Oct 13 2008

Mars (or, The Great Martian Novel)

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I’ve had something of a softspot for Mars for a long time. Oh, not that I’m pushing for a manned Mars mission before we get ourselves a base on the Moon, in fact I went along with my buddy Neil Dutcher when he formed the faux “Mars Last!” society at a conference to tweak Robert Zubrin. (We know Robert; he may be a little overenthusiastic about Mars, but in general he’s one of the good guys.) No, my feelings came about as a reaction to Jim Baen’s question — I think when we were kicking around ideas for “Tales of the Silver Service” (which, alas, little ever came of) — which was “what good is Mars anyway?”. Bear in mind, this was the mid 1980s, we hadn’t had a probe there since Viking, and the place seemed not only dead but lifeless and uninteresting.

Now, when most people ask a question like that, it’s rhetorical. When an editor asks a question like that, he may actually be looking for an answer that challenges conventional wisdom. (Jim Baen was like that; I never had the honor of meeting John W. Campbell, but I get the impression he was like that too.) So, it’s the mid 80s; I’m writing for Byte Magazine and hanging out (mostly on line, sometimes in person) with hard SF authors like Jerry Pournelle, Harry Stine, and more; of course I’m going to rise to that bait.

So I invented the Aresian Well — a Martian beanstalk and a pipeline from the North Polar Cap to its base — to pump Martian volatiles like water and carbon dioxide to places like L5 colonies and settlements on the Moon. (The Moon is very deficient in hydrogen and carbon.) Then I pitched it to Jim. Or rather tried to — I seem to recall wandering around the Phoenix NASFiC with Michael Wallis (no, not 60 Minutes, the rocket scientist and former Toronto “Bunch of Seven” member) and Ricia Mainhardt (literary agent) looking for Jim, and not finding him. I did pitch it to him online later, but frankly I didn’t know what the heck I was doing as far as the fiction market went in those days. He made some non-commital encouraging noises.

Anyway, out of that I sketched out a very rough outline, a few scenes, and — a couple of years later — a technical paper on the Aresian Well concept. That made it into a Case For Mars conference and a more detailed version into a Princeton SSI/AIAA Space Manufacturing conference. Through a complicated sequence events somewhat too bizarre to be believed (involving eccentric millionaires, Pavlov, and the Soviet Academy of Sciences) I also ended up presenting that paper to a couple of dozen interested people at the University of Krasnoyarsk, in Siberia. (The BIOS 3 closed loop life support research facility is there; I got a tour.) There’s an early version of the paper here on the website. For a while there was a Wikipedia page on the Aresian Well but it got purged in one of Wikipedia’s occasional fits of weeding out “unimportant” or “irrelevant” articles. (And yet they have pages on obscure music groups and sports teams. No accounting for personal priorities, I guess.)

Since then a number of Martian novels have come and gone, or stayed: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red, Blue, Green Mars trilogy; Bova’s Mars; even Niven’s Svetz the time-traveller tale of a real Martian beanstalk. In the background I keep an eye on what the various robots are sending back to us, and keep adding detail to my story. (Other research has included the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the building of the Canadian Pacific railway and the Alaska Pipeline, and so on.) Here’s a little vignette I scribbled a while back; it’s influenced by my visit to Peru some years ago, and in particular the desert plain near Nazca. There’s an ancient necropolis about 30km out of town, all bare rock and sand, and it felt like being on Mars when I was there.

Mars. You’re wearing at least your own body weight in protective gear and life support, so you don’t notice that the gravity is only a third. The sky overhead is pale, partly from atmospheric scattering but mostly from dust, so it’s more often pink than the deep blue it ought to be. Looking out over the plains there’s nothing but red. Red rock. Red sand. Red dust. And the occasional swirl of that red dust kicked up by the winds.

The light is diffuse enough to eliminate the harsh shadows of the Moon or anywhere else in space you’ve been, so it looks something like Earth. A very dead Earth. An Antarctic dry valley, perhaps, or the dry plains near Nazca. At least the latter held signs of life — if you can call the mummified remains and scattered skulls of ancient Peruvians signs of life. At least they were alive once. Mars? Well, they’re still arguing about that.

I can hardly wait to read the rest of it. Alas, that means I have to finish writing it first, and there are other projects higher on the priority list.
— Alastair Mayer, 9 Feb 2008

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