Colonizing Mars

Silicon Valley’s sci-fi fever dreams

Colored still from the movie Flight to Mars. 1951. (Getty Images).

This piece is published in collaboration with Coda Story as part of the Complicating Colonialism issue.

It was a late spring evening in Devon, England, in May 2021. Even before we saw the satellites, the party had become surreal: it was one of the first gatherings in the region since the pandemic had begun. We were camping in tipis in a field overlooking the Jurassic Coast, the ocean thundering below. Inside the biggest tent, people were singing, smoking, shouting. The evening was unraveling. Someone—masked, costumed—stuck his face inside the flap and yelled, with great theater: “Starlink is visible! Starlink is visible!”

Half of the party knew what he meant, the other half just stared. Led by those who knew, we thundered out into the dark field and peered up at the sky. Directly above our heads, above our field, our very tent—a moving train of what looked like stars, perfectly spaced, perhaps fifty of them, speeding across the sky, on and on and on. Some people in the crowd began screaming: the ones who knew nothing of the satellite network Starlink, who thought the world was ending. Their reaction of pure, primeval terror was echoed all over the world every time Starlink sent up a new batch of satellites, and people who had never heard of Elon Musk’s project looked up. 

Since the beginning of the Space Race, in 1955, fewer than 250 objects a year were sent into orbit. Then, in May 2019, came the launch of Starlink, which has since launched more than 6,000 satellites. Musk has ambitions to put 42,000 satellites into space, blanketing the whole planet in a kind of mesh. As the pandemic raged across the world, the night sky quietly began changing forever—and a few months after my trip to Devon, Elon Musk became the richest man on Earth.

Musk has repeatedly said that revenue from Starlink, which is forecasted to be about $6.6 billion in 2024, is in service of his ultimate dream for Starlink’s parent company SpaceX: making humans multiplanetary. Colonizing Mars.

“There’s really two main reasons, I think, to make life multiplanetary and to establish a self-sustaining civilization on Mars,” Musk said in 2015. “One is the defensive reason, to ensure that the light of consciousness as we know it is not extinguished—will last much longer–and the second is that it would be an amazing adventure that we could all enjoy, vicariously if not personally.”

The red planet, the fire star, the bringer of war. For millennia, humans have stared up at the rust-colored planet in the sky and wondered.

“Mars has been fascinating to people for as long as there’s been human beings,” the science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson told me over a Zoom call. “It’s weird. It’s red. It has that backward glitch in its motion, it wanes and grows in its brightness. Everyone always knew it was weird, and it’s attractive to people.”

Robinson lives in Davis, California, well within what he calls the “Blast Zone” of Silicon Valley’s influence. He wrote Red Mars, a cult sci-fi classic about colonizing the planet, in 1992, when Musk was a college student. Three decades on, Mars is on our minds more than ever, and Robinson’s fiction is morphing into reality.

Silicon Valley envisions a utopian future where humans conquer the universe and plunder the cosmos.

An avid sci-fi fan, Musk says he will send the first ship to colonize the red planet by the end of this decade. His dream to colonize space is shared by many of the most powerful players in tech.

“They want to ensure the light of consciousness persists by reducing the probability of human extinction,” said Émile P. Torres, a philosopher who used to be part of what he calls the emergent “cult” of Silicon Valley, which envisions a utopian future where humans conquer the universe and plunder the cosmos. They call themselves transhumanists, long-termists, effective altruists, cosmists: people who believe we should strive for immortality, bend nature’s laws to our own will, and transcend terrestrial limitations. “This grand vision of reengineering humanity, spreading to space, is about subjugating nature and maximizing economic productivity.” 

Many billionaires in Silicon Valley envision a future where we can transcend the limits of our bodies and Earth itself, becoming superhuman by enhancing our consciousness through artificial general intelligence and spreading human life out into space. These ideas are the stuff of science fiction; indeed, they are inspired by it. The richest men in Silicon Valley share a deep love of sci-fi. And, armed with billions of dollars, they’re bent on making the stories of their childhood a reality. For Jeff Bezos, who founded his own rocket company, the influences are Star Trek and the books of sci-fi authors Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, who wrote futuristic fantasies depicting humans as pioneers capable of colonizing other planets. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who have invested heavily in space ventures, alongside Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg, are all aficionados of the 1992 Neal Stephenson novel Snow Crash, which depicts virtual worlds and coined the term “metaverse.”

