From the Series: Time of Monsters
Mars has long featured in Euro-American imaginaries of both civilizational and primitive monstrosity: from Percival Lowell’s canals and H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tharks, Doctor Who’s Ice Warriors, and the big-brained Martians of Mars Attacks! On the other hand, Mark Watney, in the 2015 film The Martian, might be seen as a different kind of monster, the reassertion of a heroic white proto-capitalist settler on a red frontier, growing potatoes in Martian dirt and his own feces to survive. From the Earth native’s point of view (see Lepselter 1997) it is excess—rather than any clear relationship to primitivity or civilization, indigeneity or colonialism—that makes all of these Martians so monstrously compelling.
But my favorite Martian to think with is Elon Musk. Musk, who founded the space transportation company SpaceX in 2002, seeks to move large numbers of humans to Mars to ensure the longevity of humans as what he calls a “multi-planetary species” (Musk 2017). Indeed, Musk parodied his own monstrosity—assigned by journalists, scholars, and space industry players alike—in a 2012 image tweeted shortly before SpaceX’s Dragon capsule docked with the International Space Station, a key milestone for Musk’s Mars plans. In it, Musk plays the Bond-villain monster, civilizational signifiers—tuxedo, private jet—standing in contrast to the excessive ethical, political, and historical questions posed by the colonization of Mars. As with the best of these villain-monsters, the tech-savvy mogul pursues excessive, world-changing projects that, on the one hand, distort even the most flexible rules of capital accumulation and, on the other, weaponize claimed ethical ends via ethically dubious means (such as exploding nuclear bombs at the Martian poles to promote terraforming).
As Andrea Muehlebach notes, such excessive and monstrous visions depend on Enlightenment appeals to reasonable outcomes, in this case, the long-term survival of a purified (see Latour 1993) and reasoning human who is uncontaminated by entanglements with difference, place, or other species or entities, including those of an Earth poisoned by excessive exploitation. By promising a revived and unmarked human future on Mars—a literal new world through free enterprise—Musk’s plans further echo Antonio Gramsci’s temporal characterization of the monstrous, remobilized by Muehlebach: “The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born.” However, neither Musk nor his critics have given much thought to how human communities—and the nonhuman ecologies on which they depend—would be sustained in Martian conditions. Musk notably ended the 2016 presentation announcing his Mars plans at the point of landing on the planet’s surface. Environmentalists, scholars, and journalists have all taken up that challenge, imagining the 1 percent escaping the cascading consequences of anthropogenic climate change on Earth prior to making a mess of Mars too.
But Mars is not simply a new world where conditions allow for such excessive monstrosity. Indeed, from an Earth native’s point of view, Mars is itself excessively, deadly monstrous. There is little nitrogen to aid plant growth, no magnetic field, a thin, poisonous atmosphere, and inadequate gravity to guarantee terrestrial biological processes. As I have argued elsewhere (Valentine 2017), Mars’s nature does not facilitate extensions of terrestrial orders—political, biological, economic, chemical, epistemic, phenomenological, ontological—to its surface. For example, since The Martian’s box office success, pervasive perchlorates have been discovered in Martian dirt, meaning that plants grown in it would have been deadly to consume. Yet perchlorates’ chemical constituents include oxygen, which could be used to sustain human life in sealed habitats, even as other components might corrode habitat walls. Meanwhile, Watney’s use of his own feces to grow potatoes—a monstrous terrestrial category crisis—would be an unremarkable necessity on Mars, where waste would be lively and significant matter to be reincorporated to sustain a closed-loop life support system. The possibility of extant Martian microbes entering these entangled, connective chains—including those of human reproduction—alongside terrestrial ones adds a further element to questions that span technical systems, biological function, governance, and kinship. As such, political structures and forms of sociality would need to incorporate domain-cutting rules and norms for processes that can be kept safely separate back on Earth.
In short, Mars’s conditions neither allow for a simple extension of terrestrial forms of inequality and extraction, nor present monstrous problems to be solved in an Earthlike way. Rather, they demand a reorientation to the very entanglements and contaminations that Anna Tsing and colleagues (Tsing et al. 2017) see as the emergently monstrous of Earth’s Anthropocene era. My point here is that for any Earth-born Martian, this kind of monstrous, domain-collapsing, excessive entanglement is always already fundamental to the endurance of terrestrial life transported to Mars, by Elon Musk or anyone else. And crucially, the deferrals and exclusions on which terrestrial capitalism fundamentally depends will not suffice, because any element in any domain can produce cascading effects in a small, closed-loop system. These will be immediate, not subject to ongoing debates about their veracity. This time of monstrosity is literally now, and now, and now. Mars’s conditions would thus not necessarily provide a spatial fix for capitalism (see Harvey 2000) but rather ongoing, excessive, entangled situations where terrestrial beings, forms of experience, modes of exchange, ways of being—and the presumed centrality of the human in each of these—must constantly be revised in the process of becoming Martian.
That may be the most monstrous thing of all. On the one hand, such a prospect raises questions about the sustainability of the usual critical account of capital in extraterrestrial colonial expansion. On the other, we may find that this excessive, monstrous Martian still offers a way into thinking through entangled futures here on Earth. In other words, it may be that Elon Musk is just the kind of Martian monster we need to think through our own moment, though for reasons in excess of his vision.
Harvey, David. 2000. Spaces of Hope. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Lepselter, Susan. 1997. “From the Earth Native’s Point of View: The Earth, the Extraterrestrial, and the Natural Ground of Home.” Public Culture 9, no. 2: 197–208.
Musk, Elon. 2017. “Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species.” New Space 5, no. 2.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt, Nils Bubandt, Elaine Gan, and Heather Anne Swanson, eds. 2017. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Valentine, David. 2017. “Gravity Fixes: Habituating to the Human on Mars and Island Three.” HAU 7, no. 3: 185–209.