25 Sep 2020

Anthology of interest: The Mars trilogy

Submitted by Kimon

KSR's next, the Earth-bound "The Ministry for the Future", is just around the corner! To make the wait easier, following the previous post on The Years of Rice and Salt, here is a compilation of interesting links related to the Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy.

The trilogy is now over twenty years old and its legacy is far and wide. Here is a review putting it in context of other science fiction literature that have looked at Mars, another together with other novels that deal with terraforming, and another together with novels of space colonization. The whole trilogy and Red Mars in particular comes up often in book clubs and book discussions and general book recommendations -- even by actor Tom Hanks! or by explorers that cross the Pacific Ocean! See some reddit discussions about it here, here and here, and join an entire sub-reddit dedicated to the trilogy!

The trilogy has inspired people from all walks of life, scientists and artists both. The following is only a sample...


First, music inspired by.

Viriditas (!) is a progressive rock band from Hampshire whose first album, called "Red Mars" (2018), entirely focuses on that first volume. Lively atmosphere, prog rock guitars, choruses and lyrics that refer directly to events and characters of the book -- like Frank Chalmers' role in killing John Boone! We know that Stan is a fan (remember "The Soundtrack" section in The Martians?). Viriditas' second album is under production and will be called..."Green Mars"!


Next, London-based Mariano Capezzani's fresh 2020 album of electronic music, "Areophany", also entirely inspired by the world of the trilogy! It is an upbeat and inspiring trek of discovery of Mars. His earlier album, "Ares" (2019), also felt very inspired by KSR -- he calls it "the soundtrack for the exploration and colonization of Mars" and here he passionately explains the process of composing it, track by track!


Then there's "Acheron" (2016) by Lausanne-based SHALT -- an EP of clubbing music that was inspired by the Mars trilogy, "taking on the theme of artificial life extension and the issues (class, physiology, ecology, etc.) that crop up with it"! (interview)


How about games?


It was discussed among fans for years and in 2016 it took the world by storm: "Terraforming Mars" by the Swede Jacob Fryxelius, a board game very much inspired by KSR's Mars trilogy! A strategy game where you are collecting resources to terraform the planet, aiming for the levels of oxygen, temperature and water to sustain a biosphere. It is still ranked among the very top among people who know these things and has received five expansions since then (a review here). Following its success, a video game version was released in 2018 (a review here).

But there's more Mars trilogy-like video games!

In 2016, "TerraGenesis" was released; a game for mobile devices, players choose factions and settle planets (real solar system planets included) and set out to terraform them by manipulating real science-based biophysical parameters, with industrial processes or bioengineering (dedicated wiki).

In 2018, "Surviving Mars" was released; players are tasked with working with a space agency, building infrastructure, and managing resources to expand your colony into a full city, à la SimCity, inspired by "positive sci-fi" like KSR's (interview).


KSR might have based the trilogy on science from the 1970s and 1980s  but the science in it still holds very well. Here is an article looking at the science of Red Mars, particularly its geological and planetary formation aspects.

However, since the 1990s there have been several developments: scientific findings from the robotic probes and a harder look at what it would take to sustain a colony on Mars, practically, logistically, psychologically. The discovery of toxic chemicals on the Martian topsoil (perchlorates) in particular has limited prospects of easily producing food on-site; together with solar and stellar radiation, they would even kill bacteria, as per this Scientific Reports article (popular science article about it here).

Then there's the issue of there not being sufficient CO2 on Mars to increase temperature and pressure sufficiently -- similar to Chris McKay calculations in the 1990s, this Nature Astronomy article calculates how much is available and how much would be needed and comes short, "stranding" any colony under a dome at best instead of out in the open (popular science article about it here, and video here).

Instead, studies now focus on how to make the best use of the materials locally present. For instance, this study published in Nature Astronomy looked at using layers of silica aerogel to create a shielding from radiation, increase temperature and allow for plant growth; first using imported material, then producing it on-site (popular science article about it here and here).

Mars habitability can even make the subject of a research project for university students -- see for example this group from Valencia, Spain, that developed Mars-adapted organisms and organisms relevant for terraforming, using synthetic biology and genetic engineering!

This Gizmodo article summarizes the main issues that scale down earlier dreams of a strong, blossoming independent Martian colony: psychological impacts, health issues from gravity effects to radiation effects to the unknowns of gestation in such an environment, soil toxicity, low temperatures and energy self-sufficiency, the large industrial effort needed to start terraforming... Many now conclude that, for the foreseeable future, we are a single-planet species and that "there is no planet B" to place bets on (see: Aurora).

Despite this news, the colonization of the red planet still fascinates humankind. Thinking about mode of governance or about the way to run its economy, studies and opinion pieces abound.

There was a recent exhibition at London's Design Museum, "Moving to Mars", that tried to imagine many aspects of future inhabitation of Mars -- with technologies and practices that could be relevant for living on Earth as well, such as food production close to habitable spaces, circular economy and 3D printing (interview, visit article).

In 2021, there will be another Mars exhibition, in Barcelona's CCCB, "Mars: The Red Mirror", looking at the imaginary around Mars from a multitude of disciplines -- and should also feature KSR himself!


From art to science back to art.

In photographer Allison Davies' "Outerland", "a solitary interplanetary wanderer is lost in the spectacular vistas of alien worlds" -- very reminiscent of Ann Clayborne exploring Mars.


Miss those discussions between Maya and Sax about the colours of the Martian sunsets? Here's space illustrator Ron Miller's vision on what the weather on Mars might look like, with discussions of wind, dust and dry ice...

Science writer Robert Walker imagines different outcomes of Mars colonization. Continuing on the Red/Green/Blue theme, he proposes a multitude of Mars colours based on the presence of dry ice, photosynthetic life, etc.

On to videos:

Aron Bothman's "The Red Witch" is a great little short film mixing stop-motion animation and CG and some hand-drawn animation. It follows "A geologist on Mars fights alone to uncover the planet's secrets before the green of terraforming covers it forever" and yes, that's exactly Ann Clayborne!

The video clip to Jamie xx's song "Gosh" looks like a very photorealistic rendering of the Mars trilogy! It was made by Erik Wernquist, whose previous video on the exploration of the solar system, "Wanderers", was covered on this site previously -- it was also inspired by the likes of KSR and appealed to the sense of awe and hope of this human adventure!

National Geographic's docudrama series "Mars" has no third season planned, but you can see their earlier documentary on the terraforming of Mars, "Mars: Making the New Earth", on YouTube.

Finally, something lighter: a 17th-18th century-style map of Mars, with the locations of the robot probe landings! "Here there be robots: A medieval map of Mars", by designer Eleanor Lutz.


Watch this space in the coming days for more art inspired by the Mars trilogy!