Mars Trilogy: Homesick

Part of the Mars Trilogy Technical Commentary Series. Contains spoilers for this chapter and earlier chapters. Google Mars .kml. Literary commentary podcast.

The opening sequence of this chapter is about lichen adapting to Mars. A distinction is offered between natural selection – unguided evolution, underlying thousands of years of human efforts via artificial selection, which is responsible for essentially all domesticated plants and animals, and then more recently “Genetically Engineered Microorganisms” (GEMs), or what we might term GMOs. We even get a list of 1992-era “recombinant DNA” buzzwords, which sound scary but it is important to remember that no matter how debauched our degenerate biologists may get, they will at best re-invent some third tier parlor trick viruses have been perpetrating on bacteria for billions of years.

KSR could only guess at our present array of tools for accelerating artificial selection, providing a brief description of relatively primitive transgenic techniques, in which genes are extracted from some species and, with the help of an in-vitro electric shock, caused to migrate into the cells of other species. This shotgun approach (sometimes literally) has since been improved with the discovery of CRISPR and mRNA vaccines among other techniques. Today’s techniques allow us to literally edit the genes, codon by codon, of living organisms.

It is worth a brief note here on some kind of generalized hierarchy of information generation, transmission, and modification beginning with DNA/RNA, adding the immune system, animal communication, brains, speech and oral history, writing, the printing press, and most recently networked computers by which this DNA-generated self-propagating meat robot is synthesizing cultural memetic information and feeding it back into the meme-maelstrom. Less personally, humans are the first species we know of that has managed to climb the science tech tree high enough to bring our advanced, but still rather primitive, tools to bear on our fundamental substrate. A power not without risk, but also carrying the hope of general emancipation from the shackles of our uncaring and indifferent natural origins – cures to disease and eventually death. In the other direction, emerging technology to merge our nervous computer with our nascent silicon intelligences.

There’s a brief discussion of extremophile life, generally bacteria that appear in surprisingly hostile environments and have led some scientists to think that microbial life could exist on Mars or other extraterrestrial places, or that we could adapt life to live there. The GEMs adapted for Mars have been given “suicide genes,” presumably to avert a gray goo scenario, on the off chance that humans cooked up some kind of bacteria able to beat all the other bacteria.

KSR includes a passage about life adapting to ambient conditions, and in turn changing the environment as it has done so effectively (and more than once) on Earth, most saliently with the Great Oxygenation Catastrophe. This description has shades of the Gaia Hypothesis, co-formulated by recently-departed polymath James Lovelock, also the co-inventor of the microwave oven. Gaia holds that life gradually adapts environments into a more life-friendly state, but lacks a defensibly rigorous formulation backed by actual evidence. In contrast, the Medea Hypothesis put forward by Peter Ward notes that natural biological processes drove several episodes of Snowball Earth in which essentially the entire surface of the Earth glaciated for tens of millions of years, and also separately caused multiple mass extinctions. Evolution and ecology are blind – there is no-one behind the wheel.

To relate this to Mars, the Great Oxygenation Catastrophe occurred on Earth when cyanobacteria, merrily pumping out oxygen for a billion or so years, eventually oxidized all the available surface rocks (despite active plate tectonics constantly making new ones) and caused oxygen to build up in the atmosphere, killing nearly everything and crashing Earth’s climate. Mars had substantial volcanism in its early history but also has evidence that its surface geology is mostly chemically reduced beneath a thin layer of red, oxidized surface dust. This is not a common speculation among learned practitioners of the art (amongst whose august membership I am most definitely not a member!) but if cyanobacteria had existed on early Mars, they would not have enjoyed a billion year-long grace period to saturate surface rocks with oxygen, and may have contributed to Mars’ turn from a warmish wet world to a cold, dry one.

The prolog closes with a spectacular landscape description as dawn rises over Valles Marineris revealing specks of multicolored lichen everywhere.

In contrast to Chapter 3, Chapter 4 is mercifully short and rather lower on technical content! It is likely that Chapter 5 will have to be split into two parts so I have some hope of publishing it before dying of old age.

Chapter 4 follows the First Hundred’s captive psychologist Michel, roughly five years after Nadia and Arkady’s airship ride. Michel’s character is artfully deployed as a foil to the extremely pragmatic, technical scientists and engineers who make up the rest of the cast. He has feelings, insight, and language to describe the inner life. He is also, like many psychologists, profoundly miserable, and unlike all of them, stranded on Mars. In his present view, traveling to Mars was an inexplicable, unforgivable error. He is forced to endure the lonely, isolating burden of caring for the mental health of a ravening horde of extremely ambitious and increasingly warped scientists stuck on a dead, empty rock.

