Book Review: A City on Mars

I recently finished reading A City on Mars by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith. As the book’s name suggests, the Weinersmiths explore the all-encompassing reality of “colonizing space.” (Given its implications throughout human history, the Weinersmiths start with a discussion on the advisability of invoking the word “colonize.”)

While tech billionaires pronounce their visions of Mars settlements by mid-century, A City on Mars reigns in that hubris with sober humility.

Elon Musk believes we have failed as a species if we don’t spread our seed into the cosmos. At least Mars. He is not alone in such thinking, though he arguably has the most incentive to see its fruition.

It’s not going to happen. Not in my lifetime, yours, or Elon Musk’s. Money can’t buy everything. That’s not to say it won’t or necessarily shouldn’t happen at some point in the future (centuries). It doesn’t preclude ongoing robotic exploration of the solar system or a handful of astro-explorers landing on Mars sometime this century.

But colonize with a permanent and semi-autonomous human population? It will take more than a giant rocket to pull that off (and a lot of big rockets).

An AI concept of a city on marsThe authors discuss the minimum viable population for a colony to survive long-term on Mars. Of course, nobody knows, and the experts consulted for the book vary widely. For our discussion, let’s go with one hundred thousand, noting that Elon suggests we’ll have a million people on Mars within 30 years of first putting boots on the Martian soil.

We must ask ourselves why we think building a colony of that many people on another planet is a good idea. What problem does it solve?

Several arguments promote the permanent interplanetary settlement. For the uninitiated (like I was before reading the book), the level of thought, conjecture, and imagination given to how and why we’d want to live on Mars can be surprising.

Let’s consider two popular narratives:

  • To save humanity
  • To escape a ruined Earth

There Is No Escape

If we imagine a utopian, egalitarian community thriving in a new world, we should remember that humans tend to take their baggage with them wherever they go.

Why some think we’d behave any better in space is puzzling. How much will we trust that all the spacefarers will play nice and not choose to throw rocks down Earth’s gravity well?

It certainly isn’t the weather. Even a ruined Earth is more livable than a stroll across the Martian landscape. Unless you’ve got a spacesuit on, you’ll be dead momentarily. As the Weinersmiths write, “space sucks,” noting that most “non-geeks” understand that it sucks but “underestimate the scale of the suckitude.”

Every human function, from the most intimate to grand social governance, must be rethought to accommodate an immediately deadly environment. It’s very likely to go badly.

Most of humanity will be “left behind” on Earth anyway, and that is the point of all this.

We’re Only Human

An image of planet Earth from space

We cannot escape our humanness. Our curiosity, intellect, ingenuity, imagination, and drive push us out beyond the confines of Earth. I support the effort to explore and reach for an understanding of the unfathomable.

We live or die as a species here on Earth. This planet is our home. If we can’t learn to live within the limits of a bountiful Earth without destroying it— and each other in the process—then there is little reason to think it will be any better someplace else.

I found A City on Mars an informative, entertaining, and insightful read.


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Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schuenemanhttps://tdsenvironmentalmedia.com
Tom is the founder and managing editor of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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