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.