Hey friends. Welcome.
Spring has sidled up to the Bay Area, and so I’ve been using the outside office more. Working away on the manuscript for The Snap Forward, with some progress every day, which when quarentined in a small house with a exuberant toddler is sometimes all you can ask for. Working on projects on the picnic table in the back yard mixes in the distractions of wind gusts, quarreling crows, and gossipy squirrels, but I do get more done.
Thought: Rotors, Rocks and Ice.
Recently, I caught up with the latest episodes of the fantastic space-faring drama, The Expanse. It’s great fun, set in a future with an independent terraforming Mars, a rebellion in the Asteroid Belt, and contact with an alien technology. Think Alien meets Casablanca, with spaceship battles.
In the much nearer future, humanity will attempt our first powered flight on another planet. NASA’s Ingenuity, a spindly little helicopter designed to test our ability to use drones on the Red Planet, is nearing its maiden voyage.
Having survived it’s first night, just north of the Martian equator, in the Jezero Crater—where temperatures can plunge as low as minus 130º Fahrenheit—Ingenuity may rev up and rise a few feet into the thin Martian skies as soon as Sunday.
This is simultaneously very cool and somewhat absurd.
It’s cool because it’s a part of one of the greatest scientific inquiries of our era: The exploration of Mars. For the next few decades, at least, tiny milestones like this one will trickle into our newsfeeds. We may even see people go to Mars, though unlike the hero of The Martian, they may not be coming back.
Indeed, the whole prospect of a full-blown Mars Colony—which has tickled my imagination ever since I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy back in the early 1990s—is at very least many decades away, if it ever happens at all. Mars is not the future of humanity. Its most important lesson for us will probably be how irreplaceable the Earth really is.
As far as we know, there is nowhere else in space worth colonizing, either. (For a glimpse of just how true this may be, pick up Robinson’s more recent space novel, Aurora, which I would nominate as the best space exploration novel yet written.) Space is a lot of empty, with tiny little spots where—through long-term, heroic efforts—we might live somewhat less easily than we could live on the bottom of the ocean.
And that’s where Ingenuity touches absurdity. In the mythology of Space, we’re expected to treat this small step as evidence of Man’s inexorable Reach for the Stars. The reality is something resembling an old-time camping stove hovering briefly over dead rock under a dim sun.
In the real world, the closest thing to a Mars colony we’re likely to see is the rush to control resources and shipping lanes in the Arctic. The Far North was an intense place even before we plunged it into climate chaos. In the next few years we’re likely to see a whole variety of political and commercial agendas begin to play themselves out there in ways that would have made no sense at all to people 50 years ago. It’s going to be weird in the Hot Arctic.
There are stories to be told in that Northward push, fortunes to be made, important ecological fights to be won for humanity. The scales may be vast.
The science fiction that most interestingly engages the future of exploration will be less Space Opera than, say, Snow Opera.
We have so much catching up to do, to arrive at the present. Nowhere is this more true than in our imaginations.
Particularly astute readers will note that this is Saturday’s update. Tuesday is apparently this week’s Saturday. These sorts of things happen these days, but I hope they’ll happen less as we hit our stride over the next month.