Mars is in the public consciousness right now. The day I’m writing this, in fact, NASA has just announced new findings that indicate flowing water on the Red Planet. Of course, that’s not what most people are thinking about; the average person is thinking of Mars because of the new movie The Martian, a film based on a realistic account of a hypothetical Mars mission from the novel of the same name.
We go through this kind of thing every few years. A while back, it was John Carter. A few years before that, we had Mission to Mars and Red Planet. Go back even further, and you get to Total Recall. It’s not really that Mars is just now appearing on the public’s radar. No, this goes in cycles. The last crop of Martian movies really came about from the runaway success of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Those at the turn of the century were inspired by earlier missions like Mars Pathfinder. And The Martian owes at least some of its present hype to Curiosity and Phoenix, the latest generation of planetary landers.
Move outside the world of mainstream film and into written fiction, though, and that’s where you’ll see red. Mars is a fixture of science fiction, especially the “harder” sci-fi that strives for realism and physical accuracy. The reasons for this should be obvious. Mars is relatively close, far nearer to Earth than any other body that could be called a planet. Of the bodies in the solar system besides our own world, it’s probably the least inhospitable, too.
Not necessarily hospitable, mind you, but Mars is the least bad of all our options. I mean, the other candidates look about as habitable as the current Republican hopefuls are electable. Mercury is too hot (mostly) and much too difficult to actually get to. Venus is a greenhouse pressure cooker. Titan is way too cold, and it’s about a billion miles away, to boot. Most everything else is an airless rock or a gas giant, neither of which scream “habitable” to me. No, if you want to send people somewhere useful in the next couple of decades, you’ve got two options: the moon and Mars. And we’ve been to the moon. (Personally, I think we should go back there before heading to Mars, but that seems to be a minority opinion.)
But say you want to write a story about people leaving Earth and venturing out into the solar system. Well, for the same reasons, Mars is an obvious destination. But the role it plays in a fictional story depends on a few factors. The main one of these is the timeframe. When is your story set? In 2050? A hundred years from now? A thousand? In this post, we’ll look at how Mars changes as we move our starting point ahead in time.
The near future
Thanks to political posturing and the general anti-intellectual tendencies of Americans in the last generation, manned spaceflight has taken a backseat to essentially everything else. As of right now, the US doesn’t even have a manned craft, and the only one on the drawing board—the Orion capsule—is intentionally doomed to failure through budget cuts and appropriations adjustments. The rest of the world isn’t much better. Russia has the Soyuz, but it’s only really useful for low-Earth orbit. China doesn’t have much, and they aren’t sharing, anyway. Private companies like SpaceX are trying, but it’s a long, hard road.
So, barring a reason for a Mars rush, the nearest future (say, the next 15-20 years) has our planetary neighbor as a goal rather than a place. It’s up there, and it’s a target, but not one we can hit anytime soon. The problem is, that doesn’t make for a very interesting story.
Move up to the middle of this century, starting around 2040, and even conservative estimates give us the first manned mission to Mars. Now, Mars becomes like the moon in the 1960s, a destination, a place to be conquered. We can have stories about the first astronauts to make the long trip, the first to blaze the trail through interplanetary space.
With current technology, it’ll take a few months to get from Earth to Mars. The best times happen once every couple of years; any other time would increase the travel duration dramatically. The best analogy for this is the early transoceanic voyages. You have people stuck in a confined space together for a very long time, going to a place that few (or none) have ever visited, with a low probability of survival. Returning early isn’t an option, and returning at all might be nearly impossible. They will run low on food, they will get sick, they will fight. Psychology, not science, can take center stage for a lot of this kind of story. A trip to Mars can become a character study.
The landing—assuming they survive—moves science and exploration back to the fore. It won’t be the same as the Apollo program. The vagaries of orbital mechanics mean that the first Mars missions won’t be able to pack up and leave after mere hours, as Apollo 11 did. Instead, they’ll be stuck for weeks, even months. That’s plenty of time to get the lay of the land, to do proper scientific experiments, to explore from ground level, and maybe even to find evidence of Martian life.
