Let me start with those TLDR for A city on Mars. It’s, essentially, 400 pages of “well, actually…,” but with no spoilers, lots of humor, and lots, oh lots, of details. Kelly and Zach Weinersmith started from a position of being space sharing enthusiasts. They thought they were going to write a lighthearted book about how awesome everything would be on Mars or the Moon or on a space station. Unfortunately for the Weinersmiths, they actually ask questions like “how is that going to work, exactly?” Apart from rocketry (for example, getting into space), the answers are mostly manipulative combined with the kind of new destiny theory that might have given Andrew Jackson pause.
The Weinersmiths begin with human biology and psychology, pass through technology, law, and population viability and end with a similar call to action. Under each of these sections, the Weinersmiths raise questions such as: Can we thrive in space? fix in place? Create a habitat in the field? The journey through all the unknowns is actually amazing. No one is conceived in low gravity, no embryos develop in low gravity, so we simply don’t know if there is a problem. Astronauts experience bone and muscle loss and no one knows how that works for a long time. More importantly, do we really want to find this out by sending a few thousand people to Mars and hoping it all works out?
Then there are the problems of building a shelter and doing all the recycling. I was surprised to learn that no one really knows how to build a long-term habitation for either the Moon or Mars. Yes, lots of hand wavy ideas about lava tubes and regolith insulation. But the details are just… not there. It reminds me of the dark days of Europe saving colonies on other people’s land. The stories of unprepared settlers are sad, funny, and repetition. And, now we learn that at least one more sequel is planned.
Even the law of space is under Weinersmiths microscope. Of course I don’t know the extent of the law about space. But he’s there and he has a lot to say about what he can and can’t do in space. The Weinersmiths discovered that many space-sharing enthusiasts seem to think that, somehow, these rules won’t apply to them, or that there are loopholes they can exploit. The worst thing is that it seems that they think that such a delay will have no consequences. Apparently, countries with nuclear weapons will not respond negatively to private citizens demanding large areas.
The Weinersmiths treat all their experts rather kindly. But, in fact, reading between the lines, a thick stream of freedom runs through the space sharing area. From the position of these experts, they need a really big telescope to see the truth. For example, space is supposed to end scarcity… and yet, any habitat in space will naturally have a source of food, water, and, even more quickly, oxygen, creating (probably artificial) scarcity. The idea seems to be that everyone will go to the place for profit, except for the necessities of life, where we will all care and share. The magical thinking is more clear when you know that it is believed that encountering the vastness of space will make humanity ultra-altruistic, while it is also a good capitalist. I have my doubts that this philosophy will work well for anyone involved.
In a more realistic view of how societies function when there is only one source for the necessities of life, the Weinersmiths draw on the experiences (positive and negative) of industrial cities. It’s not all bad: Some industrial cities are well-run and fair, while others might have been dedicated as gods to tin-republics. There’s no reason, the Weinersmiths argue, to think we won’t see the same in space, with the added benefit of not being able to escape industrial cities.
Even the idea that other resources, such as metals, will be scarce is overly optimistic. No one knows if you can turn a game mining asteroids. The moon has nothing of value. And do you really want to create a group of hungry, angry miners who can still sell the biggest rocks on Earth?
A city on Mars end with such a call to action. The point is that we have a small space, and we have the ability to build many test facilities on Earth where we can investigate some practical problems. Let’s get biology and technology right before we send humans to Mars. While the technology is working out, explain the rule that if (or when) we settle elsewhere, we do so in a way that does not involve war between angry, hostile nations. use nuclear weapons.
I think the point A city on Mars is doing is that the only clear evidence for how space affects people is very heavy against uses That balance can be changed by doing work to discover the answers to some of the questions in the book. However, it seems morally unethical to gather a bunch of people off the proverbial weekend to get those answers. So, maybe do the work already?