By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Zach Weinersmith, who with his wife Kelly Weinersmith wrote the brand new book A City On Mars: Can we settle space, should we settle space, and have we really thought this through?, which is out this week.
I loved this book. I’ve been looking forward to it for years since they announced it, and I loved their previous book, Soonish. It’s an in-depth look at what exactly it’s going to take to get a permanent human settlement on another world. Zach and Kelly investigate not just the physics problem of getting people and material there, but also the long-term social, legal and biological issues inherent in this kind of venture. It’s an amazing read, and it’s available wherever books are sold.
Beyond A City on Mars, Zach can be found at his iconic webcomic, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, and you should check out his other books, which include Soonish and Bea Wolf, his children’s book adaptation of Beowulf.
Remember, you can subscribe to the Numlock Podcast on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. This interview has been condensed and edited.
Zach, thank you so much for coming on.
I'm excited to talk about space nerd stuff.
Boy, are you. You have written a book called A City on Mars. You ask all sorts of really exciting questions throughout the book. It is not just a book about the physics of getting to Mars, which I think a lot of people fixate on. It is a book about sociology. It is a book about how communities work. It is a book about all sorts of different exciting things. Your research process was incredibly thorough. I guess just before we dive in, what was it like to write this thing? What was it like to report it out and dive into the science?
Oh man, it was kind of awful. And you know what it was? I think when you do pop science, there's this fantasy you have of, "What if I got a topic and I was out ahead of other people and it was really controversial and awesome." And you'd think that would be romantic and be like a montage. But we were so anxious, because we felt like we were really going against a lot of strongly held views by smart people. And when you do that, you feel like you really have to know what you're talking about so that you can stand your own when they are going to come at you.
And so the result of that, and our just general dorkwad-ery, was that there was just a ton of primary and technical source reading, which is awesome. Actually, it's like what I do in my free time, as a boring person. But when at some point I was reading a hundred-something pages a day of hard stuff and like you roll out of bed and you're like, "What? I have to read 50 pages of seabed international law to understand that!" It was brutal. I mean absolutely wonderful kitchen table conversations during this time, but it was tough.
Yeah, a lot of it is very compelling because again, you've had some of the finest minds that our society's produced consider what it would take to get us into space and stay there. And that I imagine has got to be a lot of fun. But then you also, you really consider all sides of this, man. You’ve got sociology, but you just mentioned you have the law.
There's a lot of legal precedent when it comes to these interesting spaces that are not owned land but nevertheless are important. Do you want to walk people through the structure of the book and what angles you take and how you dive in?
So we ended up artificially separating it into six sections, which hopefully I can actually remember, because we fussed a lot with the structure; this is a book that, as you say, goes from lots of angles. There were lots of options for how to structure it and we actually originally had it as we'll go through orders of magnitude from one person to 10 people, then 100 people. And it just turns out, I learned that sociologists don't believe there are actual meaningful, emergent obvious things different between a hundred and a thousand people wh