Mon. Jul 10, 2000

An Interview With Kim Stanley Robinson

posted: 11:47 am EST
26 June 2000
Special Report: Continuing Coverage of the Mars Water Discovery

Greg Bear: Biospace 21

Larry Niven: Mars, Who Needs It?

April 7, 2001: NASA Returns to Mars

The man who can tell you everything about what it takes to terraform Mars is not surprised by the confirmation of water on the Red Planet.

In his three "Mars" novels (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars), Kim Stanley Robinson constructed a vision of the Red Planet and humanity's evolving relationship with it that spans hundreds of years and as many characters. The achievement has been likened to "War and Peace with spaceships"; another comparison might be to a space-age Moby Dick.

Robinson spoke to about the discovery of an indispensable requirement for life as we know it, whether native to the Red Planet or imported from Earth.

"It was no surprise . . . The best analogy for space in the next half century is probably Antarctica in the last half century." What was your reaction to the news that Mars recently had liquid water -- and possibly still does?

Kim Stanley Robinson: It was no surprise. The huge outflow channels are solid evidence of a great deal of water on the surface in the distant past -- oceanic amounts of water. Some is still there to be seen in the polar caps, some of it no doubt escaped into space, the rest is quite certainly under the surface, frozen in permafrost. But the Martian regolith (broken surface of the crust) is very deep, and when you get deep enough, the heat of the planet's interior will be enough to melt ice back to water. So under the Martian surface there are liquid aquifers. All this is straightforward, and assumed as such in my Mars books.

Then also, Mars obviously had great volcanic activity in the past, and

perhaps there is still some volcanic activity, which is another source of heat to melt ice to water, and even perhaps to bring it to the surface in thermal vents.

And lastly, the vertical relief of Mars is enormous -- 31 kilometers between the highest point and the lowest, with lots of cliffs, canyons, mountains, deep craters, etc. So, it is not difficult to imagine scenarios where water in deep aquifers is squeezed sideways through cracks by the weight of the rock over it, moving sideways through these cracks until one of the crack systems opens onto the side of a cliff or crater wall somewhere, and if there is enough lithostatic pressure on the water to keep it moving, keep it from freezing and making a dam of ice for itself, then -- voila -- liquid water seeping onto the surface, where it freezes and sublimes, but also slushes down slopes, creating the features seen in the recent photos.

So it was all there to be deduced after the Viking mission, but the Viking cameras didn't have the great resolution of the current global surveyor, and so couldn't make the definite find.

SC: So you had an inkling that something like this was in the wind?

KSR: Yes, sure. The Mars scientists writing and talking about this stuff have been outlining the scenario I just described for years.

There was also a MGS photo last year of a crater floor that looked like it had had its floor smoothed flat by water. It's been a matter of putting together all the features that the orbiting cameras have revealed to us, and the latest photos are simply the best evidence yet that it's really happening. But it is not a surprise, just the capstone. This in fact is why the last photos are so convincing, they sit on top of a large pyramid of evidence. If for instance we only had that one photo of Mars, it would not be anywhere near as convincing.

SC: How does this discovery affect the procedures currently on the drawing board for making Mars fit for long-term human habitation?

KSR: If by "making Mars fit for long-term human habitation" you mean only the technical problem of terraforming Mars, this kind of evidence merely adds to what we already had, which was very convincing that there was ice under the surface in permafrost, and probably liquid aquifers deeper down. So it confirms that the plans we have been bouncing about might be possible in fact.

But the more interesting question becomes, what if we find life there in these seeps? Because on Earth the connection between water and life is very firm; wherever you find one you find the other, even if the water is frozen or boiling. And Martian meteorites have been falling on Earth regularly, and Terran meterorites have been falling on Mars too, a bit less regularly, and so the possibility of life transferring, and eventually living in underground water on Mars, as the last refuge of a cooling planet, is pretty strong.

This complicates the humans-on-Mars picture very severely. On the one hand, it's an inducement to go and look for life. On the other hand, we will not want to contaminate Mars with Terran bacteria etc., when we have such an interesting prospect as life on another planet before us to study. So the hunt is on (now) but it will have to be a very careful hunt. And if we find life, then humans settling on Mars becomes a serious problem in environmental ethics, etc., and will be a matter for discussion by the whole humanity community, not just the space community.

SC: How far do you see the human diaspora by 2020? By 2050?

KSR: 2020, same as now; some people going up into Earth orbit occasionally, a few staying for a while then returning. Much talk about human missions to Mars and the Moon.

2050, more people in Earth orbit, but none living there for their whole lives; perhaps a lunar station or two, tourist hotel perhaps; on Mars, a scientific station manned by rotating crews, small but growing.

The best analogy for space in the next half century is probably Antarctica in the last half century.

SC: Cyberpunk futurist William Gibson doesn't see the point in interplanetary travel, preferring to send cameras. Larry Niven, to a large extent, is in the same camp. Do you think something is gained in actually making the trip, whether just to visit (exploration) or to stay (colonization)?

