Originally published at: https://pluralistic.net/2024/01/09/astrobezzle/
- Kelly and Zach Weinersmith's "A City On Mars": Life in space sucks, is grotesquely expensive, and produces little useful science.
- Hey look at this: Delights to delectate.
- This day in history: 2004, 2009, 2014, 2019
- Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming/recent appearances, current writing projects, current reading
Kelly and Zach Weinersmith's "A City On Mars" (permalink)
In A City On Mars, biologist Kelly Weinersmith and cartoonist Zach Weinersmith set out to investigate the governance challenges of the impending space settlements they were told were just over the horizon. Instead, they discovered that humans aren't going to be settling space for a very long time, and so they wrote a book about that instead:
The Weinersmiths make the (convincing) case that ever aspect of space settlement is vastly beyond our current or reasonably foreseeable technical capability. What's more, every argument in favor of pursuing space settlement is errant nonsense. And finally: all the energy we are putting into space settlement actually holds back real space science, which offers numerous benefits to our species and planet (and is just darned cool).
Every place we might settle in space – giant rotating rings, the Moon, Mars – is vastly more hostile than Earth. Not just more hostile than Earth as it stands today – the most degraded, climate-wracked, nuke-blasted Earth you can imagine is a paradise of habitability compared to anything else. Mars is covered in poison and the sky disappears under planet-sized storms that go on and on. The Moon is covered in black-lung-causing, razor-sharp, electrostatically charged dust. Everything is radioactive. There's virtually no water. There are temperature swings of hundreds of degrees every couple of hours or weeks. You're completely out of range of resupply, emergency help, or, you know, air.
There's Helium 3 on the Moon, but not much of it, and there is no universe in which is it cheaper to mine for Helium 3 on the Moon than it is to mine for it on Earth. That's generally true of anything we might bring back from space, up to and including continent-sized chunks of asteroid platinum.
Going to space doesn't end war. The countries that have gone to space are among the most militarily belligerent in human history. The people who've been to space have come back perfectly prepared to wage war.
Going to space won't save us from the climate emergency. The unimaginably vast trove of material and the energy and advanced technology needed to lift it off Earth and get it to Mars is orders of magnitude more material and energy than we would need to resolve the actual climate emergency here.
We aren't anywhere near being a "multiplanetary species." The number of humans you need in a colony to establish a new population is hard to estimate, but it's very large. Larger than we can foreseeably establish on the Moon, on Mars, or on a space-station. But even if we could establish such a colony, there's little evidence that it could sustain itself – not only are we a very, very long way off from such a population being able to satisfy its material needs off-planet, but we have little reason to believe that children could gestate, be born, and grow to adulthood off-planet.
To top it all off, there's space law – the inciting subject matter for this excellent book. There's a lot of space law, and while there are some areas of ambiguity, the claims of would-be space entrepreneurs about how their plans are permissible under the settled parts of space law don't hold up. But those claims are robust compared to claims that space law will simply sublimate into its constituent molecules when exposed to the reality of space travel, space settlement, and (most importantly) space extraction.
Space law doesn't exist in a vacuum (rimshot). It is parallel to – and shares history with – laws regarding Antarctica, the ocean's surface, and the ocean's floor. These laws relate to territories that are both vastly easier to access and far more densely populated by valuable natural resources. The fact that they remain operative in the face of economic imperatives demands that space settlement advocates offer a more convincing account than "money talks, bullshit walks, space law is toast the minute we land on a $14 quadrillion platinum asteroid."
The Weinersmiths have such an account in defense of space law: namely, that space law, and its terrestrial analogs, constitute a durable means of resolving conflicts that would otherwise give to outcomes that are far worse for science, entrepreneurship, human thriving or nation-building than the impediments these laws represent.
What's more, space law is enforceable. Not only would any space settlement be terribly, urgently dependent on support from Earth for the long-foreseeable future, but every asteroid miner, Lunar He3 exporter and Martian potato-farmer hoping to monetize their products would have an enforcement nexus with a terrestrial nation and thus the courts of that nation.