In the second half of this century, assuming the first trips are successful, we can envision the second stage of Mars exploration. This is what we should have had for the moon around 1980; the most optimistic projections from days gone by (Zubrin’s Mars Direct, for example) put it on Mars around the present day. Here, we’ve moved into a semi-permanent or permanent presence on Mars for scientific purposes, a bit like Antarctica today. Shortly after that, it’s not hard to envision the first true colonists.
Both of these groups will face the same troubles. Stories set in this time would be of building, expanding, and learning to live together. Mars is actively hostile to humans, and this stage sees it becoming a source of environmental conflict, an outside pressure acting against the protagonists. Antarctica, again, is a good analogy, but so are the stories of the first Europeans to settle in America.
The trip to Mars won’t get any shorter (barring leaps in propulsion technology), so it’s still like crossing the Atlantic a few centuries ago. The transportation will likely be a bit roomier, although it might also carry more people, offsetting the additional capacity. The psychological implications exist as before, but it’s reasonable to gloss over them in a story that doesn’t want to focus on them.
On the Red Planet itself, interpersonal conflicts can develop. Disasters—the Martian dust storm is a popular one—can strike. If there is native life in your version of Mars, then studying it becomes a priority. (Protecting it or even destroying it can also be a theme.) And, in a space opera setting, this can be the perfect time to inject an alien artifact into the mix.
Generally speaking, the second stage of Mars exploration, as a human outpost with a continued presence, is the first step in a kind of literary terraforming. By making Mars a setting, rather than a destination, the journey is made less important, and the world becomes the focus.
A century of settlement
Assuming our somewhat optimistic timeline, the 22nd century would be the time of the land grab. Propulsion or other advances at home make the interplanetary trip cheaper, safer, and more accessible. As a result, more people have the ability to venture forth. Our analogy is now America, whether the early days of colonization in the 17th century or the westward push of manifest destiny in the 19th.
In this time, as Mars becomes a more permanent human settlement, a new crop of plot hooks emerges. Social sciences become important once again. Religion and government, including self-government, would be on everyone’s minds. Offshoot towns might spring up.
And then we get to the harder sciences, particularly biology. Once people are living significant portions of their lives on a different planet, they’ll be growing their own food. They’ll be dying, their bodies the first to be buried in Martian soil. And they’ll be reproducing.
Evolution will affect every living thing born on Mars, and we simply don’t know how. The lower gravity, the higher radiation, the protective enclosure necessary for survival, how will these changes affect a child? It won’t be an immediate change, for sure, but the second or third generation to be born on Mars might not be able to visit the birthplace of humanity. Human beings would truly split into two races—a distinction that would go far beyond mere black and white—and the word Martian would take on a new meaning.
Mars remains just as hostile as before, but it’s a known danger now. It’s the wilderness. It’s a whole world awaiting human eyes and boots.
Deeper and deeper
As time goes by, and as Mars becomes more and more inhabited, the natural conclusion is that we would try to make it more habitable. In other words, terraforming. That’s been a presence in science fiction for decades; one of the classics is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, starting with Red Mars.
In the far future, call it about 200 years from now, Mars can truly begin to become a second planet for humanity. At this point, people would live their whole lives there, never once leaving. Towns and cities could expand, and an ultimate goal might arise: planetary independence.
But the terraforming is the big deal in this late time. Even the best guesses make this a millennia-long process, but the first steps can begin once enough people want them to. Thickening the atmosphere, raising the worldwide temperature, getting water to flow in more than the salty tears NASA announced on September 28, these will all take longer than a human lifetime, even granting extensive life-lengthening processes that might be available to future medicine.
For stories set in this time, Mars can again become a backdrop, the set upon which your story will take place. The later the setting, the more Earth-like the world becomes, and the less important it is that you’re on Mars.
The problems these people would face are the same as always. Racial tensions between Earthlings and Martians. The perils of travel in a still-hostile land. The scientific implications of changing an entire world. Everything to do with building a new society. And the list goes on, limited only by your imagination.
Through the failings of our leaders, the dream of Mars has been delayed. But all is not lost. We can go there in our minds, in the visuals of film, the words of fiction. What we might find when we arrive, no one can say. The future is what we make of it, and that is never more true than when you’re writing a story set in it.