A year or two ago, I started working on a sci-fi novel about Mars (as one does). It’s still very much a work in progress, by which I mean, I have written only a little bit more than nothing (this is one of the reasons I generally don’t call myself a writer anymore; I think my glacial pace disqualifies me). But when I first had the idea, despite it being set entirely on our planetary neighbor, my main focus wasn’t space (for once). It was the ocean. Why would I want to set a story in space but focus on something we have right here on Earth?
For as long as I’ve been alive, finding water on Mars has been a pretty big deal in science. We’ve spent a hell of a lot of time looking for it, wondering if it’s possible, or thinking about ways to put some there. Besides just the obvious scientific reasons, I think there’s a lot of potential for metaphor there, especially when you consider the role that bodies of water play here on Earth. I want to focus on oceans specifically, because well… they interest me the most. I’ve always adored the ocean, despite not living very close to it. My feelings towards beaches are mixed at best (sunburn? swimsuits? sand in bad places?), but the ocean itself has always been wonderful to me. I feel like I should clarify at this point that I learned to swim at a very young age and always loved it. I spent most of my childhood wanting to be in the water; playing mermaid was basically my favorite thing to do. So you can imagine how excited I was the first time I got to play in the ocean instead of in a swimming pool.
This isn’t uncommon; I feel like most people I know have very polarizing opinions about the ocean – love it or hate it. Ambivalence is rare, or at least from what I’ve seen. Like me, a lot of people love the sea, go there as often as possible, and hate to leave. But equal numbers hate it, avoid it, or even fear it. It took me a long time to understand that, but as I got older and actually learned more about the ocean from sources that were not Disney movies, I began to see it. The ocean is terrifying.
In one of my last posts, I made brief comparison between space and the ocean, and they’re scary for most of the same reasons. They’re gigantic, dark, hostile to our survival, and full of things we don’t know anything about. Fear of the unknown is the most common source of some of the biggest phobias seen in people: fear of the dark, fear of the ocean, fear of the future, etc. It’s just a common human trait to be apprehensive towards things we can’t anticipate. It’s probably an evolutionary trait; creatures that knew to be wary of potential threats are the ones that survived. Speaking of things that could kill us, those tend to be the other most common fears: snakes, spiders, large animals, heights, sickness, etc. And god knows the ocean has no shortage of those: I know your first thought might have been of sharks, but mine was of jellyfish, of which I am completely terrified. Humans have always known that going into the ocean is a tremendous danger. But we’ve always done it anyway. Cultures around the world have massive, ancient seafaring traditions, and the sea has always been a primary source of sustenance.
I think that’s one of the main differences between space and the ocean: we can avoid space. If we decided one day that it just wasn’t worth it, it would be very easy for us to just stop putting things in space and pretend it’s not there and that there’s nothing outside our atmosphere. I’m not saying that we ever would; I think our sense of exploration wouldn’t let us. But at any rate, we cannot avoid the ocean. It makes up three quarters of our planet and keeps us alive. Yes, in a grand sense we all come from space (we are starstuff, after all), but in a slightly more recent sense, we all come from the ocean. I’m no expert on evolution, but it seems clear that the first lifeforms on this planet developed in the water. Even after we abandoned the sea to live on land, we never strayed far from it until more recent times when technological advances allowed us to do so. The earliest civilizations were all based around rivers and oceans because there was no other way to live. This massive, beautiful, powerful thing simultaneously has given us life and survival, while also being a terrible threat to us.
So what does all this have to do with Mars? Well, the most obvious, immediate explanation is that Mars isn’t exactly a viable target for human settlement or colonization until we can provide water there. And you do not know how invested I am in that happening; I definitely said the other day that if we don’t put a human being on Mars by the time I’m 40, I’m giving up on science entirely. In a more symbolic sense, I think the constant search for water on other planets is part of a search for a second home, in the spiritual sense as well as the literal. It’s one thing to know that we can survive in a place; it’s another to know that we can make it a home. In Wall-E (which I will admit is my actual top #1 favorite movie ever), one of the main driving reasons they return to Earth is because (to paraphrase), they don’t want to just survive, they want to live. There are many things that I think will make us feel at home in the future; things that will remind us of Earth when the blackness of space separates us. I forget what it was called, but I read a short story where the space colonies really just didn’t feel like home until they brought dogs in. Would we ever be okay with living permanently on a planet where we couldn’t see a blue sky?
It’s the same thing you see in a lot of diaspora communities in the world today; even people who’ve never been to the home country or the motherland still feel that connection to it and regard it as home. It’s unfortunate to say that I think it’s possible that this will be a dividing factor for us in the future; when we’ve gotten past racism, I bet we’ll find our way to planetism or some other such nonsense. Sci-fi works that take place in the extremely distant future even sometimes deal with the idea of divergent evolution; that the humans we send out to settle space would become non-human. I desperately hope that doesn’t happen; as I wrote before, I think space can be our unifier. Sometimes I think maybe we should divert some of our attentions to the exploration and settlement of the deep ocean, because if we can’t deal with settling another part of our own planet, how can we possible handle the depths of space? I’m an optimist though, I always think that we will make the best of any possible situation we can put ourselves in. After all, that’s how we spread out from a few select areas of the globe to covering every continent, not just surviving but thriving.
It’s easy to look at further exploration as a solution to our problems, as we’ve been doing so for ages. The pilgrims left Europe to settle the New World and escape their problems there. The American frontiersmen left the settled East for the wild, open West to escape their problems. I think with this pattern, there’s a constant – when we leave this planet for space or leave the land for the sea, all of the problems of before will come with us, because they’re not really “Earth problems” as much as they are “human problems”. I know, that sounds disheartening. But I don’t mean it to be; we are constantly overcoming and improving ourselves and I think that’s amazing. We will always need something to overcome, something to conquer even within ourselves, or else we’ll stop growing. And if the problems of Earth are really inherent in our humanity, then so are our triumphs, and surely those will come with us wherever we go as well.