The Big Idea: Chris Gerrib
It’s not exactly a new idea that one day, humans might go to Mars. But questions worth asking are who goes to Mars, how and why. Those questions are fun because they can have multiple answers, and if you’re a writer of fiction, multiple answers mean more opportunities for fun and adventure. Ask Chris Gerrib, who asked himself these sorts of questions for his novel Pirates of Mars. Here he is to tell you where these questions sent him (besides, of course, Mars).
I love the sub-genre of science fiction that’s best described as “big space fleets battle it out.” Like most of Elizabeth Moon’s output, or the “Lost Fleet” series from John Hemry AKA Jack Campbell. It’s the kind of stuff where The Service has been around forever, with traditions harkening back to pre-spaceflight militaries.
I found myself wondering, as I read these space operas, how exactly The Fleet, or The Service or whatever we’re calling it, how it came to be. I mean, nobody builds a fleet, space or water, because they got bored one slow Tuesday. Fleets are expensive, and if you don’t want them to be a collection of pretty targets, you need to spend even more money on training and crews.
When I was a kid, I remember reading a book about air forces in WWI. In August 1914, pilots from opposing armies waved at each other. By April 1918, less than four years later, a single German pilot had shot down 80 enemy planes in aerial combat. So that was a Big Idea – creating a Fleet from scratch.
I’m also mildly obsessed with Mars, and have been since I was a kid. A few years back, I read the late Kage Baker’s wonderful novel The Empress of Mars, and I loved it.
I found myself wondering, as I read Empress, why there was only one human settlement on Mars. If you ask five experts on Mars where the best spot for a settlement would be, you’d get at least four answers. And if a private company or a mid-tier nation like modern Great Britain could afford a settlement, surely you’d have multiple settlements.
Another good question is “Who would go?” Here, Empress gets it right, as far as I’m concerned. The people who would settle on Mars, especially if getting back to Earth was unlikely, would be misfits. They would be the people who got kicked off of Earth or left before the boot landed. These are not the type of people who play well with others. So, there’s another Big Idea – Mars as the Home for Wayward Earthlings.
Now, I don’t know if the “alt.space” people (like SpaceX, Blue Origins, Masten or the like) can in fact develop relatively cheap manned access to orbit. Considering we as a species have flown fewer than 600 missions on six different types of vehicles (seven if you count the Chinese Soyuz-clone as a separate ‘type’), I don’t think anybody has the data to make that call with confidence.
If the alt.space guys can make space access cheaper, what’s to stop Joe or Jane Billionaire from going to, say, Bolivia and getting their approval to set up a colony on Mars? And exactly what level of supervision will Bolivia exert over that station? What level of supervision could they exert? Call it Big Idea #3 – some number of space settlements are de-facto independent entities. Small city-states on the wrong end of a long, expensive supply line from Earth.
Historically, when you have a collection of city-states clustered together, you get warlords and bandits. The temptation to raid your neighbor and take his stuff is high, and the risk can seem low. Except, Mars is a big place, with the same surface area as all of Earth’s continents, and no roads. Overland travel will not be easy. It might be easier to go up to orbit than cross-country to the next settlement.
Space as a coastline, then, lined with weak city-states. Something that looks a lot like current-day Somalia. Somalia, a place where pirates hold dozens of vessels and hundreds of sailors for ransom. Except, in my future coastline, there isn’t a fleet offshore to fight pirates.
So I get to build one.