Between the Lines

A blog featuring author interviews, news on new books and author-related events around town, by CapRadio's "Authors On Stage" host, Allen Pierleoni.

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Are We Going To Mars? Let's Save Earth First, Says Kim Stanley Robinson

NASA/JPL-Caltech

This artist concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Kim Stanley Robinson likely knows more about Mars than almost anyone outside of NASA.   

The settlement and terraforming of the Red Planet—making it Earth-like and supportive of life—was the heavily researched subject of his “Mars" trilogy.  That story begins in 2026 and moves along for nearly 200 years.

The three novels—Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars—were published between 1993 and 1996, followed by the related short story collection, The Martians, in 1999.

Perhaps partly because of that trilogy and other cultural signposts since (such as the mega-hit movie The Martian), there’s a notion that has gained momentum recently in the public consciousness: colonizing Mars. Such an impetus is an example of how sci-fi seems so often to segue into reality (or the scheme for achieving it) as technology catches up with imagination (smart cars, anyone?).  

Consider award-winning journalist-science writer Stephen Petranek’s book How We’ll Live On Mars, in which he foresees humans dwelling there “in specially designed habitations” within two decades. 

Then there’s journalist Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. In it, she tours various space agencies’ life-in-space simulations.

On that note, a NASA-backed crew of six terranauts lived for a year (they were “released” in August) in an analog habitat in Hawaii. A report said the “purpose (was) to determine what is required to keep a space flight crew happy and healthy during an extended mission to Mars and while living on Mars.” 

Even Time magazine got onboard with a special issue titled “Mars Mission: How To Get To the Red Planet.”

NASA itself has said it plans to send people to Mars by 2030.

What does Robinson think of all this? 

"Mars is real but empty, and that attracts our attention," he said. "We can see it with our own eyes, and our Martian rovers and orbiters have given us the place in great detail. It looks like the American Southwest, and there’s lots of water, frozen on the surface and underground. 

"So for 40 years or more, there has been the idea of humans going there and settling in, ultimately terraforming it into a small, cold, second Earth."

The habitation of Mars is "a great story," he said, but he cautions would-be colonists not to lose sight of "a few new facts."

"(For one thing), since I finished my ‘Mars’ trilogy, the rovers have discovered that the Martian surface has a lot of perchlorate in the soil, and this chemical is very toxic. Also, it appears there is not as much nitrogen as we thought, and nitrogen is crucial for the terraforming project."

There is also a chance that Martian bacteria may live under the planet's surface. "We don’t want Martian life on Earth, nor do we want to contaminate Martian life, if it exists, with Terran life. This is a new issue, because when I wrote my 'Mars' books, everyone was quite sure Mars was a dead planet. As such, bringing life to it was a much less complicated issue."

Still, the concept of populating and terraforming the Red Planet "is very interesting and even compelling," he said. But that mega-project might require 5,000 years to accomplish, "removing it as a front-burner issue. Meanwhile we’ve got a planetary crisis here on Earth that is striking right now and needs solving. So it makes no sense to talk about Mars as some kind of emergency bolt-hole for humanity, there for us if we happen to destroy Earth’s biosphere" Robinson said. 

"The main story for humanity is always here on Earth," he added. "We are on the cusp of starting a mass extinction event, the sixth such in Earth's history and the first caused by humans. All that we live and hope for could be lost. In that context, Mars is simply a sideshow and a modeling exercise. 

"The real story now is to create a sustainable balance with the biosphere of this planet, our only home,” he said. “All our thoughts of space are either part of that effort, or far-future dreams, or fantasies of escape."  


Kim Stanley Robinson will appear for Authors On Stage at 6 p.m. Oct. 23 at the Harper Alumni Center on the Sac State campus. Cost is $10 per person in advance or $15 cash at the door. More information at www.capradio.org/reads. For additional information, please contact Allen Pierleoni at allen.pierleoni@capradio.org or Cathleen Ferraro at cathleen.ferraro@capradio.org