Red Civilisation: Our Future among the Stars

Maybe we’re on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there — the gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Maybe we’re on Mars because we have to be, because there’s a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process — we come, after all, from hunter-gatherers, and for 99.9% of our tenure on Earth we’ve been wanderers. And the next place to wander to is Mars. But whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.

–Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Contemplating a life on our neighbouring Red Planet has always fascinated me. In 2009, I presented a talk for my English class on colonizing Mars, and the research I gleaned from that exercise has fuelled my imagination ever since. After reading Carl Sagan’s excellent book Cosmos, and watching the brilliant reboot of the series hosted by one of my favourite scientists, Neil deGrasse Tyson, I have once again begun to think about what it would be like to build a society on Mars.

Earth’s human population is increasing at an alarming rate. This is having significant spiralling effects on other aspects necessary to sustain life: the depletion of natural resources, subsequent environmental damage, and myriad health problems. In essence: our planet is being hotly contested for the sustenance of our precariously built civilisation.

Thus we have two options: to seek out solutions to our current predicament (which is hastily being done by passionate people from diverse professions). And to seek out other possible places for habitation.

The latter option is both absurdly outlandish and deeply compelling to those with an affinity for the creation of something new.

Human beings have always been nomadic – we’ve always had the impulse to explore, to go beyond the horizon and discover things. It makes sense, then, that the quest for Mars has always been on our roadmap. It’s just the challenge of getting there that’s been the obstacle on our path. We’ve made significant steps, though: NASA’s Mars rovers, the most recent of which, Curiosity, is doing a sterling job of understanding Mars. The robots getting us closer to that ultimate goal of finally stepping on this mysterious red world…

But when (and not “if”) we get there, what will our civilisation be like? We have the opportunity to start fresh. To reimagine our politics, to create a new culture – to develop, if you like, a “Society 2.0.” After a generation, we will be the Martians. And the shaping of anther planet will take our species from being shaped by the evolutionary forces of the Cosmos to being the shapers of worlds, the creators of entire planets, and disseminating our species further amongst the stars.

It’s an exciting and immensely frightening prospect. Perhaps there will be friction between those who dwell on the “home planet” (Earth) and the new society developing on Mars. What will interplanetary economics be like? Could there be a possibility of trade between both planets? And, of course, management of resources has the potential to spark the fires of war. The surface area of Mars is equal to the entire landmass of Earth; if our population continues its exponential rise and we end up shunting a fraction of that off to another world, there will inevitably come a time when Mars itself will be facing similar challenges. And discoveries of precious resources could be another reason for planetary invasions and dissent between both worlds… Of course, issues of religion will also be a major factor: religion was, after all, a major component of historic expeditions to new worlds. Now, with the momentum of science and the advancement of technology, would we be able to transcend such things, or to effectively update our philosophies to encompass dual-world inhabitations?

The contemplation of future societies amongst the stars is filled with rhetoric. But it is these questions that can spark further debate about the sociocultural aspects of inhabiting other worlds. Imagine travel brochures offering getaways to Olympus Mons… “experience fabulous Valles Marineris…” New architecture for a new world, new means of transport, living, working, entire professions rewritten for a red planet…

I leave you with this message for Mars by Sagan:

“The gates of the wonder world are opening in our time…” –Carl Sagan


Why Science Fiction Matters

Science fiction is a strange beast. After so many years of churning out brilliant writers who have pushed literary boundaries, it’s still somehow relegated to the fringes of mainstream media. In other words: it’s still seen as the “geeky thing”, the medium which those interested in the high-tech, science, engineering, anything technical affix themselves to. Yes, recent pop currents have popularised the “nerd culture” (hipsters, I’m looking at you) but when it comes to the real SF stuff – the Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams arenas – those pseudo-interested parties shy away and we return once again to the fringes of society where these greats still dwell.

Why do I think Science Fiction is so important? It’s fictional science, after all – it’s all in the name; surely this can’t be elevated to the arena of those more “hard-hitting” genres such as historic fiction, biography, political drama, even thrillers?

Well, why can’t it?

Inherent in the name of this genre is the word science. What is science? It’s a tool for understanding. For predicting. For modelling theories and making sense and getting a grip on the vastness of our cosmos. The fiction part is where the fun happens – where the author’s imagination can let loose and the great fusion between whimsical fantasy and hard science converge to create a solid framework for seeing not just fantastical futuristic worlds, but ourselves, our present societies.

Science Fiction provides a structure for us to understand the way we live today through the lens of a future world; whether that world is a hundred years away, or merely set in the next year – it’s inconsequential. The fictional representation of advanced scientific application to problem solving and dramatisation on one level inspires the great pursuit of science, and on a deeper level allows contemplation. And contemplation is a rare thing in today’s interconnected, rapid world.

Added to this is the fundamental fact that SF is one of our best testing beds for new ideas, and thus becomes a great window into what the future world might look like. Because, after all, SF is what gets most people interested in the fields of science, engineering, the design of future worlds… those trail-blazers, innovators that are the true inventors of humanity’s future. If their minds came into contact with the words of Clarke or Asimov or Bradbury, then undoubtedly, somewhere, at some time, their work will be influenced by these and other titans of Science Fiction.

I leave you with the words of Sir Arthur C. Clarke: “One of the biggest roles of science fiction is to prepare people to accept the future without pain and to encourage a flexibility of mind. Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories.”