In praise of internationalism

Rona Boyle

Since the terms of our funding require this mission to comprise exclusively American crew members, I feel it’s important to state as plainly and as publicly as possible, on behalf of our entire crew, that we applaud the spirit of internationalism that has thus far characterized the process of Martian settlement. We hope it continues.

Writers have always been acutely aware of the poignant contradictions of nationalism.

On the one hand, we celebrate the parochial spirit in our art: we compile anthologies and teach classes on “American literature” or “Russian literature” or even “New York writing.” There are ample constructive reasons to do so: the best writing has always been rooted firmly in place and time, and regional networks of writers support and challenge one another. Even so, we’re painfully aware of the potential such activity has to encourage those who would valorize one “national character” over others.

On the other hand, we recognize the unique ability of literature to bridge barriers of space (as it were), time, and language. What is so specific to place and era as the writing of Chekhov—and at the same time, what is so universal? Shakespeare’s plays, like the music of Bach, have been reproduced and reinterpreted innumerable times precisely because those quintessentially Elizabethan works of literature carry such timeless insight into the universal human character.

It’s both apt and ironic, then, that the first Martian crew consisting entirely of writers also consists entirely of American writers. What a strange situation we now find ourselves in, both as humans and as artists: is the writing we produce to be counted as “American literature,” or should it now belong to an emerging “literature of space” or even “Martian literature”? The simple fact that I’m the first black writer to go into space makes this humble post, by definition, an important work of African-American literature—and yet, from here inside our tiny vessel on an interplanetary path, such a distinction somehow also seems utterly absurd.

I like to tell people that my high school—the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania—had no cliques because it was simply too small to accommodate such petty rivalries. Try as you might to exclude someone from your social circle, you could only do so for a short while before you inevitably found yourself working on a class project with her, or playing on her intramural sport team, or compelled by your mother to attend her birthday party. We all understood that maintaining the integrity of the whole was more important than defending any one little piece of social turf.

Thus far, the dynamic on Mars seems to have a similar quality. Of course there are short-lived tensions and disagreements, and the highly public nature of Martian life permits (indeed, seems to encourage) a sort of jostling for support in the vast public realm. Still, the bottom line is that one’s status as a Martian colonist is so much more overwhelmingly significant than any other status one might possibly have, and the stakes so high if relationships among the small number of settlers were to sour, that everyone seems to see reason at the end of the day—and no one goes to bed angry.

We can only hope that this spirit of empathy, good will, and sound reason continues to characterize relations among colonists as the population of Mars grows. Our lives may depend upon it.


Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Our new home on Mars

Rona Boyle

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s seminal space-exploration novel Red Mars, the initial group of settlers on the Red Planet number 100—evenly split between Americans and Russians. When the Ibn Battutah lands on Mars, our six crew members will raise the population of the planet to just over 100; to 102, to be precise. We can only hope that space elevators and vastly expanded lifespans will quickly follow, as they do in Red Mars.

Like Robinson’s characters, though, we have to dig down before we build up; the diplomatically-named International Mars Colony exists increasingly under the surface of Mars, where colonists and equipment can be shielded from radiation and other environmental hazards more readily than above the surface under a giant dome (if only!). In our lifetimes, we’re not likely to see the colony rise very far above its rows of sturdy barracks.

The colony is rapidly expanding, however—both down and out. Each month brings a new shipment of colonists, and a new shipment of equipment to aid with the expansion. As the colony expands, our hope is that its capacity will grow geometrically. Even at the current pace of settlement, in a decade the colony will number nearly a thousand; the most optimistic hopes are that it might grow as large as several times that size.

Looking beyond that, as President Rey has said, America’s hope is that children being born today will have the opportunity to become colonists if they set it as a life goal and work consistently towards that goal. By century’s end, our hope is that the International Mars Colony will have built the capacity to spawn its own colonies—perhaps on the moons of Jupiter. That’s as far as we dare hope, rushed as this entire process has been by the rapidly deteriorating situation on Earth.