But the Weinersmiths aren't anti-space. They aren't even anti-space-settlement. Rather, they argue that the path to space-based scientific breakthroughs, exploration of our solar system, and a deeper understanding of our moral standing in a vast universe cannot start with space settlements.
Landing people on the Moon or Mars any time soon is a stunt – a very, very expensive stunt. These boondoggles aren't just terribly risky (though they are – people who attempt space settlement are very likely to die horribly and after not very long), they come with price-tags that would pay for meaningful space science. For the price of a crewed return trip to Mars, you could put multiple robots onto every significant object in our solar system, and pilot an appreciable fleet of these robot explorers back to Earth with samples.
For the cost of a tiny, fraught, lethal Moon-base, we could create hundreds of experiments in creating efficient, long-term, closed biospheres for human life.
That's the crux of the Weinersmiths' argument: if you want to establish space settlements, you need to do a bunch of other stuff first, like figure out life-support, learn more about our celestial neighbors, and vastly improve our robotics. If you want to create stable space-settlements, you'll need to create robust governance systems – space law that you can count on, rather than space law that you plan on shoving out the airlock. If you want humans to reproduce in space – a necessary precondition for a space settlement that lasts more than a single human lifespan – then we need to do things like breed multiple generations of rodents and other animals, on space stations.
Space is amazing. Space science is amazing. Crewed scientific space missions are amazing. But space isn't amazing because it offers a "Plan B" for an Earth that is imperiled by humanity's recklessness. Space isn't amazing because it offers unparalleled material wealth, or unlimited energy, or a chance to live without laws or governance. It's not amazing because it will end war by mixing the sensawunda of the "Pale Blue Dot" with the lebensraum of an infinite universe.
A science-driven approach to space offers many dividends for our species and planet. If we can figure out how to extract resources as dispersed as Lunar He3 or asteroid ice, we'll have solved problems like extracting tons of gold from the ocean or conflict minerals from landfill sites, these being several orders of magnitude more resource-dense than space. If we can figure out how to create self-sustaining terraria for large human populations in the radiation-, heat- and cold-blasted environs of space, we will have learned vital things about our own planet's ecosystems. If we can build the robots that are necessary for supporting a space society, we will have learned how to build robots that take up the most dangerous and unpleasant tasks that human workers perform on Earth today.
In other words, it's not just that we should solve Earth's problems before attempting space settlement – it's that we can't settle space until we figure out the solutions to Earth's problems. Earth's problems are far simpler than the problems of space settlement.
As I read the Weinersmiths' critique of space settlement, I kept thinking of the pointless AI debates I keep getting dragged into. Arguments for space settlement that turn on existential risks (like humanity being wiped out by comets, sunspots, nuclear armageddon or climate collapse) sound an awful lot like the arguments about "AI safety" – the "risk" that the plausible sentence generator is on the verge of becoming conscious and turning us all into paperclips.
Both arguments are part of a sales-pitch for investment in commercial ventures that have no plausible commercial case, but whose backers are hoping to get rich anyway, and are (often) sincerely besotted with their own fantasies:
Both AI and space settlement pass over the real risks, such as the climate consequences of their deployment, or the labor conditions associated with their production. After all, when you're heading off existential risk, you don't stop to worry about some carbon emissions or wage theft.
And critically, both ignore the useful (but resolutely noncommercial) ways that AI or space science can benefit our species. AI radiology analysis might be useful as an adjunct to human radiological analysis, but that is more expensive, not less. Space science might help us learn to use our materials more efficiently on Earth, and that will come long before anyone makes rendezvous with a $14 quadrillion platinum asteroid.
There are beneficial uses for LLMs. When the Human Rights Data Analysis Group uses an LLM to help the Innocence Project New Orleans extract and categorize officer information from wrongful conviction records, they are doing something valuable and important:
It's socially important work, a form of automation that is an unalloyed good, but you won't hear about it from LLM advocates. No one is gonna get rich on improving the efficiency of overturning wrongful convictions with natural language processing. You can't inflate a stock bubble with the Innocence Project.