KSR: This shades into philosophical issues concerning phenomenology, presence, bodies, reality, etc.. I've always thought "Virtual Reality" was a PR name for 3-D television, for instance, and I don't like TV, or sitting here looking into my computer, etc. It's better to do things than to watch things, I think, and this personal philosophy shades into my opinions on these larger issues.

But it's not me that will be going into space, and I, like the vast majority of people, will be watching it all through camera images. In that sense, cameras are fine, and whether there's a cameraperson on hand operating it or not is irrelevant. In other words, for most of us it's a camera operation no matter what, so it doesn't seem to matter whether people go along or not.

As a practical question of exploring Mars, however, cameras can't get under the surface. And robots are not very versatile or capable, they make bad field geologists. One small group of human explorers on a two-year mission could learn more about Mars in their trip than a whole century's worth of robotic exploration; this is no exaggeration, that's how much more capable humans are than robots. So there would be that reason to send humans, just sheer efficiency for the job as outlined.

On the other hand (the third hand) if we are lucky, and find life on Mars using robots only, then sending humans there becomes really problematic, and maybe won't be done, at least for a long time.

On the other hand (Martians have four arms) human civilization is in need of a sense of project in history, and while the obvious project is to make a decent civilization for all humans, going into space might help that project, directly and indirectly. It has a spectacular quality that is encouraging, and the value of comparative planetology to managing the Earth's environment is very high.

So it's a complicated issue, clearly, and I think cameras in space are fine for some purposes, people for other purposes, and they must both take their place in the larger human project.

SC: To put it a different way, what can we get up there that we can't get down here?

KSR: See above. Also, look at the question: what can we GET? Is this the capitalist version of the question, the Year 2000 version of the question? How about What can we LEARN, what can we ACHIEVE, what can we DO? Verbs are so revealing of assumptions about motivation.

Get. We could GET huge masses of pure gold! But so what.

SC: When and if we go to Mars, will we stay?

KSR: We'll stay the way we stay in Antarctica; small bases more or less permanently occupied, by rotating crews of scientists and other visitors, including tourists.

SC: Allowing ourselves to speculate (speculative fiction) for the moment that there is still liquid water seeping up to the surface of Mars, would your Mars Trilogy have unfolded differently?

Not at all, in fact I made the assumption that there was a great deal of liquid water just under the surface, as the floods at the end of Red Mars indicate, not to mention the oceans in Blue Mars. Nadia drills down ten feet and hits water in Part 3 of Red Mars, and when she sets up a permafrost well and returns a week later there's ice all over the place; a gusher in effect. So I almost had it.

SC: Why is Mars important? Or, more generally, is space exploration important at all, when people are still starving down here?

KSR: No. Mars is not important, compared to people starving down here. It's interesting, but in the historical context you bring up, interesting is not enough. Same with space exploration. The Only Good Excuse for our focus on Mars and space more generally, in this moment of history, is that we can learn things out there that can help us deal with the environmental crisis unfolding here on Earth. It has to be asserted that space science is an Earth science, and that like the other Earth sciences it is needed to help us get through the next couple centuries with less environmental damage than otherwise would occur. But having asserted that, we need to make it so; to configure our efforts in space and on Mars toward that end.

SC: Of all the planets, why does Mars haunt us so?

More Voices on Mars
Larry Niven, author of Ringworld, says "if we intend to take the universe for ourselves, we will need Mars. Our selves will change in the process." (read more)

Gregory Benford, author of The Martian Race, argues that "the entire space community should demand that present operations work with this goal in mind: human exploration before 2020." (read more)

Greg Bear, author of Moving Mars, warns that humans traveling to Mars or elsewhere "will be cut off from the main body of the Earth, like tiny severed limbs. . . . Not a cheery prospect." (read more)

KSR: An accumulation of factors. Naked eye era: we can see it, it's red, it has a strange wandering course through the stars. Telescope era: it's a planet, it's got polar caps, could harbor life, could harbor intelligent life, building canals; or perhaps could be empty and ready for our occupation. Current era: it's got water, it looks like Monument Valley writ large (really large), it's real but empty, it exists as a realm of Possibility in a seemingly fixed and unchangeable moment in history. So we dream about it, and locate our dreams of a new life there. But we have to remember that the enactment of those dreams is always going to have to happen here on Earth.

SC: Feel free to talk about the new novel, if you're not afraid of jinxing it.

KSR: But I am.

SC: How does the year 2000 surprise you?

KSR: How quickly I got used to writing "00" in the dates. How much it doesn't matter what number we assign to our days. How much the date is a function of Western hegemony in the world today. I'm trying to remember the dates in the Islamic, Chinese and other calendars, including Gary Snyder's habitual dating of "Year 50,000" (since the cave paintings I guess).

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