Ahead of the curve

Science fiction struggles to keep up with the real universe

Published August 9, 1996 9:30AM (EDT)

Revelations from real-life scientists that life indeed once existed on what most people thought was a dead planet have prompted a lot of I-told-you-so's. As in "I told you there was life on other planets," which somehow implies that the statement "I told you that the government has been hiding the truth about UFOs" has equal weight. While researchers spend the next few months and years checking out this week's announced findings, the rest of us will probably be watching "The X-Files" and "Star Trek" spinoffs with renewed interest -- much to the pleasure of television executives.

The Mars news is also likely to nudge readers toward the science fiction section of their local bookstore. There they will find "Blue Mars" (Bantam Doubleday Dell), by Kim Stanley Robinson, the third and final installment of his highly-acclaimed "Mars" trilogy, which began with "Red Mars," and followed with "Green Mars," and relates the fortunes of would-be colonizers from Earth. We talked with Kim Stanley Robinson about the possibility of life on Mars and the impact this may have on his own thinking and writing.

A basic premise of the "Mars" trilogy is that it was a lifeless planet before the "First Hundred" colonizers got there. Was it always lifeless in your imagination?

Yes it was. I was quite convinced that Mars was a dead planet and had been from the very beginning. I even wrote a short story called "Exploring Fossil Canyon," about the discovery of some false fossils on Mars. It's a story exploring the disappointment about the lack of any life on Mars and how vigorously the human mind has tried to supply it. So that story is now
completely recontextualized.

All the excitement over the far-from-conclusive evidence of early life on Mars -- is this another example of the human mind overreaching?

From what I've seen so far, this is not by any means any smoking gun evidence. But it is very suggestive, and now we should go to Mars to look for that smoking gun.

What should we be looking for?

We should head for dry lake beds and look for stromatolites, which are fossil bacterial mats. We found them on earth, we know what they look like and what caused them. Some are still alive in some bays in Australia and are the same kind of thing that caused these Martian rocks to be formed 3.5 billion years ago. And Mars' surface is marvelously untouched so that a lot of this old stuff won't be hard to find like it is on Earth, where you have to go to continents that haven't been crunched by tectonic movement.

What are the implications if we do find those stromatolites?

It means it's very likely that every time you get a planet with the right amount of heat, the right amount of water and certain basic minerals, that life probably started. Whether evolution would carry that life along very far is still an open question. But the more starts there are, the more possibilities for evolution there are.

Will this change your own cosmic thinking?

No. I always assumed this was true, just out of the logic of science and the notion that what happened on earth is not miraculous or unique or extraordinarily special. That we're just one part of ordinary cosmology. I really thought that Mars might have been too far out away from the sun. I had assumed that you really needed a special combination of stuff for life to start. Even with these Martian remnants we still are faced with the mystery of what kind of lightning strike is needed, and into what kind of primordial soup. I thought it was probably something really unusual. Now I think it's probably more usual.

Did you breathe a sigh of relief knowing you had completed the trilogy before this news came out? Would it have forced you to rethink what you were writing?

The trilogy would still function perfectly fine if there was fossil life on Mars that had died out before we got there -- which is very possible. But if we discover that there are still bacteria down in those volcanic vents, then all bets would be off on
In that case, we probably ought to leave that life alone entirely and maybe cordon off Mars, which to me is a kind of devastating thought. But I don't want to go crashing in on the only other example of life in the universe that we know of. You know, wipe it out in some kind of plague. Or overwhelm it with Terran -- earthly -- forms. It seems to me that would be a gross kind of cosmic arrogance that we can't really abide.

Given the new rush to go to Mars, isn't that precisely the kind of thing that could happen?

We will go to Mars. But if there's an outside chance that bacteria are still alive there, there's going to be a lot of talk of a cordon sanitaire, making sure that we don't bring back a bug that'll kill us all -- and making sure we don't kill all those bugs. A whole lot of robot work ought to be done before we start tromping around there. And when we do start tromping around there's going to have to be all kinds of sterilization techniques to make sure that we don't blow it.

And even if we don't find any more evidence of life there, we'll probably want to see if life survived any better on other planets.

Oh, yes, absolutely. Even if started and died out a few million years later on Mars, the implication is that the starts are common, and that some will manage to evolve up to higher forms. I am convinced there are trillions of life forms in the universe. But that doesn't mean to say we're ever going to run into any of them, or ever even contact any of them, because the universe is a lot bigger than science fiction usually tells the public. The cosmic distances are so vast that it would take longer than the lifetime of the universe to travel to them physically. There might be intelligent humanoid creatures having discussions quite like this one on other planets right at this very moment. But it would take, say, 500 million years for their radio signals to get to us and then 500 million years for us to reply -- even longer. And what's the point of that?

That's not the kind of reserve and caution one normally associates with science fiction writers.

