REVIEW: “Life on Mars?” by Steve Ruff

Review of Steve Ruff, “Life on Mars?”, in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, (Center for Science and Imagination, Arizona State University, 2017): 139-145 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This is the non-fiction companion piece to both “The Baker of Mars” by Karl Schroeder (read the review) and “Death on Mars” by Madeline Ashby (read the review). Ruff, a Mars geologist who describes himself as a virtual Martian like the homesteaders in Schroeder’s story, was part of the Spirit and Opportunity rover teams in 2004, and has as close to “personal” experience of life on Mars as is currently possible.

Ordinarily, scientists write up their knowledge and experiences in scientific papers, which come complete with their own vocabulary, constraints, and norms, with the result that even to scientists in other fields, these papers can be inaccessible. (Just because I write and publish in logic doesn’t mean that theoretical physics makes any sense to me. And I challenge any biologist to pick up one of my specialist papers and make heads or tails of it.) The opportunity to hear the insights and experiences of people like Ruff, as they relate to both science fiction and science fact and in a way that makes them accessible to the non-specialist, is one of the highlights of this anthology.

While his focus is on what would have to change, technologically, in the real world in order for Schroeder’s and Ashby’s futures to come about, what struck me most about Ruff’s account of his experiences on the rover team was how important the human-robot relationship is. The robots “are immune to jet lag and free from human frailties” (p. 140), unlike their human commanders back at home, some of whom struggle to adapt to the different length of the Martian day. But on the other hand, our mechanical counterparts on Mars often lack the mobility we have, and no amount of our trying to control them can change this. It is easy to anthropomorphise these mechanical contraptions, these first colonists of a foreign world. Here, fact and fiction blur, and who are we to say that intelligence can’t be created simply by treating the machine as if it were intelligent? Maybe the first life on Mars will turn out to be artificial, not biological.