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Leaping Through The Sky

A City on Mars

By Kelly Weinersmith & Zach Weinersmith 

18 Jan, 2024

Miscellaneous Reviews


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Dr. Kelly Weinersmith1 and Zach Weinersmith’s 2023 A City on Mars is a non-fiction text. City asks three questions:

Can we settle space, should we settle space, and have we really thought this through?

The answers will astound space settlement fans!

Astound in the sense that the answers will annoy and frustrate space settlement fans by asserting that the answers to all three questions are no: we lack the technical ability; space settlements at this time are a bad idea; and no, space fans have not thought this through. Very disappointing. On the plus side, it will give Hop David someone else to despise.

The Weinersmiths tackle their questions in jocular manner, illuminating various points with Zach Weinersmith’s illustrations. His style will be familiar to anyone who follows Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. On one hand, framing the text as humor may help soften the blow of learning that we’re not going to have lunar penal colonies mining helium 3 any time soon. On the other hand, I sometimes found the attempts at humor to be a distraction from the arguments.

More on the art: the text by itself would probably be less than a megabyte. The illustrations add another 60 or so MB. Choose your formats according: if your chosen ereader doesn’t have that much memory, you will want to seek out a dead tree edition.

For the most part, the couple’s points are convincing or, if not entirely convincing, at least reasonable. There seems to be an inverse relationship between a) relevant fields like closed cycle life support requiring active funding if they are to yield usable results and b) relevant fields like closed cycle life support actually getting funding. My main objection to their argument here involves the danger of asteroid impacts used as WMDs, which I believe they overstate2.

Long-time readers may notice that some points raised by the Weinersmiths, particularly those pertaining to biology, are ones that have been steadfastly ignored by space colony fans since at least the 1970s. Others, like the sheer pointlessness of lunar H3, are of more recent vintage. We may therefore conclude with reasonable confidence that this text, while entertaining and informative, will have absolutely no effect on space settlement advocacy. Nevertheless, I recommend the text to all who are not already lost causes.

A City on Mars is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books)

here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo).

The abbreviated and edited3 table of contents is as follows:

Introduction: A Homesteader’s Guide to the Red Planet?

A concise discussion of where we are and where we are likely to be in the near future (with respect to space settlements).

A Preamble on Space Myths

The Weinersmiths present various justifications for near-future space settlements, none of which appear to hold water.

Curse you, renewables, for becoming cheaper so quickly.

Part I • Caring for The Spacefaring

Keeping humans alive in space is challenging. We currently have no meaningful data on whether it is possible to have babies in space, or how children born in free fall or on lower gravity worlds would prosper. Gaining data by experimenting on children has ethical implications4.

Of course, as discussed in the text, there are some space fans, no doubt a minority, who conclude if ethics are an unsurmountable obstacle, ethics will have to be cast aside in the name of MAN’s GLORIOUS DESTINY.

Part II: Spome, Spome on the Range: Where Will Humans Live Off-World

The Solar System has a wealth of marvelous worlds, all of which are much more inhospitable than Earth and all of which would kill a human deader than Dillinger in very short order. Space habitats could be the answer… if only we knew how to build them, which we do not (see also Part I).

Part III: Pocket Edens: How to Create a Human Terrarium That Isn’t All That Terrible

Creating closed-loop (or at least loss-minimized loop) life support systems is both a) necessary for long term survival in space without on-going support from Earth, and b) something we do not know how to do.

This has been a known pressing issue since at least the 1970s. Space Colonies (A CoEvolution Quarterly Book) is an example both of biologists pointing out that the issue is not a solved one and space fans handwaving it away. Can handwaving sustain a functioning closed-loop ecosystem? Probably not but we may find out.

Part IV: Space Law for Space Settlements: Weird, Vague, and Hard to Change

Contrary to many space fans’ belief, there is an existing legal framework for space activities. It was not designed to facilitate space settlements, it cannot be easily changed, and the consequences of changing it are not clear.

Part V: The Paths Forward: Bound for Moonsylvania?

More discussion of the inherent legal issues involved in space settlements. Fans of independent space settlements will find the section on nation creation interesting.

Part VI: To Plan B or Not to Plan B: Space Society, Expansion, and Existential Risk

One proposed purpose for space settlement is to ensure the human future. Might space settlements instead endanger our future by exacerbating existing international tensions?

This is a point on which I hold what may be a minority belief: if war tech continually improves, and there is a point at which using it would result in human extinction, surely it is better to have the war early, when it will only reduce us to the Stone Age, rather than later, when there will be no survivors. But the authors appear to disagree for some reason.

1: To anyone reading this in Trump’s second term: in 2023, it was still legal for women to be scientists. Dr. Weinersmith is a biologist, with a co-credit for discovering Euderus set AKA crypt-keeper wasp. That link is filled with regrettable knowledge.

2: The Weinermiths (and others) point out that the same technology that would allow one to harvest asteroid wealth for the Terran market and to divert potential impacters away from Earth would also allow one to bombard Earth. The reason I do not think this is a serious issue is that asteroids are slow weapons that Earth would see coming. In the time it took the rock to arrive, the target nation could retaliate with all the weapons they possess. Also, big rocks don’t do anything that nuclear weapons don’t do better.

3: The actual TOC (table of contents) caused formatting issues I don’t feel like tackling.

4: My apologies to readers in Trump’s second term, who will of course be unfamiliar with the term ethics.” Ethics are what you’re probably wishing the engineers who built and designed the ovens towards which you are being marched had had.