There are science fiction writers who want to travel to all these planets and see the different aliens -- a kind of Star Trek travelogue -- and so they, I don't think lie is the right word -- but they fudge it, they skip over the problems by having warp speed or hyperspace. Any kind of faster-than-light travel I think is basically deceptive about the size of things. It's a convenience for storytelling. I've never felt comfortable with that. I've never set my stories on distant planets. I've felt that if science fiction is about how amazing the cosmos is, let's emphasize that one of the ways it's amazing is that it's so big. So big, that we can't get anywhere but this solar system. That makes this solar system more interesting, because that really is the neighborhood. It takes only four or five years to get to Jupiter where things might be very interesting indeed.

How so?

Three of the four big planets that are the Jovian moons have got ice oceans and probably water under the ice. So there you've got water, you've got heat and you've got minerals. So once again life becomes a possibility.

Currently it takes six months to get to Mars. Do you see that speeding up? Or have we reached the outer edge of rocketry?

Some science fiction writers talk about exotic technologies, like fusion, though I'm not sure that we'll ever figure out fusion. In terms of ordinary accelerations, it depends on how clean you want to keep space. Freeman Dyson has talked about putting a pusher plate on the back of a rocket and then exploding a small atom bomb behind it and doing that repeatedly for acceleration purposes. You could jet around the solar system quite rapidly, and cut travel times down to the point where Mars would be just a few weeks away.

I could see some political problems with that.

Dyson and Ted Taylor first put forward the idea in the 1950s, but it got shot down by the Test Ban Treaty. Now people think, "Oh my gosh, radiation in space -- isn't that contaminating or polluting space?" They're forgetting that even the solar system is so absolutely huge -- and so filled with gamma rays and cosmic rays -- that a little bit of nuclear bomb fallout is almost irrelevant. So, we're still thinking chemical rockets, and with chemical rockets you're talking about six months to Mars.

Do you foresee a manned shot to Mars in your lifetime?

I sure do now. I was beginning to wonder, because I'm 44 now and the whole space program was dead in the water. We could do it five years from now if the will was there. My feeling is that this week's news is going to drive us in a way we've never been driven before. People went to the moon, they saw this dead white rock and they thought, "well, OK, geologists might be interested but I just am not interested in dead white rock." But then you say to the same people, Wow, life! Even if you explain it's like bathtub scum, it becomes vastly more interesting.

You obviously keep up with science. Do scientists keep up with science fiction? Do scientists sometimes call on you for advice or speculation, like law enforcement will sometimes consult with a psychic?

Scientists are mad speculators already. I find them mostly disenchanted with science fiction for being too loose and frivolous, and not really doing its homework. They all say, "Oh, I read it when I was a kid," but then they learn what science is really like -- the drudgery, the politics and the intensity and the joys of it that have nothing to do with science fiction stories. Yet they still keep up with it, hoping that they run into something that they like. I find scientists who have read these "Mars" books who like the fact that I've talked to scientists and tried to do my homework and actually played everything very conservatively.

I used to worry that I was putting in more information or exposition than I thought people could really handle -- a couple of pages on how the rocket's going to work, a couple of pages on how a mirror might bounce light back to the surface. But I found that people love that kind of stuff. The novel is such a wonderful form that it can handle tons of all kinds of disparate information and still be a novel. Moby Dick should have taught us that.

Your next book is set in Antarctica. That's an irony. Did you know before you started writing it that Antarctica was where they found the meteor from Mars?

I knew that Mars meteors have been found down there. When I was doing research for "Mars" I ran into mentions of Antarctica all the time. The dry valleys down there are the most Martian terrain on earth. And Antarctica will get even more interesting in the next century than it is now. There's a lot of resources down there, and the rest of the world is running out of resources. Environmentalists want to make it a world park, so there's a battle shaping up. And we're getting into technologies where it might be possible to kind of inhabit Antarctica in a semi-space station way. My story is about all these things.

Any Martian aspects?

No. Although, jeez, with what's happened. I'll have to at least mention it. In my "Mars" books, they do their training in Antarctica before they go. But I don't like linking up novels into future histories. I like them to stand alone. So I don't know what I'll do yet.

Quote of the day

No fruit for this Bosnian nut

"Bosnia must be transformed into three entities with a thin roof over it. I think in the international community there are a great number of capable people who have a clear-cut picture on Bosnia -- and they know bananas can't be grown in Bosnia. You can grow bananas in Africa. This solution for Bosnia and Herzegovina could function somewhere, but not here."

-- Momcilo Krajisnik, speaker of the self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb Parliament, disputing the notion of a multi-ethnic Bosnia, which is a central tenet of U.S. policy and of the Dayton peace accords. (From "Hard-Line Nationalist Is New Bosnian Serb Leader," in Friday's New York Times)

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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