Musk wants to name the first colonizer ship to Mars “Heart of Gold,” after a ship in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And his ambition to terraform the planet could be straight out of Robinson’s Red Mars. The novel is set in 2026—Musk once said he was “highly confident” that SpaceX would land humans on Mars in that year; he now hints closer to 2029. Musk has talked about the “lessons” he has drawn from reading science fiction: “you should try to take the set of actions that are likely to prolong civilization, minimize the probability of a dark age.” The Harvard historian Jill Lepore calls this “extra-terrestrial capitalism,” a colonialist vision of expanding indefinitely, and extracting far beyond this world and into the next.

At the outset of Red Mars, the Ares, the first-ever colonial spaceship, is transporting 100 scientists to the red planet. Their mission: to terraform Mars, turning it from a dusty, inhospitable wasteland into Earth 2.0, a habitable place for humans, with a thicker, Earth-like atmosphere, as well as oceans, breathable air, and low radiation. This plotline is exactly Musk’s plan.

“We can warm it up,” Musk has said of Mars’ freezing, thin atmosphere. His plan is simple—to “nuke Mars,” detonating explosions at the poles and making mini-suns that would heat up the entire planet. The idea is straight science fiction,  but he is serious. It’s a more extreme version of the plot of Robinson’s book, which has giant mirrors deployed to reflect more sunlight on the red planet.

Robinson did not mince his words when speaking of his work inspiring the world’s most powerful billionaire, who had probably read Red Mars as a college student. “Transhumanism, effective altruism, long-termism, etc.—these are bad science fiction stories,” Robinson said. “And as a science fiction writer, I am offended because science fiction should not be fantasy.

For Robinson, the ambitions and philosophy of Silicon Valley are a warped version of science fiction, far removed from the novels he writes. He describes his work as realistic, but also out of reach of the present: “stuff we might really do with technology, that’s within our grasp, but far enough out that it’s quite utopian.” And yet, the world’s richest man is out there, right now, pouring billions of dollars into making the plot of Red Mars a reality.

Robinson talks about his readers as “co-creators” of the story. “They bring their own experiences. They are co-creating it. So Musk’s Mars, he’s co-creating it. He might have got some ideas from reading the Mars Trilogy.” Ultimately, though, he said: “I am not responsible for the ideas that people come to.”

Science fiction and storytelling have always had the power to inspire real events. The 19th century astronomer Percival Lowell was famous for his belief that Mars was covered in Martian-built canals—an idea that, even though it was pure fancy, changed the course of 20th century history. “We wouldn’t have gotten to the moon yet if it wasn’t for Percival Lowell writing his fantasies about Mars in the 1890s,” Robinson said, explaining how the German Rocket Society, an amateur rocket association, was founded on Lowell’s beliefs. Among its members was a young aerospace engineer  who would go on to develop the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany during World War II—and later, the Saturn V rocket that propelled NASA’s Apollo missions to the Moon. Wernher von Braun, too, believed that humans should one day colonize Mars.

Robinson’s novels can sometimes feel more like blueprints for the future than fiction, instruction manuals for how to change a planet’s climate. His storylines are full of drudgery; grinding practicalities that pull you down from fantasy into logistics. Red Mars, for all its grand vistas of the dusty planet, wretched storms and soaring volcanoes, is countered by inordinate periods when Robinson’s characters are building toilets and sewage systems or else caught up in petty practical disagreements and relationship problems. Perhaps, ironically, it’s the bureaucracy of his books that makes their ideas feel so within reach.

I first heard of Robinson at a dinner party in East London. The meal had been cleared away, and we were drinking wine. My host, a young climate activist, had just returned from Alaska, where he had been tagging along on a yacht trip with a select group of superrich investors all gathered to watch glaciers crumble into the sea and be told about dwindling blue whale numbers. Everyone on the boat was talking about the same book: Robinson’s latest novel, The Ministry for the Future. It had blown their minds.

Set in a near-future Earth where humanity is finally forced to deal with its broken climate or go extinct, it almost reads like a manual for how we might fix our burning world. Like Red Mars, the novel describes an extreme approach for fixing the climate: geoengineering. That’s the concept that we can redesign the very atmosphere of the Earth, tweak the elements to our own ends by shooting massive quantities of particles into the stratosphere, and thereby dim the sun. It is thanks to Robinson’s novel that most people have even heard of the practice. As environmentalist Bill McKibben has written, “a novel feature of the geoengineering debate is that many people first heard about it in a novel.”

“It’s so successful, I think it hardly counts as a cult novel now,” said David Keith, a professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago who is one of the most prominent scientists working in the field of geoengineering. Keith said that Robinson had consulted with him ahead of writing The Ministry for the Future. “I don’t want to claim any inspiration, but we met,” he said with a smile, adding that he thought of Robinson as “an environmental guru.”