The chapter begins with Michel dreaming the dream of the displaced, the immigrant, the wanderer. Upon a cold, hard and unfamiliar bed surrounded by indifferent strangers with no common language, the mind soothes itself with visions of home, the familiar, friends, comfort, and ease. A touch, a look, a moment of affection, of deep longing for a past lost. A place that, even if one were to survive the journey to once again attain its physical location, really ceased to exist the moment that the traveler first turned away from the latching door and, with a youthful spring in her step, set out to encounter the universe and in so doing, change enough that home was never home again.

For Michel, his dream landscape is the Mediterranean resort town of Villefranche-sur-Mer, which in his memory tortures him with things he cannot have – conversation in his native French, warm air, open skies, perfect beaches, sun, beautiful strangers, his preferred cuisine. The reader suspects that even in life, Michel was never as in the moment in this location as when he visited it in his dreams, later in life. That is, Michel was miserable before he left Earth, which drove him forth even as it crystallizes as his frustrations on Mars.

A few moments free from care, as though a child embraced by a loving parent, and then the dream dissolves as all must, into the tone of his telephone. Work calls, Maya’s emotional support network has come to him again. Maya is just as brilliant, and just as hopeless, as he is. His repressed libido seems to limit his insight into his stance of professionalism around beautiful women in general and Maya in particular. The reality is, there are limits to his art and Maya’s condition exists only to mock his ineffectuality in worlds both physical and mental. “Moody, angry, flirtatious, brilliant, charming, manipulative, intense, dejected.” Between the two of them, most of a dark triad and a pairing of circumstance.

Ursula and Phyllis beat a hasty retreat, while Maya complains that John won’t help her convince Russian companies to invest in a town at the bottom of the Hellas basin. While most of Mars’ lower terrain is in the northern hemisphere, the lowest point on the planet is actually at the bottom of Hellas, an enormous impact crater in Mars’ southern hemisphere. Down there, the atmosphere is incrementally denser, so it will be easier to terraform.

The text specifies that Hellas is 4 km below datum, where the atmosphere is 3x denser than at Underhill and 10x denser than on the big volcanoes. This is not quite correct. KSR had to work from Carr’s (incredible!) map of Mars, drawn in 1978 from Viking data, which has a few topographic anomalies due to unmapped mascons, which are denser parts of Mars’ crust that perturbed the orbiters’ trajectories. Of these, more later, but it turns out that the deepest parts of Hellas are actually 8.5 km below datum, while the tallest volcano Olympus Mons is nearly 22 km above datum. MGS carried a laser altimeter instrument (MOLA) which mapped the entire planet’s topography at 400 m resolution!

What’s datum? Mars doesn’t have sea level, so the zero point for altitude is defined as the altitude with average atmospheric pressure of 610 Pa. Earth’s is about 101,300 Pa by contrast! Mars is mostly vacuum.

Mars’ lower gravity and slower geology enables greater contrast between high and low points, but it also lengthens the atmospheric scale height, the distance over which pressure changes by a factor of e = 2.7182818284…. Earth’s scale height is 8.5 km, while Mars is 11.1 km – its 38% gravity offset somewhat by a heavier CO2 atmosphere and colder temperature.

Underhill is at 3.4 km above datum, so Hellas is 2x denser than datum and 2.9x denser than Underhill, and 15.5x denser than the summit of Olympus Mons. Is this enough to make a difference? Hard to say. If they plan to thicken the atmosphere to at least 30,000 Pa at datum in 300 years, that corresponds to a linear average of 100 Pa per year, which means that Hellas will reach 30,000 Pa after only 150 years. But if atmospheric thickening occurs exponentially, which is more consistent with technology and thermal feedback loops, that corresponds to 14% more atmosphere per decade and Hellas will reach 30,000 Pa after 240 years, shaving just 60 years off relative to datum.

Michel is disengaged from this argument, lapses into intimate reverie, and hallucinates swimming with dolphins in the warm salty Mediterranean.

Meanwhile Frank is planning to join the Europeans who have set up a base on the opposite side of the planet, perhaps near Elysium. He asks Maya to join him but she’s disinterested in his game. This is ten whole years after their fling on the Ares and still none of them are letting it go. We get the feeling that Underhill was a weird place and that some of the stronger personalities joining other communities might not be such a bad thing.

