Inspired by Roland Barthes, Meghan O’Gieblyn’s monthly column Objects of Despair examines contemporary artifacts and the mythologies we have built around them.
Mars is an impossible planet: waterless, desolate, barren. Its atmosphere is drenched in UV radiation and contains only trace amounts of oxygen. Temperatures in the winter are comparable to Antarctica’s, and in the summer there are dust storms that stir up the toxic soil and blot out the sun for weeks at a time. Any reasonable person knows that humans will never consent to live there. This is why Mars is the ultimate utopia: a planet where no real future is imaginable is a planet where any future is imaginable. The writer Wladislaw Lach-Szyrma, who coined the noun Martian, wrote his utopian novel Aleriel (1883) to remind readers here on earth that “there may be brighter worlds than this, and a happier existence than we can have here.” Mars is red, the color of roses and revolution. The Bolsheviks imagined socialist uprisings succeeding there even as their own were being repressed. (The “red star” of communist iconography was inspired by a 1907 Russian science fiction novel of that title, set on Mars.) On earth, movements fail, rights are revoked and denied, injustices of all kinds prevail. But on Mars, it’s possible to envision—as two nineteenth-century Iowan feminists did—a world in which gender roles are reversed. In Unveiling a Parallel (1893), by Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant, female Martians vote, control the levers of power, and unabashedly solicit the company of male prostitutes, while males are relegated to the errands of the domestic sphere. In a world with forty percent gravity, a planet unburdened by the weight of history, such things can happen.
Dated as these visions may seem, they are positively thrilling compared with our current dialogue about Mars. Elon Musk claims that reaching the planet will make the future “vastly more exciting and interesting.” But it is hard to feel excited—to feel anything at all, really—when listening to a relatively uncharismatic middle-aged man explain how to construct propellant-production plants, or how solar-powered hydroponics can provide food. Musk, Bezos, and the other billionaires who have taken it upon themselves to privatize space—men who call themselves the Orphans of Apollo, an epithet that is meant to convey their disappointment after the failed promise of the moon landing but makes them sound, in effect, like the sons of gods—have very little to say about the questions that have inspired science fiction writers: How will labor be divided on Mars? Who will be in charge? What kind of legal code will be implemented? Will heath care be free? Ask them, on the other hand, about reusable heat shields, interplanetary entry velocities, or the virtues of stainless steel rockets over carbon composite, and you will find yourself at the mercy of their endless expertise.
One might be tempted to take this fixation on technicalities as a sign that the voyage is finally nigh. This is absurd, obviously. We are no closer to starting a civilization on Mars than the Soviets were in the thirties, though they, too, spoke of it as imminent. Conversations about Mars are always a proxy for our ideas about earthly civilization. In our case, the conversations now appear contrived to reiterate the notion that the major challenges of our time are not moral, ethical, or political as much as they are technical—and that the technicalities are too complex for most people to understand. The SpaceX press conferences and TED talks, while ostensibly designed to inspire enthusiasm and public dialogue about the settlement of Mars, instead make the case, through their battery of logistics and abstruse details, that such tasks (much like climate change, or regulating the economy) must be yielded to technocratic innovators who have the specialized knowledge and managerial acumen to facilitate objective solutions.
We do know that Mars will be a democracy—preferably a direct democracy, according to Musk, rather than a representative one. This is as far as martian political thought has progressed, though in truth, it’s not difficult to fill in the rest of the details. Mars will likely be ruled by a coalition of superrich investors, terrestrial governments, and multinational (multiplanetary?) corporations. It will be an information economy fueled by STEM research and populated by an elite caste of scientists and entrepreneurs given free rein in the name of innovation. The main export from Mars, it’s often said, will be patents. (Anything else would be too costly to transport.) There has also been talk of a reality TV show. Mars’s structures, in other words, will be more or less identical to those that already prevail in our world. The billionaires are not becoming multiplanetary to experiment with different political and economic philosophies but rather to clone the one that dominates Earth—i.e., the one that put them in charge in the first place. Terraforming—the process of reproducing the ecological conditions of Earth on other planets—is simply a metaphor for the desire to extend global neoliberalism into space.
For the early pioneers, a ticket to Mars will cost roughly $10 billion. The space entrepreneurs claim that over time—depending on volume—moving to Mars could cost less than $500,000, or perhaps even as little as $100,000, meaning it would be feasible for middle-class Americans who are willing to sell their house to pay for the trip. This criterion is loosely based on a plan proposed by Robert Zubrin in his 1996 book The Case for Mars, which was itself inspired by what it cost a British family to emigrate to colonial America: the liquidation of a middle-class household or seven years’ salary for a working man. Neither Zubrin nor the space entrepreneurs offer advice about what to do if you are not a homeowner. Nor is there any indication of how a person can save these sums in seven years, particularly if she happens to be drowning in student loan debt, draining savings to cover basic health care costs, and being slowly priced out of her city by tech workers. One is tempted to reverse the analogy: obtaining the trappings of a middle-class life in America has become, quite literally, as realistic as moving to Mars.
It’s been suggested that Mars is the ideal version of the American frontier, one in which the imperatives of manifest destiny can chug along without the bloody reformative work of imperial oppression. Some have even insisted that there can be no Mars “colony” because there is no life there to colonize; they prefer the term settlement. But what’s being colonized is the collective imagination, the ability to envision political alternatives. The billionaire space race is part of a larger war on symbolic spaces, one in which every utopia is literalized, its iconography appropriated and affixed a price tag. (SpaceX sells OCCUPY MARS T-shirts for $22.)
Everyone knows that few, if any, earthlings alive today will see the martian New Jerusalem. Musk has acknowledged as much, and when the populist rhetoric about affordability fails, he is not above deferring, himself, to the power of the symbolic. The point of Mars, he insisted in one interview, is to inspire and unite a generation, just as the moon landing did. “Apollo was incredibly inspiring to everyone around the world, even though only a very tiny number of people went there,” he said. “But, I mean, vicariously, we all went there.”
Vicarious, of course, is a word with multiple connotations, some of them more salient than others. It can denote “acting on another’s behalf,” a meaning that is crucial to representative democracy and might be plausibly extended to the Apollo astronauts, public servants who functioned as symbols of the nation as a whole. The vicarious is also, necessarily, an imaginative experience, one that implies a level of remove from reality. Such experiences can be transcendent, as when people unite on the basis of an idea, or when a writer transports you to another planet on the power of language alone. But the vicarious can also describe a feeling of alienation, one in which the symbols of national dramas begin to seem hallucinatory, empty signifiers radically disconnected from the reality of your life. One thinks of the Gil Scott-Heron lines about the Apollo landing (“I can’t pay no doctor bill, but Whitey’s on the moon”) or the not insignificant number of Americans who found the spectacle remote enough from their lived experience to conclude that it was a hoax. It is this darker sense of the vicarious that pervades conversations about Mars, and contemporary life in general. It is the sense that the social imaginary is forever at odds with a social imagination, that ideas will inevitably be steamrolled by logistics, and that the prospect of a better world keeps receding to ever more distant planets.
Meghan O’Gieblyn is the author of the essay collection Interior States. Her work has appeared, most recently, in Harper’s Magazine, n+1, Tin House, and The Best American Essays 2017.