Kim Stanley Robinson says Elon Musk's Mars plan is a "1920s science-fiction cliché"

Kim Stanley Robinson, whose seminal Mars trilogy (coming soon to TV?) changed the way we talk about our neighboring planet, says that Musk's Mars colonization plan "is sort of the 1920s science-fiction cliché of the boy who builds a rocket to the moon in his back yard."

Robinson, who has previously warned that space exploration can be used as an excuse to trash our own planet, has written convincingly about the difficulties of sustaining life away from Earth (his novel Aurora is brilliant on this score).

He says that Musk's vision "is not believable, which makes it a hard exercise to think about further" -- rather than being colonized by a single leader from a single company, Mars colonization "ill be multi-national and take lots of money and lots of years."

What needs to happen for the Mars colony to live sustainably and give humanity the lifeboat Musk envisions?

It’s important to say that the idea of Mars as a lifeboat is wrong, in both a practical and a moral sense.

There is no Planet B, and it’s very likely that we require the conditions here on earth for our long-term health. When you don’t take these new biological discoveries into your imagined future, you are doing bad science fiction.

In a culture so rife with scientism and wish fulfillment, a culture that's still coming to grips with the massive crisis of climate change, a culture that's inflicting a sixth mass-extinction event on earth and itself, it’s important to try to pull your science fiction into the present, to make it a useful tool of human thought, a matter of serious planning as well as thrilling entertainment.

This is why Musk’s science fiction story needs some updating, some real imagination using current findings from biology and ecology.

Why Elon Musk's Mars Vision Needs 'Some Real Imagination' [Eric Roston/Bloomberg]

Notable Replies

  1. I've noticed the people who seem most confident that we'll soon have the know-how to build that permanent Mars colony tend to think of it as an engineering problem rather than a biology problem.

  2. The grand vision of the 70's was wrapped up in enormous LaGrange point communities, to support the machine shops and mining operations to bootstrap the next phase of human expansion.... Completely missing the revolution in robotics and computing that would make all that investment pointless. The next wave of futurism imagined terraforming an entire planet, be it Venus or Luna or Mars, it seemed there was no project too big to imagine. But all the most realistic grand thinking about this planet, shows that we are unable to come together as a species to keep our own envirnoment from becoming unlivable. All that important diplomatic work in Kyoto and Paris? Has no teeth. It's activity meant to convince the people that their leadership is managing the problem. (it's the public perception that's the only problem being managed.)

    That earlier scheme to get people to sign up for a one way trip to mars was obviously a scam, just as messed up as those companies who'll name a star after you for a fee. I haven't actually sat down to read Elon Musk's ideas about Mars, he is a battery salesman AFAIK, not a space expert.

    KSR has got this one exactly right. Humanity may or may not make it to the outer system, but only after we've proven WE CAN SURVIVE ON THIS PLANET. I don't know why people seem to think this isn't an interesting challenge?

  3. lecti says:

    Well, biology doesn't mean a damned thing if engineering knowhow to get there doesn't exist, so Mr. Robinson's argument ends here.

    I can't stand the ecological argument against space travel - the referenced article by the guy pisses me off even more, especially this line:

    Biological problems are harder for humans to solve than physical problems, because biology concerns life, which is extraordinarly [sic] complex, and includes emergent properties and other poorly understood behaviors. Ultimately biology is still physics, but it constitutes a more complex set of physical problems, and includes areas we can’t explain.

    As a former biologist who still plays part in chipping away this complexity, this type of attitude is really perplexing. Seriously, biology SUCKS from engineering aspect. Pretty much the only reason we should be working on this shitty legacy system is because we just happen to be part of the crap. Call for preserving the "good old ecology" because it's oh so complicated and we shouldn't do anything about it smacks of vitalism, which is not much better than superstition.

    It's really ironic that Robinson, who wrote Mars series, to be calling Musk to lack "real" imagination. Besides the really weak (and horribly pessimistic) argument, we are talking about 1) some english major who wrote some book putting down 2) a physics major and engineer that is making spaceflight and electric cars economically viable through innovation.

    I read Red Mars. Nothing groundbreaking in the book, with the terribly researched biology part. Denying someone with a real track record to lead the way just because he can't come up with a better plan? I chalk that up to intellectual cowardice and jealousy. I definitely don't like this guy now.

  4. d_r says:

    Maybe because they liked "her" photo on the dust jacket?


  5. I'm down with leaving this rock, but at the same time not trashing it either.

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