So I saw the other day that the Mars One mission now has over 78,000 applicants for a one-way mission to Mars. That's close to 100,000 people saying that they are willing to leave behind their families and friends, not to mention beer and sushi and the other little luxuries of life (like, you know, being able to breathe outside) in order to live and probably die on Mars.
Of course, you're trading those little luxuries for something intensely rare and exotic: dust storms like blizzards, tiny winking sunsets, quirky moons, and the chance of seeing a little rover out and about. And maybe Gary Sinise.
The thing is that we've fantasized about about going to Mars for over a hundred years. Sometimes it's awesome, sometimes...not so much. What's the science fiction verdict about living on Mars?
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury: Humans come to Mars in 1999 and after some initial hostility and misunderstandings with the Martians, manage to colonize the entire planet and kill all the Martians with chicken pox. Then there's nuclear war on Earth, so most of the colonists go back to be with their loved ones. Only a few lone humans are left to live in the shells of the terraformed and "civilized" planet. Verdict: Humans are jerks, and some Martians too (but mostly humans.) But the planet itself is reasonably safe and easy to tame.
Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis: A philologist named Ransom is knocked out and kidnapped for a Mars mission that's really all about gathering gold, which is supposedly plentiful on Mars. The Martians are dying out, but refuse to invade Earth because they're better than that. But they still send Ransom and his companion back to Earth in a spaceship doomed to fail because they think humans are jerks. Verdict: Like I said, humans are jerks, and the Martians refuse to truck with that nonsense. Planet has tons of wealth, but we're not invited to the party.
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein: Valentine Michael Smith, a human orphan raised on Mars by the native Martians, returns to Earth as a young man. He witnesses Earth's flaws and foibles, and uses his tremendous gifts to start a church combining existing elements of Earth spirituality with telekinesis and other psychic abilities. His church is persecuted and he's killed. Verdict: Humans are jerks, and the Martians will only refrain from killing us if we stop being jerky and get more awesome.
The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson: The First Hundred colonists are brought to Mars via the spaceship Ares and complex political and personal narratives ensue, leading to revolutions, battles with Earth, and eventually the transformation of Mars into a habitable planet, complete with water, air and plants. Boosted by this success, humans spread out across the universe. Verdict: Humans can be jerks, but a lot of times aren't, and can overcome great obstacles to achieve amazing things.
Overall verdict: Mars isn't a bad place to live, but since people are people whether they're on the Olympic peninsula or the Olympus Mons, stuff can go wrong. Or right. Or both, which is what history suggests would happen. And if we ever met extraterrestrials, they would think we are horrible, horrible people.
Would you do it? Risk death by radiation and suffocation and your jerky neighbors in the dome to the right in the name of exploration and discovery? Of being in the vanguard of human spacefaring?