Why colonizing Mars is a terrible idea

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FICTION

A city on Mars: Can we colonize space? Should we colonize space? Have we really thought this through?
by Kelly Weinersmith and Zach Weinersmith
Penguin Press, 2023 ($32)

If the space race of the 1960s was all about geopolitics, the latest rush off Earth is, at least sometimes, about something a little more ineffable. By building a future in space, human society has the opportunity to reinvent itself, to forge something different… and perhaps better. Good?

For their latest book, the husband-and-wife team (Kelly Weinersmith is a biologist and Zach Weinersmith is a cartoonist who draws the comic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal) spent four years researching how humans are becoming space colonists. During that time, they began referring to themselves as “space bastards” because they discovered that they were more pessimistic than almost anyone else in the space industry. The result is a glimpse into humanity’s near-term future in space, and the upshot is that this future is as cold, dark, and hostile as the cosmos itself. “Space: pretty bad,” declare the Weinersmiths.

The authors write in a witty voice that still commands authority, like that of a high school science teacher who celebrates Pi Day but surely wants you to accurately calculate the circumference. Many nonfiction books about space, especially the history and future of exploration, are infused with an almost religious degree of optimism and zeal. The Weinersmiths are not optimists, but their book remains accessible and not overtly cynical. It helps that the chapters read like a conversation over drinks, where the writers are as comfortable discussing the ramifications of sex on Mars as they are exposing the economies of early 20th-century Appalachian coal towns.

In addition to the cheerful tone, the illustrations on almost every page add surprising weight. Even when cartoons cannot fully explain the phenomena the authors describe, the drawings are still delightfully useful. In one example, the Weinersmiths describe harmful cosmic radiation, contrasting charged particles that damage DNA with the width of a human hair, which measures about 50 microns wide. The cartoon is labeled “not even vaguely close to scale,” which manages to convey a smallness that is inherently difficult to comprehend.

As the Weinersmiths wrestle with psychology; rotating space stations; inhospitable worlds; the truth about space diapers; and the inevitability of space politics and, perhaps, war, you can say they are doing it with only half a nerve. “There is no political corruption on Mars, nor war on the Moon,” they write in the first lines. The subtext is that we’re human, so we’ll probably get there. Or maybe, they say, we should consider the rarely discussed alternative: hanging out here, on the lawn, next to our house. —Rebecca Boyle

SOON

Gator Country: Deception, Danger, and Alligators in the Everglades
by Rebecca Renner
Flatiron Books, 2023 ($29.99)

Journalist Rebecca Renner returns to her home state of Florida determined to uncover the truth (if there is any) behind the exploits of a legendary Everglades alligator poacher. She also follows a lone wildlife officer’s infiltration of a poaching operation. As Renner delves into the complex tangle of social, political, and cultural roots of alligator poaching, she removes the cloud of assumptions that lurk in our attitudes toward nature and the proper stewardship of its resources. Filled with vivid descriptions of Florida’s wild places and rural cultures, this fast-paced tale celebrates and transcends its iconic swamps. —Dana Dunham

The blue machine: how the ocean works
by Helen Czerski
WW Norton, 2023 ($32.50)

Learning, it is often said, begins with realizing how much you don’t know. The blue machine Try this saying about the ocean, a giant that, on the surface, may seem monolithic. Helen Czerski shows that forces such as temperature, gravity and salinity not only create an infinitely varied seascape but also shape life and conflict on Earth. Despite focusing on an Earth system, her descriptions of invisible physics and the depths of the sea frequently evoke otherworldliness. As one of the first underwater explorers, the reader who assimilates the book’s teachings will feel like “a land mammal thrown headlong into this strange world of seawater.” —maddie bender

Same bed different dreams
by Ed Park
Random House, 2023 ($30)

Ed Park’s biting commentary permeates three novels in one. First, former Korean-American writer Soon Sheen now works for GLOAT, which uses algorithms to extract every last bit of information from customers. Second, Sheen reads the masterpiece of a rising star Asian writer, Same bed, different dreams, which offers fragments of the alternative history of the super-secret Korean Provisional Government, established in 1919 under Japanese occupation. Third, an African-American science fiction writer composes an end-of-the-world space opera set in 2333. Park’s triumvirate taps into humanity’s desire to rewrite history and the chilling reach of technology. —wild lorraine

Covers of the four covers of the book.

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