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    Book review: “A City on Mars,” by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith

    A CITY ON MARS: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through?, by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith


    Face it, folks. Earth is finished. It’s overheated, overcrowded, overregulated. It’s the ultimate fixer-upper, a dump we inherited from our parents that we’d be cruel to pass on to our children. It’s time to pull up stakes. It’s time for Mars.

    Or maybe not.

    Lighting out for the solar system is an appealing fantasy, but “A City on Mars,” an exceptional new piece of popular science by the “Soonish” authors Kelly and Zach Weinersmith, suggests we shouldn’t be so quick to give up on Earth. Forceful, engaging and funny, it is an essential reality check for anyone who has ever looked for home in the night sky.

    “A City on Mars” groups the arguments in favor of immediate colonization into two categories. The first is the high-minded idea that mankind must spread to other planets “before civilization crumbles,” as Elon Musk told Walter Isaacson. The second is the “hot tub argument: Going to space is worth it because it’s cool.

    The authors dismantle the first theory with tact. Self-described “science geeks,” the Weinersmiths embarked on this book expecting to write “a sociological road map” to building off-world colonies in the near future. But as they dived into their research, they found that the loudest advocates for space settlement are so dazzled by the beauty of their rockets that they wave away “the stuff regular lives are made of,” like food and birth, democracy and law. The main problem, the Weinersmiths write, is that “Space is terrible. All of it. Terrible,” adding:

    The Moon isn’t just a sort of gray Sahara without air. Its surface is made of jagged, electrically charged microscopic glass and stone, which clings to pressure suits and landing vehicles. Nor is Mars just an off-world Death Valley — its soil is laden with toxic chemicals, and its thin carbonic atmosphere whips up worldwide dust storms that blot out the sun for weeks at a time. And those are the good places to land.

    The terribleness of space might be worth overlooking, they concede, if civilization really were about to crumble. But it isn’t. Life on Earth is hard. It always has been. But mankind has no problems that would be solved by relocating to a place without food, water or air. As the Weinersmiths write, “An Earth with climate change and nuclear war and, like, zombies and werewolves is still a way better place than Mars.”

    And what about the hot tub? The Weinersmiths argue that the current state of space law means an unregulated scramble for the vanishingly few resources of the moon and Mars would make war on Earth more likely. The greater our off-world presence, the easier it would be for a terrorist or disgruntled billionaire to hurl an asteroid at Earth and wipe out the species we are theoretically trying to save.

    “The more capacity we have to do things in space,” they write, “the more capacity we have for self-annihilation.”

    Such grim thoughts are tempered by levity: “A City on Mars” is hilarious. The breezy prose is studded with charming cartoons that illustrate everything from a two-person zero gravity sex suit to the baffling “urination device” NASA engineers designed for women astronauts, apparently without consulting any women. There are sections on “Getting Strange in the Lagrange, or, Can You Do It in Space?” and “How to Have Space Babies Without Marrying Your Space Cousin,” a chapter on funny astronaut names, and a whole paragraph about “lunarcrete” — a theoretical building material made by mixing Martian soil with human blood.

    But most of the book is devoted to fascinating, practical questions of colonization. There are histories of rocketry, of space law, of celestial advertising. We learn how to build an orbital colony, why barren lava tubes are the choicest Martian real estate, and that company towns are a bad idea when management controls its workforce’s food, water, light and air.

    Throughout, the Weinersmiths advocate for a colonization approach that they call “wait and go big.” Fund hundreds of biospherelike experiments on Earth to learn about human survival in a closed habitat. Do systematic studies of animal reproduction in orbit, so we can find out if it’s even safe for people to get pregnant away from Earth. Modernize space law and establish a regulatory agency to ensure that the cosmos is treasured like Antarctica, not savaged like the Amazon. Once the framework is in place, move hundreds of thousands of settlers all at once — enough to establish a real civilization. Enough to thrive.

    In the meantime, appreciate what we have. “Earth isn’t perfect,” the Weinersmiths write, “but as planets go it’s a pretty good one.” This book will make you happy to live on this planet — a good thing, because you’re not leaving anytime soon.

    A CITY ON MARS: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through? | Kelly and Zach Weinersmith | Penguin Press | 430 pp. | $32

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