in a state to be able to diplomatically handle an encounter with a new civilisation. I think there’s a lot that needs to be sorted out amongst ourselves first, and maybe settlements on Mars might help us do that!