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How to Live On Mars

I’ll do a more thorough review of it when I get home again to reliable internet service, but I read Bob Zubrin’s new book How to Live On Mars yesterday.

It was funny, and a clever take on the subject, but there was a lot I found myself disagreeing with. In particular the sanction given to graft and corruption as though an integral and natural part of a free-market economy – that is, treating it not like a economic and political cancer which decent folk will refrain from if not actually fight against, nor like an unsavory necessity to be minimized where unavoidable, but as the very spice and zest of business itself. I recognize that it’s probably just overcooked irony, but after seeing the gag repeated so many times and in so many contexts, one begins to wonder. Ayn Rand it ain’t.

He does get in a couple of good digs at O’Neillians and warm-mongers, which is amusing, along with NASA (natch), and bureaucracies in general.

What surprised me (and probably shouldn’t have) is that he gets several things wrong with the technology, or else overlooks obvious solutions to shortcomings his narrator describes. In most cases where I noticed this, though, Zubrin clearly favored some alternative, and was simply presenting a straw-man argument against the others (e.g. his biased treatment of mechanical counterpressure suits throughout). Taking license with the technology for comic effect is okay in pure fiction, but in a book stocked in the non-fiction section and written by someone widely regarded as an authority on the technology of Mars exploration and settlement, it risks interfering with the real thing by poisoning the well against those ideas unfairly lampooned or creatively misrepresented by the author. How many budding young space settlers, having read this book, will now carry Bob Zubrin’s jokes and opinions-presented-as-facts in their heads as unexamined received wisdom?

1 comment to How to Live On Mars

  • I want to read your more complete review! Thus far I’ve read the book twice. It stands a good chance of becoming a cult classic.

    re “In particular the sanction given to graft and corruption as though an integral and natural part of a free-market economy -” “corruption” is vague in your complaint. But the book certainly supports corrupt business practices “as the very spice and zest of business itself”.

    – Zubrin likes smuggling (p. 9). But he also likes outright theft: that is his plan for how to make pure aluminium locally despite that it is so endothermic (p. 84).

    – Zubrin recommends making water-ice igloos and selling them to rubes (p. 79).

    – Zubrin suggests making fake artifacts (p. 80) and, horrifyingly, fake alien artifacts (p. 140-2). I, personally, would support tossing such a forger outside without a suit.

    – And Zubrin seems far too agnostic on whether it’s okay to pump up questionable stock purchases and land claims.

    With friends like Zubrin…

    Where Zubrin supports the graft side of corruption is localised in a late chapter on how to be a political success (pp. 181-4). I see that section as a joke. But since Zubrin has behaved like such an oaf through the rest of his book, this joke fails. EPIC phaylz, one might say.

    I did however appreciate the science and chemistry discussions; and the book does succeed at making colonial Mars seem self-sufficient and vibrant.