Moving to Mars: it’s life, but not as we know it

Earlier this year I was lucky to meet Bas Lansdorp, Dutch entrepreneur behind the MarsOne project to establish a permanent colony of human settlers on Mars. He was delighted that, in a lecture theatre full of Edinburgh Science Festival-goers, dozens of volunteer settlers kept their hands raised, even after he clarified that it was a one-way trip. (Later, Lansdorp’s venture would receive 78,000 applications in the first two weeks of its open call for volunteers).

As a science-fiction writer who’s taken Mars as my main topic, I’m struggling with the MarsOne concept, because I hate the idea of it. It’s not that I’m worried about contaminating the magnificent desolation of Mars (my storyline has settlers terraforming with impunity). Rather I’m afraid a team of four humans, given a life-sentence of co-confinement, will literally tear each other apart.

Experiments in extreme confinement haven’t always gone as planned: Biosphere 2 ended in interpersonal conflict, including clashes among the commercial management of the operation, which ended the experiment prematurely. During Mars 500, as covered recently by New Scientist, confinement contributed to psychological stresses that severely limited the productivity of certain participants. Admittedly, some good science was done, including the observation during Biosphere 2 that exposed concrete in a sealed biosphere is a very bad idea, as it depletes oxygen levels.

Thinking about this human element has led me to incorporate some isolation-related neuroses into the backstory of one my characters my SPACE KIDS book: an artist who’s developed a nomadic lifestyle, phobic about staying anywhere for too long.

Listening to Lansdorp, I was impressed with his obvious commitment to the project — his board plans to oversee the public’s selection (yes, X-Factor style) of the 200 groups of four who will be considered for the four-person mission crew in 2023.

Two-yearly missions to Mars will supplement the first four with additional crews. The first contractors (Paragon) and university partners (University of Twente) are already on board. Plans for radiation management (2 metres of soil over the Martian habitat should provide adequate protection) and diet (mostly vegetables, supplemented with insects) have been thought through.

But what on Earth will we make of the settlers — our ground-dwelling, bug-eating brothers and sister who we blasted off to a wildly inhospitable planet? They’ll be the best-known names in our history (“No one will remember who the Prime Minister was in a thousand years, but everyone will remember these people,” Lansdorp said in Edinburgh). But in time, how will the colonists as a whole be viewed?

I’ve been watching too much Battlestar Galactica

On Mars they will live in space suits permanently, never feeling wind on their faces, and physiological changes expected from the 40% gravity will probably make it impossible to survive a trip back to Earth. Have I just watched too much Battlestar Galactica, or does it seem possible that, with separation, this second human settlement will slowly change into a “them” (versus “us”), and eventually rouse that xenophobia that human society is known for? And that’s saying nothing of the physical hardships, and the thorny question of whether and how to have children in that environment.What kind of life will that be? Not life as I know it.

Then I started thinking: travelling to the new world in the belly of a rat-infested ship, nibbling hardtack probably wasn’t too attractive in the 1600s, but people did it. In fact that’s how and when my grandmother’s pilgrim ancestors came to live in America around 1740. Things in my book’s storyline — shiny space stations, smart robots, advanced propulsion and terraformed planets — don’t come first; pilgrims do.

What do you think of the MarsOne project and other planned missions to Mars? If you’re a sci-fi writer, have these real-world developments affected your stories?

Image: Mars Pathfinder images of Mars Twin Peaks, Dr. Timothy Parker, JPL, NASA

Psst, are you writing a children’s book? Meet SCBWI

SCBWI mass book launch 2012 with Lin Oliver photo by Candy Gourlay

Eight years ago, I wrote a children’s book, but I didn’t get my happy ending. I shopped it around to a few literary agents, had my confidence punctured by two rejections in quick succession, and put away my dreams (and the unfinished sequel) while I got on with family life.

Eight months ago, I jump-started those dreams again: what set me off on my journey was discovering a dusty copy of my novel in my mother’s attic. In the intervening years I’d given birth to my target market, and with a five-year-old and a seven-year-old at home, I had consumed enough modern children’s literature to know that the story I’d written wasn’t so bad — the story, mind you, not the book. I’m learning what a big gulf there is between a good story and a saleable book.

I’ll spare you the details of what else I’m learning, but in sum, it turns out that being a skilled journalist is a lot different from being a skilled fiction writer. And I have so much more to learn about pace, character and voice. But I was lucky enough (thanks to a pointer from artist and writer Debi Gliori) to discover early on the supportive community of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The organisation is one you must investigate if you’re working on a children’s book (and I’m finding that many people I know are closet novelists with a children’s book at some stage of development). SCBWI will help you: it is overflowing with successful, published professionals who help each other and newcomers navigate the unsettling terrain of a career in children’s books.

I had just one quibble upon joining SCBWI (and it wasn’t the acronymn, which features fewer vowels than most Bosnian villages and which, in the British Isles, is imaginatively pronounced “Scooby”). My complaint is that I didn’t understand how much SCBWI had to offer until I experienced its riches in person at the annual conference near London last autumn. The talent and generosity of both its new and established members, the calibre of teaching in its seminars, the horse’s-mouth insights from publishers and editors…I just didn’t get it until I’d seen it myself.

Words and Pictures shows you what it’s all about

That’s why I’m delighted that the exciting new blogzine for SCBWI British Isles, Words and Pictures, has just launched. You don’t have to be a member to read and enjoy the interviews, articles and video how-to’s (I’m contributing some instructional social media beginner videos, which they’ve let me call Sheila’s Videos). The blogzine’s openness is a super way for SCBWI to showcase what it offers members, and I hope it will encourage more members in the UK and other regions.

When joining, I was surprised to learn the Society is Los Angeles based, co-founded by Lin Oliver (thanks Candy Gourlay for this photo above of Lin and the others, taken at last year’s mass book launch), and there are SCBWI chapters worldwide. The heavy pack of member resources that ker-thumped through my mail slot after I joined, posted all the way from LA, was almost worth the membership fee all on its own.

Take another look at the picture of happy authors above, launching their hard-won books at the SCBWI British Isles annual conference 2012. This has been the best discovery of all for me: children’s book writers aren’t just names on a bookshelf, they’re living, breathing, typing, tea-drinking, cake-eating, dream-dreaming people like me, who want nothing more than to make books that take a kid up, up and away.

You’ll learn a little more about these wonderful folk at the new blogzine. Why are you reading this? Go read Words and Pictures!