Mars is the frontier of a daring future, the evolution of the space age, the realm of science fiction morphing into science.
SpaceX mogul Elon Musk is vying to put boot prints in its red dust sooner than anyone else. Scientists have been prototyping everything from compact habitats to food that can survive the harsh climate and an atmosphere that has all but vanished. NASA's Curiosity rover beams back panoramic images of its oddly dreamlike landscape that keep captivating Earthlings. The space agency, which has been getting more proposals for Martian spacecraft than ever, may even send insectile drones to hover over the surface of the Red Planet.
Fast-forward to an era when we're already there. Before Mars is award-winning Planetfall author Emma Newman's fictional journey to a Mars that has been colonized by a powerful corporation and controlled by the invisible hands of artificial intelligence. When geologist and artist Anna Kubrin lands on Mars as an employee of Gabor Corp hired to explore the regolith and create paintings of its alien horizons, she starts having flashbacks. Are they hallucinations? Glitches in the neural network? Something else?
In an exclusive interview with SYFY WIRE, Newman unearths the answers — but first, she had to research how the Mars Principia colony could even take off.
"I did a lot of research on Mars itself, on traveling to it, and on geology and the survival challenges posed by living on Mars," she said. "Of course, with this book being set about 80 years in the future, I had a little leeway in terms of the spacecraft technology."
Will humans be on Mars in 80 years? Possibly. That will require 3D printing technology that can insta-print habitats, food and other necessities, something Newman also researched along with some obscure facts about oil paints (Anna is required to use as many Martian materials as possible in her work) and alternate methods of manufacturing paper because there are no trees on a freezing planet almost 40 million miles from Earth.
In Newman's version of the future, society is in the clutches of gov-corps, which are mergers of corporations and government entities. The frightening aspect being that these gov-corps may not stay on the pages of sci-fi novels.
"This is the future I foresee if we continue as we are, with no change in political structures and no change in the ideologies of the most powerful political factions," she said.
Her grim outlook emerged from anxiety about what would happen if the TTIP trade agreement became law and cast shadows of a world where regulations would dissolve, allowing corporations like GaborCorp to be global overlords with greater power to sue governments. This has already been happening in countries whose valuable natural resources have too much sparkle for corporate entities that can easily overpower their vulnerable governing bodies.
"I time-traveled forward a few decades in my mind," she explained, "imagining hugely powerful corporations with fewer checks and balances set by government, able to sue governments into financial collapse, then sweeping in to offer all the services that governments should provide, but no longer on a non-profit basis."
As if that isn't terrifying enough, the gov-corp that looms over Before Mars implants a computer chip in everyone's brain that connects them to a neural network that exposes their innermost thoughts to ruthless CEOs. The debate on how ambitious is too ambitious for artificial intelligence is beyond controversial and all too real.
Musk's proposed Neuralink, which could be the answer for stroke victims needing artificial brain functions, may end up being a dangerous freefall into the inescapable bubble of constant surveillance and suspicion that Anna and her colleagues exist in — she is allowed to run some simulations and blocked from others; the settings on what is off-limits are always being changed by her superiors; memories can be broken into. Even a dream she falls into is invaded by Gabor Corp Co-CEO Travis Gabor one night.
"What concerns me far more than advancements in AI is the fact that we are already seeing machine intelligence and AI producing results that are horribly skewed due to the biases of the data put into them and the people creating them," Newman said.
The author is also skeptical about how much both government and society will actually consider the potentially disastrous impacts of neurotech ambitions such as Musk's Neuralink. She's also leery about the invasiveness of algorithms used in social media and online advertising. She echoes an episode of Black Mirror in which the worth of any one person was determined by a social media score that could plunge into the negative as fast as it could skyrocket. After reading Before Mars, Google's Alexa seems like an eerie predecessor to the voice-activated neural network whose tentacles have wormed their way into human brains everywhere on Earth and cannot be escaped on another planet.
"When I was a child, I was desperate to have a computer I could talk to, but now, in the age of Alexa, I will not have anything like that in my house," Newman confessed. "Having a device in my home that can always be listening, in such politically frightening times? Not for me!"
The thought of how societies and civilizations would evolve if they were isolated on another planet is a source of fascination for Newman. She feels that one of the greatest dangers lurking under the idealism of launching an off-Earth colony is the chance of duplicating all the political and societal errors on the home planet. Also unnerving is that the ethics and ideologies of that society will probably be a direct reflection of those who fund the undertaking. This is evident in Before Mars, where the extraterrestrial research base is more of a business venture than anything else, one more limb of a corporate leviathan operating under the guise of scientific research.
In spite of the uncertain and possibly dark future we could be rocketing towards, Newman thinks humanity can have a future on Mars if we tread cautiously.
"I believe the main obstacles to that future on Mars are political will and financial investment," she said. "Whether we will ever get to the point where those who have the power and the money to make it happen also have the will to do so is impossible to tell."
Before Mars has just landed in bookstores and online.