By the same token, learning about improving gestational health by breeding multigenerational mouse families in geosynchronous orbit is no way to get a billionaire tech baron to commit $250 billion to space science. But that's not an argument against emphasizing real science that really benefits our whole species. It's an argument for taking away capital allocation authority from tech billionaires.
I'm a science fiction writer. I love stories about space. But I can distinguish fantasy from reality and thought experiments from suggestions. Kim Stanley Robinson's 2015 novel Aurora – about failed space settlement – is every bit as fascinating and inspirational as "golden age" sf:
But still, it inspired howls of outrage from would-be space colonists. So much so that Stan wrote a brilliant essay explaining what we were all missing about space settlement, which I published:
With City on Mars, the Weinersmiths aren't making the case for giving up on space, nor are they trying to strip space of its romance and excitement. They're trying to get us to focus on the beneficial, exciting, serious space science we can do right now, not just because it's attainable and useful – but because it is a necessary precondition for any actual space settlement in the distant future.
Hey look at this (permalink)
- Polish Hackers Say Manufacturer's Repair DRM Killed Train's Power, Broke Compressor https://www.404media.co/polish-hackers-explain-exactly-how-they-fixed-trains-that-the-manufacturer-bricked/
The Great Interoperability Convergence: 2023 Year in Review https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2023/12/great-interoperability-convergence-2023-year-review
The Internet Is About to Get Weird Again https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-commentary/internet-future-about-to-get-weird-1234938403/
This day in history (permalink)
#20yrsago TiVo’s new PC-viewing deliberately broken https://memex.craphound.com/2004/01/09/tivos-new-pc-viewing-deliberately-broken/
#20yrsago Doc Brite’s “fans” lock him out of fan-board for his own fiction https://docbrite.livejournal.com/2004/01/02/
#20yrsago Why can’t Homeland Security tell the difference between Al Quaeda and small children? https://www.salon.com/2008/08/11/security/
#15yrsago China’s astroturf army http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/7783640.stm
#15yrsago Abandoned Prime Minister’s mansion in Beirut — infiltration photos https://www.flickr.com/photos/poisonbabyfood/sets/72157612306706777/
#15yrsago Mandelbrot the fractal teddy-bear https://web.archive.org/web/20090118205736/https://buttonsformouse.blogspot.com/2008/12/mandelbrot-fractal-bear.html
#10yrsago Google Glass is a borg mullet https://web.archive.org/web/20140208050826/https://medium.com/the-nib/4ac09b78f0bb
#10yrsago Insane Clown Posse and ACLU sue FBI over calling juggalos a gang https://www.techdirt.com/2014/01/08/insane-clown-posse-sues-fbi-calling-juggalos-gang/
#10yrsago When the FBI asks you to weaken your security so it can spy on your users https://www.pcmag.com/news/what-its-like-when-the-fbi-asks-you-to-backdoor-your-software
#10yrsago Great Firewall of Cameron: the worst of all worlds for British parents https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jan/08/david-cameron-great-firewall
#10yrsago Brilliant NSA scandal illustrations https://www.wired.com/2014/01/how-the-us-almost-killed-the-internet/
#10yrsago More experts pull out of RSA conference https://jeffreycarr.blogspot.com/2014/01/nsas-10m-rsa-contract-origins.html
#10yrsago Sardine in Outer Space: anarchic kids’ science fiction comic https://memex.craphound.com/2014/01/09/sardine-in-outer-space-anarchic-kids-science-fiction-comic/
#10yrsago EU invites Snowden testimony https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-25669448
#5yrsago Bell Canada asks Canadians for permission to harvest and sell their browsing, location, viewing and other data https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/bell-customer-data-1.4969066
#5yrsago Medieval book opens six ways, revealing six different texts https://erikkwakkel.tumblr.com/post/74300240443/six-books-one-binding-heres-something-special
#5yrsago Cambridge Analytica pleads guilty, faces the first in a probable series of criminal convictions https://www.thedailybeast.com/cambridge-analytica-pleads-guilty-in-uk-data-trial
#5yrsago Samsung phone owners are upset because they can’t delete the Facebook app https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-08/samsung-phone-users-get-a-shock-they-can-t-delete-facebook
#5yrsago Someone’s finally going to jail over the Panama Papers: a Turkish journalist who reported true facts from them https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/jan/09/journalist-pelin-unker-sentenced-to-jail-in-turkey-over-paradise-papers-investigation