For the time being, though, what will our lives on Mars be like? They’ll be full of work, first and foremost. Our work is as writers and creators, and we’ve been assured that allowances will be made for us to spend significant time at our vocation, even if, perhaps, not quite as much as we’ve been able to spend on Earth. While the colony is stable and growing, all hands are needed to maintain the hydroponic farm and to insure that expansion efforts continue apace—lest we find ourselves with unexpected roommates.

Speaking of unexpected roommates, I’ve been mildly surprised—though certainly not shocked—to see how salacious gossip from the colony has become a central subject of fascination on Earth (and, surely, even more so on Mars). Those who choose to follow Five Years and other, even less respectful, content streams are apparently able to stay up-to-the-minute regarding the vicissitudes of relationships among colonists. We’re already being treated as the newest additions to a rapidly-growing reality show cast.

Regarding this matter, I can only say that we’ve been strongly advised not to feed the beast with social media postings of an inappropriately personal manner, and I for one certainly intend to comply with that common-sense guideline.

Our new lives on Mars will be full of challenges, to be sure—both physical and psychological. I think I speak for my entire crew, though, when I say that we’re all excited to land and to play our landmark role in this exciting chapter of human space exploration.


Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Image: NASA

Thank you for supporting our historic mission

Rona Boyle

We are the 18th Mars settlement crew, and—thanks to the generosity of the MacArthur Foundation—the first crew to consist entirely of artists. The existence of this mission represents Earth’s affirmation that artistic expression is at the core of the human experience.

Nearly a century ago, recorded music was included on the Voyager spacecraft so that any beings who might encounter it would understand that we are a species that makes art. Our mission represents the next stage in that journey, as we venture forth committed to using all our powers to document our experience in writing: the most substantial commitment yet to ensuring creative expression—at the highest levels—is an integral part of our space exploration program.

That documentation has already begun, with initial essays by three of our six crew members. Though we’ve demonstrated the ability to work together constructively as a crew, we’re all quite different in our approaches to writing—so you may expect a colorful array of dispatches from our small craft and, ultimately, from Mars.

That said, for my part I am choosing not to share any original poetry until we land. My method must change as my circumstances change, and I can’t imagine being comfortable with any newly composed verse until I am comfortably situated in my new home.

For the duration of these eight months, I will focus on straight reportage—not as much of a novelty to me as you might imagine, given that I’ve written innumerable letters, reports, and grant applications. To me, this feels like merely the latest edition of my monthly e-mail missive to supporters of the Press—without the request for donations (that may come later).

While Scott is correct that my logistic responsibilities are few, I do take them very seriously—as do I take my symbolic responsibility as the first among equals, the spokesperson for our small band of interplanetary literary explorers.

Among our number there is a professor of English literature, author of one of his generation’s most acclaimed novels; a penetrating essayist whose audience has expanded rapidly in recent years; a graphic zine artist who brings a unique do-it-yourself aesthetic and an important voice; a fiction writer who specializes in reimagining characters and situations created by her peers and predecessors; and a young prodigy who is as capable in science and mathematics as he is in writing.

Free expression is our mandate, and our privilege, as we traverse the finite yet almost incomprehensible distance between Earth and its planetary neighbor. There will doubtless be dashes of humor in addition to meditations on the profoundest of subjects.

Please know that in the mere act of reading these dispatches, you support our historic mission. If you find them of interest, please consider sharing them with others. While we’ve been pleased to have widespread attention and support, in today’s hectic media landscape there’s always something new to turn one’s attention to, and I know I’m not alone in fearing that we may drop off the radar, so to speak, as we slip away from our native planet.

One’s mind cannot help but reel as one contemplates the vast void surrounding our tiny craft, which we have chosen to name the Ibn Battutah in honor of the 14th century Arab explorer who was perhaps the first travel writer in the sense we understand that practice today.

We were pleased to discover that the most prominent previous vessel bearing that name was an early 21st-century dredger (pictured above) from the tiny, landlocked nation of Luxembourg. We can only hope that our craft shares its namesake’s qualities of workmanlike efficiency and merry absurdity. Let the journey begin!


Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Photo: Ibn Battuta, via Facebook