Science in Fiction: Kim Stanley Robinson and Living on Other Planets


You’ll notice I didn’t say “terraforming,” even though that’s what we usually think of in connection with human colonies beyond Earth. Really, there’s a whole range of possibilities for how we might survive on other worlds, and only some of them involve remaking a whole planet.

Usually I focus on one book, but this time I’ll recommend a few books by Robinson that showcase a variety of human colonization efforts. He does solid hard science fiction, and he’s very concerned with the real challenges of adapting to life on a different planet. As a result, his solutions are interesting to read about and, because they’re so believable, really give the reader a sense of how similar yet alien it might feel to live on Mars or Mercury.

Let’s start with one of Robinson’s best known works, the Mars trilogy. In Red Mars, he introduces us to some of the oddities of life in the first Martian settlement, including the settlers’ adaptation to the slightly longer day. Rather than reprogramming all their electronics to a 24:39:40 cycle instead of 24 hours, the colonists decide to simply stop the clocks every night at midnight, allowing almost 40 minutes of undocumented time before everything restarts at 00:00.

This is called the timeslip and it sounds hilariously impractical in terms of timekeeping. On the other hand, it’s very practical in terms of the effort it would take to reprogram the clocks, and sometimes keeping civilization together is all about quick fixes. Additionally, it seems to give some psychological benefit to pioneering scientists on a relentless schedule, as people feel a sort of relaxation at the thought of this time that doesn’t exist and belongs to nobody.

Another novel, 2312 (guess when it takes place), spends a lot of time on Mercury, which hasn’t actually been terraformed. Instead, it’s still a mostly uninhabited wasteland with a city, Terminator, that has a unique method of surviving the blazing temperatures of Mercury’s day. It stays on the dark side of the terminator, the line between day and night, by constantly moving on a railway that circles the planet. The rails expand and contract with temperature changes, forcing the city to move ahead of the expansion and stay away from the deadly blaze of the Sun.

Terminator City.png

Visit Almost-Sunny Terminator City! Motto: “Come with Us if You Want to Live.”

This is such a cool idea! (So cool, in fact, that Robinson mentioned it in several other works, though it gets the most attention here.) It’s so elegant to use the driving element of the Sun’s heat to keep the city safe from it, and of course it makes for some potential excitement if anything were to ever interfere with the rail system. That would never happen, of course.

My last recommendation is Aurora, which follows a generation ship on a mission to colonize an extrasolar planet. I won’t talk about the process of adapting to this new world—there’s much more to spoil here than with Mars or Mercury, where you can already imagine some of the dangers and challenges. I will say that Aurora is equally or maybe more concerned about the long-term effects of shipboard living, and it deals with a lot more besides.

Of course, I don’t write about science fiction just because it’s cool, though it is. As usual, the science has to contribute something fundamental to the story, something that could only be done with that particular setting. In Robinson’s case, the unique angle comes from his consideration of not just the technical aspects of his extraterrestrial colonies, but also the physical and mental consequences for their people.

So far, only a few people in human history have experienced life in space, which is hostile in a way that’s unimaginable unless you’ve been there or lived on a submarine. I don’t know about you, but I have no trouble believing that there’d be deep psychological effects from living your whole life with only sheets of metal between you and instant death.

Some of Robinson’s characters have to deal with this when they come to Earth—being outdoors isn’t just a huger space than they’ve ever seen, it’s a fundamentally different kind of experience. Unless we can perfectly terraform one of the other planets, without any need for even a shell to keep the atmosphere in place, there’ll always be only one place in the solar system with no artificial barriers between humans and nature.

Robinson also explores how living away from Earth might shape our view of life in general, not just our ancestral planet. Would odd, free-spirit types seek out far-flung colonies because they fit their style, or would people growing up in strange environments become strange themselves? Come to think of it, why not both?

There’s no shortage of well-researched weirdness in Kim Stanley Robinson’s work. I’ve only mentioned a few of the fascinating ideas he lays out in his novels, because I didn’t want to tell you too much. You should go read Red Mars, or 2312, or Aurora instead! Also, check out this fun 2312 promo that takes you through the process of making your own asteroid habitat.


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