Michel’s daydreaming takes him to Avignon, a medieval French town, and its narrow tree-lined lanes.

With apparently no productive work to engage in despite the ambient incredible labor shortage, he wanders aimlessly around the base. The tight, wetsuit pressure of the walker has a distinctive diamond-shaped heat/cold contrast as the sheer freezing airless poisonous irradiated indifference of the alien planet seeps into his ebbing soul. His peregrinations take him to the alchemists quarter, where colossal piles of excess salt are piled up reaching into the heavens – a metaphor for sterility both of Mars and technology.

He perceives that the act of trying to live on Mars externalizes, makes manifest our internal reality – at every level from mRNA on up we are stochastic entropic parts acting out absently-defined roles, lost in some endless Cartesian plane of poorly anchored identities or even individuation.

In the greenhouses he finds strains of transgenic algae in every color of the rainbow, relative new arrivals to Mars or even existence, and all doing, somehow, a better job of adapting to the environment than he has. Black, Otoo, Red, Yellow, Olive, Battleship Gray, White, and Lime Green. Viriditas – Hiroko’s guiding principle of bringing forth life on the new planet. Hiroko occupies the opposite pole from Michel, so completely de-alienated that the greener Mars she is literally birthing is alien even to its former self.

Humans doing global warming on Mars, having perfected it on Earth. Industry and heat control. A record high temperature of 285 K, which is about 17 C. Just 300 years until the temperatures are livable. Terraforming Mars will not be a swift process but 300 years sounds about right for an aggressive program with known technology.

We get a glimpse of the persistence of the original common property scientific outpost, similar to Antarctic stations. Walkers and roadrunners (some kind of Mars jeep) are common property and can be checked out for use, while Nadia despite (or perhaps because of) her Soviet origins collects a set of tools which she owns and uses personally. It does seem odd to me that, walkers being relatively cheap, commonly used, and personal there aren’t enough to go around. There is something to communal property in a small, isolated village but the very premise of Underhill’s existence is that they’ve overcome material scarcity to an embarrassing degree. Indeed, to be able to run a self-sufficient outpost with just 100 people, half of whom seem to be severely impaired by one or another kind of neurological malady, and set it up in less than two Earth years, the needed degree of post-scarcity production would permit the spontaneous 3D printing of both walker and roadrunner, disposable and on-demand.

When driving the open topped roadrunner at 60 km/h, Mars atmosphere is thick enough that Michel can feel the pressure of wind on his faceplate. Because aerodynamic drag is linear in density and square in velocity, the sensation is probably comparable to a 5 km/h breeze on Earth.

Sax, who is driving, explains that there is so much CO2 on Mars he’ll need to grow giant forests to fix it in solid form to allow the atmosphere to be breathable. At present, Mars’ CO2, which is 95% of its atmosphere, is equivalent to a global equivalent layer just 10 cm thick. By comparison, Earth’s atmosphere liquefied would be 10 m thick, though the CO2 part would be just 2.5 mm. But if the warming process releases enough CO2 to thicken the atmosphere by a factor of 10 or 50, it is clear that numerous extremely dense forests would be required for biological sequestration.

This is analogous to the situation faced on Earth today, wherein post-industrial emissions of CO2, particularly since WW2, have released an excess of about 2 trillion tonnes into the atmosphere, where they slowly cook us. The world is so big it can seem hard to believe we can do much to change it, but with global coordination we’ve managed it! Well done everyone! Plants happen to love the enriched CO2, but it is far from clear that plants growing taller and faster will be able to keep up with human CO2 emissions – which are roughly 10x greater than net biological fixation, especially when plant decay ends up converting much of that CO2 ultimately to CH4, or methane, a gas that is roughly 40x more powerful than CO2 on a per-atom basis. There are other ways to capture CO2, including deliberate capture for utilization making chemicals, such as carbon-neutral fuels, or deliberately accelerated weathering of mafic rocks, which Mars has in stupefying abundance. In any case, it’s not totally clear that our descendants will see fit to scrub CO2 out of Mars’ atmosphere, since doing so will weaken its greenhouse effect in a way that could be quite laborious to compensate.

