When it comes to more recent stories, Shindell spends more than three pages on “Total Recall,” but he alludes to Kim Stanley Robinson’s ambitious “Mars” trilogy only in passing, and he omits “The Greening of Mars,” in which James Lovelock — best known for the Gaia hypothesis — and Michael Allaby laid out a crash program for terraforming the red planet on a budget.
When Homer Simpson was told that men were from Mars and women from Venus, he responded, “Oh, sure, give me the one with all the monsters.” In fact, as Elton John sang, Mars turned out to be decidedly hostile to life.
Instead of astronauts, exploration has been left to robots, which attract passionate fans of their own. An outpouring of emotion greeted the last transmission of the Opportunity rover, freely paraphrased by the science journalist Jacob Margolis as “My battery is low and it’s getting dark.” This tendency to anthropomorphize rovers makes it easy to forget that their every move is decided by people, like marionettes on millions of miles of invisible string.
While Shindell acknowledges the “magic” of Mars in securing support for the U.S. space program, he spends less time on its appeal to authoritarian personalities who thrive on big but empty promises. Donald J. Trump’s sporadic infatuation with a mission to Mars — “of which the moon is a part,” he once confusingly tweeted — might not have seemed worth mentioning, but it feels strange that Shindell devotes just a few lines to Elon Musk, who has benefited enormously from the perception, correct or otherwise, that he represents our best shot at a Martian expedition. As Shindell observes, a trip to Mars “always seems to be two or three decades in the future,” allowing policies in the present to be justified or forgiven indefinitely.
To his credit, Shindell persuasively argues that Mars is most instructive when it sheds light on how we see ourselves. Proposals for Martian colonies are often tangled up with the language of capitalism and privilege, treating the planet as an escape hatch that minimizes the need to solve problems on Earth. It fills the same imaginative role today that America once did for Europe, which underlines the danger of exporting old assumptions to an undiscovered country.