The Minds of Mars
I’m just about to finish reading a very interesting book, and I’d like to pass along some teasers. No spoilers, I promise.
The Minds of Mars by Mel Stanley (ISBN: 006016848N) is set in the near future, as humanity sets out to colonize the Red Planet. The ship, christened the Outreach, has been built in orbit by a full-time crew living on the International Space Station. The initial land-forming on Mars is ahead of schedule, and the first crew is ready to go. On the eve of the Outreach‘s departure, however, a very odd thing happens: one of the robots in the land-forming begins sending current status reports using first-person messages. Where it had once reported "Sunset +3 hrs, temp 189K," it begins saying things like, "It’s dark, and I’m cold."
As the story continues, the author brings in considerations of philosophy ("Is it alive? What is life?"), religion ("If we made it, and it’s alive, should it worship us as gods?"), science ("Can it learn?"), technology ("How on Mars did this happen?"), and even humor ("Well, at least it’s house-broken…"). Ultimately, it comes down to two basic questions: Did we get it right? and, If we did, what next?
Mr. Stanley has researched his material well. I found influences from Noam Chomsky, Carl Sagan, Lewis Thomas, and even Karel Capek. There are probably more that I’ve missed. If any of my readers can point out other influences on Mel Stanley, I’d like to know about them.
One thing that The Minds of Mars is not, is a modern retelling of Frankenstein. While the main character, William "Cappy" Lemone, grapples with a turn of events that threatens to derail the whole mission, nowhere does the fledgling consciousness threaten him from 150 million miles away. In fact, the author deftly avoids a Matrix-like apocalypse by keeping the new minds away from Earth while the Earthlings debate the myriad questions.
I’m glad to see someone bringing out these questions. When the Mir was scuttled, there were two things that greatly bothered me. The space-mold that seemed to be taking over the station had been insufficiently researched; were we bringing down a form of life that our biosphere is unprepared to support? Additionally, the on-board computer had been programmed with a chess game, to help keep the cosmonauts occupied during the long hours between assignments. The final evacuation occurred in the middle of a game, and Ground Control could hear the computer call out periodically for the human player to make his move. This continued until the computer melted during re-entry. Now, I know that it was just a computer simulation… or was it?
I’ve enjoyed both the story-telling and the philosophical dialogue in Minds. I would suggest this book to anyone who is interested in the ethical concerns that we’re already beginning to face in our attempts to escape Earth’s gravity.