It’s a 15 minute drive, or 15 km, to Nadia’s new arcade, though it is unclear to me why it is built so far from Underhill. The arcade runs east west, 1 km long, within a trench 30 m deep and wide. I will skim over my objections to trench building covered in the previous chapter, but here add another objection that while there is a long and storied history of (particularly Soviet) experimentation with linear city urban design, I’m far from convinced it’s a good idea. In particular, such a city can only have one central axis for transportation and utilities, and is thus liable to expend a lot of effort on avoiding congestion. By analogy with snake anatomy or the design of primitive submarines, both of which have other good reasons to be long and thin, this seems to be a city grafted on top of a plumbing problem.

The ostensible reason for the linear design is so that the north wall of the trench, which is exposed to direct sunlight, can be fitted with a mixture of mirrors and manicured gardens so that occupants of the southern wall of the trench can enjoy direct (reflected) sunlight and greenery, while having a little more shielding from solar radiation. But even a conventional city design could be built between large cylindrical skylights containing gardens, mirrors, etc and enjoying a 2D configuration of housing, services, and infrastructure more amenable to logistics, collocation of functions of interest, and local customization.

Nadia, untroubled by yet another series of guaranteed construction problems guaranteed to appear in the near future, sits atop an enormous bulldozer, embodying another pole of Veriditas, as blatant as Hiroko is subtle, almost like a Lorax that specializes in earth moving machinery.

The arcade is 3 floors high, each set back from the lower, offering open terraces, semi-circular brick arches resembling the Pont du Gard. The arches are described as more structurally marginal than the thick Roman variety, by virtue of the lower g and, no doubt, improved fabrication methods. Indeed, much larger masonry arches were constructed in pre-modern times.

As an aside, it transpires that arch members are not wide because of fixed gravitational loads – in most masonry structures bricks have a compressive failure safety factor of well over 1000. Arches are thick to ensure that the structure remains in compression even under unusual transient loads, such as people walking around, weather, earthquakes, etc. More modern and daring compressive designs, popularized by Gaudí, can even have branching arches, while steel reinforcing keeps it together during extreme forces. Most obvious in Gothic cathedrals, the load of the building must be transferred within the central third of the pillar in order to avoid compressive elastic deflection and, ultimately, failure through buckling. Either way, Nadia can build some awesome arches in her arcade.

One advantage of the linear village with its infinite corridor is that some of the claustrophic village feel of Underhill will be alleviated. This is timely as additional landing parties have settled in Acidalia and Borealis – both places relatively adjacent to Nadia’s ice block truck supply road.

The chapter lapses back once more into Michel’s hopeless, desperate internal monologue. He ruminates endlessly on always feeling cold, even in the hot baths. He realizes a moment too late that they’ve incorrectly applied color mood theory in their paint scheme – and presumably lack the awareness, motivation, or chemicals to repaint. He laments his lack of a fellow therapist, a fellow native French speaker, or even a French-speaking therapist. He has one back in Nice, but with 5-25 minute delays his conversations are not exactly spontaneous.

Doctor in hospice in a prison in hell; and the doctor was sick.

I suspect that threaded texting apps like Signal or WhatsApp contain the germ of an idea that may find full application on Mars, namely multithreaded conversations. Because of the time delay, one must become relatively good at context switching and conduct 3 or 6 written, or even video/voice, conversations in real time, with the same person on the other end. As each new round of communication arrives and is responded to, the next topic can be readied. While this option may be frustrating for those who struggle to arrive at even one topic of conversation, it offers unique opportunities for juxtaposition of ideas through careful choice and curation of a quiver of topics and their relative sequencing.

Meanwhile his turn around the alchemist quarter must have turned some wheels in his mind, because (it’s a metaphor, see) he starts applying the alchemical rectangle of negatives and opposites to core ideas in psychology. The idea here, which confused the hell out of me the first time I read it, is that negatives apply absence, while opposites require positive qualities in the contrary direction. The idea is not particularly original but it does serve as a very neat plot device for Michel’s synthesis of biological brain regulation leading to various character traits that, mingled in certain ways, reproduced the humors of medieval medicine.

Specifically, introverted/extraverted and stabile/labile combine to produce sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic, all valid and beautiful manifestations of inherent human grumpiness.

As if to hammer the point home, Michel notes the alchemists have taken to synthesizing diamond as a durable coating on various parts, pressure-tolerant glass, and so on. Next, earning points for extreme subtlety, Sax stands next to a decorative tile depicting the formula for terminal velocity in cursive script, reminiscent of classical Arabic text. Terminal velocity is the speed at which air resistance, encountered shortly before in the roadrunner, matches force due to gravity – the fastest speed an object can fall through the atmosphere. For humans on Earth, it’s about 200 km/h – enough to make a decent dent on impact. On Mars, it is well beyond supersonic.