#5yrsago A history of the sprawling personality clashes over RSS https://www.vice.com/en/article/a3mm4z/the-rise-and-demise-of-rss
#5yrsago American towns survive by fining poor people, and use debtors’ prisons to make them pay https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/08/magazine/cities-fine-poor-jail.html
#5yrsago LA school district prepares for teachers' strike with army of expensive scabs https://www.latimes.com/local/education/la-me-edu-teachers-strike-staffing-20190107-story.html,/a>
#5yrsago Serbia erupts in nationwide protests after assassination attempts prompt fears of fascist resurgence https://globalvoices.org/2019/01/09/belgrade-protests-against-serbian-president-aleksandar-vucic-escalate-to-nationwide-demos/
#5yrsago Saudi law now requires sending a text to women after their husbands secretly divorce them https://www.loweringthebar.net/2019/01/saudi-women-text-message-divorce.html
Today's top sources:
- A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING
Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025
The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS FEB 2024
Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM
Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM
Latest podcast: The Internet’s Original Sin https://craphound.com/news/2023/12/17/the-internets-original-sin/)
- Speculating Our AI Future with Cory Doctorow, Ken Liu, and Martha Wells
Internet Con (Peculiar Book Club), Jan 11
Books & Books (Coral Gables, Florida), Jan 22
The Lost Cause at Otherland (Berlin), Jan 30
- What the Future will Bring (Homeless Romantic)
Talking "The Lost Cause" with Warren Mosler (MMT Podcast)
Words of the Week
- "The Lost Cause:" a solarpunk novel of hope in the climate emergency, Tor Books (US), Head of Zeus (UK), November 2023 (http://lost-cause.org). Signed, personalized copies at Dark Delicacies (https://www.darkdel.com/store/p3007/Pre-Order_Signed_Copies%3A_The_Lost_Cause_HB.html#/)
"The Internet Con": A nonfiction book about interoperability and Big Tech (Verso) September 2023 (http://seizethemeansofcomputation.org). Signed copies at Book Soup (https://www.booksoup.com/book/9781804291245).
"Red Team Blues": "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books http://redteamblues.com. Signed copies at Dark Delicacies (US): and Forbidden Planet (UK): https://forbiddenplanet.com/385004-red-team-blues-signed-edition-hardcover/.
"Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin", on how to unrig the markets for creative labor, Beacon Press/Scribe 2022 https://chokepointcapitalism.com
"Attack Surface": The third Little Brother novel, a standalone technothriller for adults. The Washington Post called it "a political cyberthriller, vigorous, bold and savvy about the limits of revolution and resistance." Order signed, personalized copies from Dark Delicacies https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1840/Available_Now%3A_Attack_Surface.html
"How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism": an anti-monopoly pamphlet analyzing the true harms of surveillance capitalism and proposing a solution. https://onezero.medium.com/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism-8135e6744d59?sk=f6cd10e54e20a07d4c6d0f3ac011af6b) (signed copies: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p2024/Available_Now%3A__How_to_Destroy_Surveillance_Capitalism.html)
"Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new introduction by Edward Snowden: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p1750/July%3A__Little_Brother_%26_Homeland.html
"Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Order here: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed copy here: https://www.darkdel.com/store/p2682/Corey_Doctorow%3A_Poesy_the_Monster_Slayer_HB.html#/.
- The Bezzle: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about prison-tech and other grifts, Tor Books, February 2024
Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025
Unauthorized Bread: a graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025
This work – excluding any serialized fiction – is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to pluralistic.net.
Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.
How to get Pluralistic:
Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):
Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):
Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):
Medium (no ads, paywalled):
Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):
Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):
"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla