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[The following contains major spoilers.]

Mars is never easy. The word “hubris” had never really meant anything until humans decided to go to Mars. It seems that we always reach too far when trying to take this whole world in our hands.

Space scientists refer to a “Mars curse,” since 47% of their missions to this planet have been wrecked on the rocks. In fiction as well as in life, Mars missions are often disastrous and even when colonisation is successful, the colonies remain harried and demoralised. In Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) the humans will never come to call the Red Planet home. It is like a familiar lover who you cannot say that you ever really know. In Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) constant adverts compel the last remaining Earthlings to resettle on Mars. One abscondee reports that, “We came back because nobody should have to live there. It wasn’t conceived for habitation, at least not within the last billion years.”

If Mars is taken stone cold, without any of its sprightly alien civilisations, then its gloominess tends to concur with a painful absence of the exotic. There is, at least in psychological terms, no Mars colony that could not have been a lonesome desert outpost on Earth. Mars 2060: The Colony Files, a deftly and densely crafted podcast, does not stray very far from what one might expect today of a story about a Mars colony. Yet despite keeping various different influences in mind, it is always clear-headed in its originality.

The podcast is created by Megen Musegades and Jenna Reilly and it was aired between 2016 and 2017 in eight instalments. As with The Black Tapes (2015-17), Mars 2060 exploits the documentary format of the popular nonfiction podcast Serial (2014-) in order to give the story being told a disconcertingly realistic emphasis. Indeed, if you overheard Mars 2060 by accident, you might initially assume that it was the second season of Serial, which had revolved around a desert base in Afghanistan. There are two female interviewers (Musegades and Reilly) instead of one, and Mars 2060 lacks the reflective, thinking-things-through narration of Serial, so it is not in the end a studious pastiche. Nonetheless, as you fall into tracing the grain of its lifelike detail, you are quickly hypnotised into following this podcast as though it was just another documentary.

On the literary front, neither is Mars 2060 inclined to linger long over the pages of The Martian Chronicles. There is the same ominous aesthetic and a comparable structure, in that the time-gaps between the expeditions from Earth are crucial to the story. But the psychedelic colours of The Martian Chronicles, its jauntiness and streak of the fanciful, are all missing.

Mars 2060 sprouts out from a plausible timeframe. There is genuinely an unmanned Mars 2020 mission in the planning; the podcast theorises that the first manned mission will have lift-off in 2036. The first humans on Mars discover what appears to be an artificial rock formation on its surface and so archaeologists henceforth number amongst the 2060 intake. The story foresees fifty astronauts colonising Mars, somewhat short of the one million that Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, has claimed will inhabit the planet by 2060.

The archaeologist Colin Kepper (Doug Harvey) confesses that thinking about the alien artefact “kept me sane” during his monotonous rocket flight to Mars, which shows just how sensible the realism on offer in Mars 2060 is. Determining the status of that rock formation is not merely a device to keep the suspense throbbing, but it comes to supply the ambiguity upon which the entire story will turn. The colonists are at pains to seem scrupulously uninterested in the option of extra-terrestrial life until there is almost a policy of not speculating upon it. Their imaginations are like a wine that is so heady that they will take only the tiniest of sips. Episode three, however, airs a dissenting argument that throws us and possibly knocks the established narrative out of its regular orbit.

William Marshall (Robbie X Pierce), the colony’s chief botanist, maintains that, “People forget the miraculous things that nature can build… Have you seen the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland?… It’s forty-thousand interlocking basalt columns… They’re the result of an ancient volcanic eruption.” We might begin to worry that the prestigious billion-dollar space mission is nothing other than 2060’s equivalent of a hunt for the Loch Ness Monster. Maybe the futuristic veneer has hidden the crankiness that we would have otherwise spotted immediately in this enterprise.

Pareidolia, or the imposition of familiar patterns on to natural appearances, is the commonest side-effect of the Mars drug. Some nineteenth-century observers of the planet thought that they were looking at canals through their telescopes; twentieth-century enthusiasts for their part saw faces and monsters in photographs of innocent Martian rock configurations. The podcast’s colonists duly alight upon what they believe to be the bed of an artificial river and rocks with deliberate “markings” on them. Tellingly, the design of the markings is never specified and so to us these rocks remain characteristically featureless.

Enough ballast has been thus planted in the story to provide a counterweight against its apparently conclusive surprise ending. A messenger bursts in upon the final interview with the colony commander (Jimmy Carlson) to declare that they have made an amazing organic discovery in a subterranean cave. By now we strongly suspect that all of these people are barking. They have probably just found a mud pie.

The Other ostensibly morphs from a dead civilisation into live and marauding extra-terrestrial bacteria. Over half of the colonists fall sick, many of them fatally. Perhaps, like the disturbers of Tutankhamun’s tomb, these archaeologists have been struck down by an ancient curse. The most obvious interpretation here is that the story underway is neatly flipping the scenario within HG Wells’ classic sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds (1897). Wells’ Martian invaders were similarly fleeing from climate change on their own planet only to fall prey to the new world’s germs.

All of a sudden, though, we have come down to Earth with a bump. The tone is no longer of Bradbury’s retro fantasies of the 1950s or of the exciting scientific discoveries of 2060, but of today, of our own dreary world of corporate incompetence. The events in train are all so grimly recognisable. The negligence shown by the colonists is, incidentally, illegal under international law, but such is the sympathy amongst the space establishment that nobody will be held responsible. The commander of the colony stays in post and lessons are learned going forwards.

The structure of this podcast helps to further the sense of corporate malaise. Instead of sticking with a handful of friendly characters and seeing how they are changed by the story’s events, the podcast deals out one new employee after another. It is rather like a museum model of a Roman fort, in which you press buttons and different characters from around the colony pop up to give their perspectives. Soon there is a depersonalised workplace atmosphere, in which nobody is above the hive.

Just as the colonists go to Mars and repeat the sort of mistakes that are made all too regularly on Earth, we visit the future with this podcast and witness nothing significantly different from today’s corporate failings. With this, Mars 2060 wrenches us out of its own futuristic glamour and it confronts us with a test. Are we so disillusioned with Mars that we think, “If this is the future, then let’s not bother”? Or have we matured in our outlook over the course of the podcast so that we can appreciate the true harshness of space’s frontiers? This is such a compelling challenge in part because Musegades and Reilly have built it upon such a credible and imaginative application of the science. Mars 2060 can be even interpreted as a straightforward warning about how dangerous space exploration really is. So which should the scientist keep foremost in mind: the wonder of the stars or the practicalities of the gutter?