Michel asks if Sax can turn lead to gold, which Sax ponders for a confusingly long time – nuclear transmutation has been known about since the 1920s. Here we also get a brief insight into Ann’s history, mistreated as a child and in love with Mars because Mars is dead and Ann loves death. Can the misfits Ann, Sax, and Michel transmute themselves into beings more tolerant of their own lived realities?

Michel reflects on the isolation he felt particularly during the solar storm on the Ares during their voyage out, when despite acknowledging he’d lied just as much as the rest of them during selection, he felt like the physical embodiment, the avatar made manifest, of the hated selection process that had forced them all to pretend to be other than they actually were. Worse, he cannot even remember why he lied, why he fought so hard to go. What was he hoping to find here.

He climbs the largest of the salt pyramids, which has a stairway and structure on top, affording him a view of their pitiful mess scabrous on the face of the planet. He had been divorced in France, his former spouse Françoise complaining that he simply “was not there.”

I feel that Michel’s failure to assimilate in the same way as the mindless squints is KSR’s subtle critique of the false romanticism of Mars colonization, something that leaps from every page of the glorified fanfic Mars Society proceedings he used as source material. Mars, and space more broadly, has always attracted dreamers and misfits who seem convinced that they were born in the wrong time and place, and if only they were crushing frontiers on another planet, their life would have the meaning they so desperately lack here on Earth. Says the writer pushing half a million words of his own Mars fanfic into the aether…

Adding to his alienation, Michel is incredibly famous in France, interviewed routinely and capable of smiling through no doubt gritted teeth about the experience. His audience, after all, is just as bought into the adventure as they had all been a decade before, and no-one wants to watch fantasy television about a confused psychologist lost in space. Except KSR, of course!

In short, Michel is incredibly depressed and probably always has been.

Michel whiles away the hours watching French television in the lounge, as perhaps their own work spaces don’t have individual TVs, a glimpse once more of the world of the 1980s! The TV shows an image of lichen on the walls of Marineris – the same vista described in the chapter opening sequence.

Michel suffers longer and more frequent dissociative episodes, hallucinations, blackouts, walking daydreams disconnected from reality and performing actions that he has no recollection of. Weeks, months, years go by in autopilot with the uniformity of his surroundings achieving salience so rarely that he can’t remember much at all. Tatiana Durova was killed by a crane – which seemed to upset some people. Frank left to live with the Japanese in Argyre. His partnership with Marina Tokareva fizzled, failed, trailed off into nothing. His constant contact with his fellow nut Maya continues to confuse him emotionally. Years slip by.

KSR’s rendition of Michel’s plight is visceral, especially for a topic so nebulous. In all his books, the only style that comes close is his description of the failure of his first marriage in his partly autobiographical recent work, The High Sierra, giving some insight into physically comfortable misery Michel endures.

Then, a catalyst appears. The Coyote, the stowaway glimpsed in earlier chapters, breaks into his room in the dead of night. A shorter black Caribbean man, with short black dreadlocks and eyeteeth of Martian stone.

“Come with me.”

Just as Michel is reflecting on the aging sterility of their environment, he is met by a group of young toddlers who lead him to the farm team, naked among the plants, eating dirt while performing Hiroko’s Areophany (Aerophagy?), a kind of eucharist symbolizing the union of viriditas and kami, the green and the red. Their creed is the construction of a new, beautiful Martian world. In this space, possibly tripping on Sax’s hardcore soil fertilizers, Michel experiences a phoenix’s rebirth and, accepting Hiroko’s invitation, leaves with the rest of the farm team for a secret refuge in the south.

One thought on “Mars Trilogy: Homesick

  1. I’ll have to re-read it again, but Michel feels like the primordial version of a character that KSR would return to over and over again in his books: the wanderer who is too much in his own head, wandering through what passes for nature (even if “nature” is a nearly lifeless other world).

    Mars, and space more broadly, has always attracted dreamers and misfits who seem convinced that they were born in the wrong time and place, and if only they were crushing frontiers on another planet, their life would have the meaning they so desperately lack here on Earth.

    I don’t know whether KSR was thinking that at the time, but he was definitely thinking it when he wrote The Martians years later. One of the best stories in in that compilation is the second part of the Michel two-parter where he cancelled the First Hundred mission, and we get him basically thinking what you said above about the folks at a space conference yearning for Mars colonization (but even he is somewhat susceptible to the romanticism of it).


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