Mars Is ‘Irrelevant to Us’ If Earth Is Doomed, Author of Legendary Mars Trilogy Says

Kim Stanley Robertson wrote an optimistic trilogy about humans living on Mars, but in 2022 Earth is way too messed up.
Mars Is 'Irrelevant to Us' If Earth Is Doomed, Author of Legendary Mars Trilogy Says
Image: SFX Magazine / Contributor via Getty Images

In the 1990s, science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson wrote the Mars trilogy—a chronicle of humanity's attempts to turn Mars into a colony, and then a terraformed world, and eventually the beating heart of systemic-wide utopia. 

Humanity first walks on Mars in 2020, sets sails for the red planet in 2026 with a crew of one hundred, and over the course of the next two centuries witnesses waves of industrialization, sabotage, and revolution as Mars becomes its own society and struggles over what to do with its independence. 


Through it all, and despite the decline of Earth thanks to various environmental and political disasters, military conflicts with Terran forces, and political tensions sparked by waves of migration from Earth, the series is truly hopeful and optimistic not just about humanity’s future but the role Mars might play in it. It may come as a surprise to some, then, that Robinson recently seemed to rebuke all this and declare Mars irrelevant in the year 2022.

“Mars is irrelevant to us now. We should of course concentrate on maintaining the habitability of the Earth. My Mars trilogy is a good novel but not a plan for this moment. If we were to create a sustainable civilisation here on Earth, with all Earth’s creatures prospering, then and only then would Mars become even the slightest bit interesting to us,” Robinson says in an interview with Farsight. “It would be a kind of reward for our success—we could think of it in the way my novel thinks of it, as an interesting place worth exploring more. But until we have solved our problems here, Mars is just a distraction for a few escapists, and so worse than useless.”

On its face, this might seem contradictory to say after writing a hopeful trilogy about the colonization of Mars, but it’s consistent if you look closer. The Mars trilogy isn’t a triumphant saga imploring us to colonize Mars, it’s a story that tumbles largely out of the consequences of the so-called First Hundred colonists who fight over what to do with Mars and turn this fight into a struggle that ensnares all of humanity. 


The drive to colonize, terraform, and industrialize Mars yielded scientific and technological advances (system wide colonization, expeditions beyond Sol, longer lifespans, etc.) as well as a new socioeconomic system, but as Robinson himself has pointed out, what we know about Mars now suggests that much of what underpinned the series' optimism is unrealistic. 

At a 2015 talk, one example Robinson offered centered on the discovery of the widespread abundance in Martian dust of perchlorate—a chlorine in the form of a salt that is poisonous to humans in the parts per billion range. While there are ways to break it down with water and bacteria, Robinson admits that this one example massively changes the difficulty of terraforming from what he imagined and raises the question of whether it is worth the effort when Earth civilization is currently badly mismanaging its own homeworld’s biosphere.

"I don't think it is the most important issue on the table," Robinson said at the talk. "Climate change, sustainable civilization, this is the unavoidable problem we are in, I think. Mars and all of the space program, what you have to ask is: does that help us to create a sustainable civilization or not? If it does, let's do it. If it doesn't, let's put it off the table until we get sustainable and we'll deal with it in the 22nd century."

That doesn’t mean we should abandon scientific endeavors concerning space, only that we should seriously ask ourselves what the purpose of them is. Robinson goes on to add in the talk that it is important to study space because it yields insights into science that can be applied to Earth, where our ecological niche is collapsing because of climate change.


"Earth is a planet, you compare it to Venus and Mars, you learn things. We are now in the business of planetary global management—has to do with the atmosphere, biosphere, the whole thing has been accidentally dumped into our laps,” Robinson said. “We have to deal, really fast. There’s many aspects of the space program I think we need to pursue right now, not because they're intrinsically interesting but because they’re useful in studying Earth and managing Earth.” 

In the Mars trilogy, there was scientific and technological advancement in the process of colonizing Mars because Martians were focusing on creating a sustainable civilization for themselves, independent of Earth. If we are interested in creating a sustainable civilization on Earth, however, we should prioritize Earth instead of creating what will effectively amount to a destitute penal colony.

Typically, we hear public intellectuals, eccentric billionaires, and boisterous libertarians—a political movement that Robinson once described in the trilogy's second book, Green Mars, as “anarchists who want police protection for their slaves”—invoke a few defenses of Mars colonization. 

Some insist humanity’s destiny is to go to the stars. Others, like Amazon founder and chairman Jeff Bezos, believe that the same system which enriched them now threatens our civilization and must be curtailed with that same system transplanted to colonies across the system.


An even smaller, but still powerful group (which includes SpaceX's Elon Musk) have rebranded an insincere obsession with the stars as helping drive the species, its technology, and its science forward while reducing the risk of our extinction. Musk, who once said in 2012 that he would put someone on Mars by 2022, has not only proven himself time and time again to be a well-financed fabulist whose efforts—such as Starlink—are ruining the nighttime sky, but Musk has already been criticized by Robinson himself.

“Mars will never be a single-person or single-company effort. It will be multi-national and take lots of money and lots of years,” Robinson said in a 2016 Bloomberg interview. “Musk’s plan is sort of the 1920s science-fiction cliché of the boy who builds a rocket to the moon in his backyard, combined with the Wernher von Braun plan, as described in the Disney TV programs of the 1950s.”

Still, if we remove the monopoly men and the bolivating capitalists, you may be left wondering: are there any merit to these concerns offered as rationale to colonize Mars?

"This is the 'emeritus complex,' I call it. Someone who's great in one field goes emeritus and begins to pontificate about fields he doesn't know anything about...There is no Planet B. There is only Earth. We cannot get anybody off this planet in any useful way for helping human beings,” Robinson explained. 

As Robinson goes on to add, humans have evolved to be keenly attuned to Earth's biosphere and get sick (and die) the further they get from it. Fiction that ignores this fact makes for a good read, but in a moment where we must marshall our civilization’s resources to save our ecological niche and create a sustainable society which doesn’t again threaten the niche we depend upon, it encourages a sort of nihilistic outlook that we can afford to lose Earth. We can’t.

"When we go up there, we're dying but don't stay up there long enough to actually die, we come back down in time to get back in the environment that keeps us alive because we're co-evolved with it. That includes gravity, the magnetic field, and also the bacterial load that is in it. The old science-fiction dreams...are just a moral hazard that creates the illusion we can wreck Earth and still be okay. It's totally not true."