A few comments about Geospermia (Analog, May 2013)

Yes, I know it isn’t May yet, but the May 2013 issue of Analog with my story in it is out in the wild, and has been sighted by US subscribers (if not yet by me).

Martin Shoemaker alerted me to a discussion on the F&SF forum about the issue in which a few people mentioned my story Geospermia. For those who have followed me on various social networking sites, this is what I loosely termed the “pandas on Mars” story.

It seems that people take away various messages from the story, which is interesting to see.

To me, this story is mostly a biological SF story. Yes, there is terraforming and there are conflicting ideologies in the human population in this habitat, but it is a story about the realities of trying to grow stuff in soil that has never grown anything. I touched on this subject in my posts about farming on Mars or about growing crops in space.

If you try to to replicate some sort of ecosystem under circumstances that are different from the original, it is very likely that something unexpected will happen. Species which should do well don’t, and ones that hadn’t been on the radar become invasive pests. Nature is good at throwing curveballs like that.

In another, much earlier post, I described that I used to work in pasture ecology, where people actively introduce species for the improvement of pasture quality. The process goes like this (simplified): scientists travel overseas to identify species that have desirable characteristics and collect seed. They take the seed home (fumigated through quarantine) and grow plants inside a quarantine glasshouse. Plants that pass inspection will then go into pots to bulk up seed quantity and then into small plots in various locations in the field. People will constantly monitor the plants. It is virtually impossible to predict which plants will do well in the new environment.

Supposing you had a habitat on Mars ready to be populated with living things, how would you go about deciding what to put in? Apart from selecting plants and animals that are adjusted to each other, I suspect that the reality would have a wet-spaghetti element to it (you throw it at the wall to see what sticks). Each of the differences between normal growing conditions and conditions in the new Mars enviroment will influence each species in a different and often unpredictable way. Therefore, you will have a species that may well be timid and unremarkable on Earth run riot on Mars, because it just happens to be less sensitive to the conditions on Mars that are different from Earth. I’m thinking about soil composition (salts and fine particles), light conditions and high carbon dioxide.

Is the story depressing? I don’t think so. What we tend to get from a lot of hard SF is a very big picture, a bird’s-eye camera view of the new society without much detail about what the lives of people inside settled habitats are like on a day-to-day basis. People in these new habitats face the realities and frustrations of trying to grow stuff that should grow but won’t and other stuff that grows but they wish it didn’t. They face the responsibility of churning out food on a regular basis. Their life contracts to their reality, mostly limited to the inside of the habitat, just like many people rarely travel outside the town where they live. This reality is none less interesting than the bigger picture, and is more human.

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