Kim Stanley Robinson: Terraforming Mars Would Take a Lot Longer than in the Mars Trilogy
Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy was often called "the ultimate in future history" when it was published in the 1990's, as a result of its apparently plausible depiction of the human race terraforming Mars after Earth has been all but destroyed. Now, the author himself is repudiating his earlier assertion that we could terraform Mars in the near future, claiming that it would take a much longer period of time than anticipated, if it's even possible.
The Mars trilogy, which consisted of Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, followed the first human colonists to travel to Mars in the year 2026. In addition to the sociopolitical ramifications of starting an extraterrestrial colony, the novels went into great detail about terraforming processes that were scientifically accurate at the time. The books were highly regarded as fiction, with all three nominated for BFSA, Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards, Red Mars winning the Nebula and BFSA and the latter two winning the Hugo and Locus awards. But more importantly, they were seen as a possible projection for humanity's actual future, similar to other seminal science fiction works such as Brave New World.
And, as 2026 is still over a decade away, Robinson's vision of the future has not technically been disproven yet. But now, in a podcast interview with Blog Picture Science, Robinson claims that his projections were based on several erroneous assumptions, and that the scientific discoveries made since he wrote the trilogy have called his conclusions into question.
First, he operated under the assumption that Mars was an entirely dead planet that we could terraform from scratch. In the last two decades, evidence has been mounting that there is microbial life on Mars. "That's going to be very hard to disprove," said Robinson. "We could be intruding on alien life."
Furthermore, he assumed that there would be enough organic compounds on Earth to sustain human life, and that there wouldn't be anything directly toxic to us. But now we know that there is far less nitrogen on Mars than scientists originally believed, and that Mars's surface is saturated with toxic perchlorates.
"It's no longer a simple matter," said Robinson. "It's possible that we could occupy, inhabit and terraform Mars. But it's probably going to take a lot longer than I described in my books."
As a result, Robinson explained, we need to take responsibility for fixing the problems we've created on Earth, rather than looking to Mars as a "back-up planet." Science fiction often portrays space colonization as a sweeping solution for rendering Earth uninhabitable, but it seems that it would be much more complicated to colonize another planet, at least in Mars's case.