Geoengineering sci-fi like Robinson’s has ignited the imagination of Silicon Valley elites hoping to fix the planet’s problems. Luke Iseman and Andrew Song, a pair of San Francisco entrepreneurs who founded a startup called Make Sunsets, are already deploying solar geoengineering on a micro-scale, releasing balloons filled with sulfur dioxide over the deserts of Nevada. They call their project “sunscreen for the earth”—a term they got from ChatGPT, the AI chatbot. Iseman told me he founded the company after reading science fiction about geoengineering, both Robinson’s book and Termination Shock, the latest novel by Neal Stephenson. “The ideas are amazing,” said Iseman. “I think we’ll see Ministry for the Future-style actions sooner rather than later, for better and worse,” Iseman, described how he read both books and immediately began envisioning how he could make them a reality.  

Colored still from the movie Robinson Crusoe On Mars. 1964. (Getty Images).

“The more I learned, the more excited I became,” he said, adding that he had grand ambitions for Make Sunsets to keep expanding, unfettered, and try to alter the Earth’s atmosphere. “We’ve got a couple of years of runway to work on this, and a laundry list of fun sci-fi-esque technologies that will let us do this better over time,” he said. Mexico banned solar geoengineering after Make Sunsets carried out a rogue balloon release in Baja California without government permission. By contrast, he said, Nevada is a “good launch site for experimental stuff.”

We’re not just entitled to control the Earth itself, we will control the whole atmosphere.

Make Sunsets and other geoengineering projects have faced criticism for a cowboy-style approach to the future of the planet. Indigenous groups have condemned them as taking a colonial attitude toward the skies. “Solar geoengineering is kind of the ultimate colonization,” said Asa Larsson-Blind, a Saami activist from northern Sweden who has been campaigning for a global moratorium on solar geoengineering. “Not only of nature and the Earth, but also the atmosphere. Treating the Earth as machinery and saying that we’re not just entitled to control the Earth itself, we will control the whole atmosphere, is to take it a step further.”

Robinson said the message of his books is being missed. “You don’t just burst in some Promethean way to the one techno-fix. The technology that matters is law, and justice, and therefore—politics. And this is what the techno crowd doesn’t want to admit.”

Musk, a private citizen, has already decided for us what the rule of law will be on Mars. “Most likely the form of government on Mars would be a direct democracy, not representative,” he said during his 2022 Time Person of the Year interview. “We shouldn’t be passing laws that are longer than The Lord of the Rings.”

The tech elite’s desire to spread out into space isn’t a new whim. “Expansion is everything,” said the imperialist diamond mining magnate Cecil Rhodes. He would stare up at the sky and regret that humanity couldn’t yet expand outwards into space, those “vast worlds which we could never reach.” He said, “I would annex the planets if I could.”

In Robinson’s Red Mars, a great fight is underway—a fight of ideologies between the Reds, who believe colonizing Mars will destroy a place that has remained unchanged for billions of years, and the Greens, who want to create an Earth-like biosphere. The Reds make an argument akin to those of Indigenous groups on Earth. Why, they say, can’t we let Mars be Mars? A place that has been unravaged by human exploitation. A place where the rocks, the ice, the sky, have their own value.

“Let the planet be, leave it to be wilderness,” one character, Anne, pleads to her fellow scientists. She’s heartbroken by the thought of extracting, altering, colonizing the planet, and wrecking its ancient landforms and its planetary history. “You want to do that because you think you can. You want to try it out and see—as if this were some playground sandbox for you to build castles in.”

I asked Robinson if he thought the same way Anne did—if he was, in fact, Anne. “Oh, no,” he said with a laugh. “My characters are much more interesting than I am.”

That night in Devon, when we saw the Starlink satellites going up, already feels like a relic from a bygone era, from a time when the night sky was uncluttered by human ambition. Now, whenever I look up, wherever I am in the world, I can spot one of Musk’s satellites within a matter of seconds.

Before long, satellites in the sky will outnumber the stars we can see. The universe will be blotted out by fast-moving pieces of metal reflecting back at us. And perhaps the Mars of our solar system will one day resemble the Mars of Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction, the Mars of the fever dreams of the richest people in the world. A Mars that has been transformed by humans to look more like our own Earth — no longer a red light in the sky, but one that looks like what we already know here on Earth. At that point, we’ll have nothing in the universe to look at but ourselves.


Isobel Cockerell

Isobel Cockerell is a senior reporter with Coda Story. After graduating from Columbia Journalism School, she joined Coda, where she writes about historical reckonings, surveillance, conspiracies and climate. She was nominated for the 2023 Orwell prize and was the winner of the 2020 European Press Prize.

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