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© 1999 by Donald F. Robertson.



This article may be distributed at will, but only if it is not changed in any way, and only if the author's name, the copyright notice, the name of the journal it first appeared in, and this notice remain attached. In addition, this article may not be sold for money, or published for sale in any way, without the author's prior written permission.

This article originally appeared in slightly different form in Space News.



Donald F. Robertson

Out on the westernmost edge of the European continental shelf, about 150 kilometers north of Scotland, there is a series of ridges. Some break the surface of the water, creating an archipelago called Shetland.

Long, thin islands alternate with deep sounds, flooded glacial valleys, some so narrow the islands are connected by small stone bridges. There are no trees and nothing hides the shape of the underlying land. The steep hills are round and deceptively smooth, some of the most ancient on Earth, all of the sharp edges weathered away.

We spent our summer vacation here, and the history of this remote and austerely beautiful -- but industrialized -- setting made me think about living on Mars. When humanity does establish colonies on Mars, I wondered, what will keep the people there? As in many remote places on Earth, slowly but surely, Shetland's young people are leaving.

People first colonized Shetland less than ten thousand years ago, as the glacial ice retreated. They quickly destroyed the new, scrubby forest, leaving nothing to build with but stone. By the late stone age, five thousand years ago, Shetlanders were constructing large circular houses and chambered burial cairns by stacking massive walls of thin slate-like rocks. Some of these rocks weighed many tons, and moving them would have required a well-organized society.

There was also contact with the wider world to the south. Some early tools were made of stone that could only have come from mainland Scotland. As the Stone Age segued into the Bronze and Iron ages, continental goods found their way to these islands, including Roman jewelry and wine amphorae.

Shetland's colonists knew about the great civilizations to the south, yet contact was difficult and they stayed in this remote outpost on the edge of the world.

Today, Shetland is still very much on the edge of the world. Getting there involves a day-long North Sea boat trip, or an expensive edge-of-the-seat flight in a small jet.

The key difference with the past is that electronic communications is universal and cheap. One of the more interesting characteristics of Shetland towns is that most buildings have satellite antennae. There is no attempt to hide them; they're tacked on to the walls, pointing startlingly close to the horizon as they listen to news and entertainment from the south, relayed via space.

Today's young people listen and watch, and find that watching is not enough. They want to participate, and since they have the choice, many of them leave.

Here is a lesson that would-be colonizers of Mars need to study. Is it really possible to maintain a remote and isolated colony for generations in the presence of modern telecommunications?

On Mars, communications will be first rate and cheap from day one. As soon as there are children born on Mars, they will be aware that they are in a beautiful but empty land on the far edge of the human world.

Young Martians will watch the music and arts scene in London, the media scene in New York, and the Internet scene in San Francisco, and many of them will wish that they were there. Like the Shetlanders' children, they will read the propaganda that, in the Internet economy, it does not matter where you live -- and they will think about the concerts and clubs and parties they are missing. Information industry jobs and culture have not moved to remote Shetland and they are not likely to automatically appear at an early Mars base. The most imaginative among the colonists' children -- the ones the colony needs the most -- may leave for what they perceive to be a livelier world.

If early Martian colonies are to survive, they must move rapidly beyond the engineering and survivalist cultures of the first to "winter over." They must be attractive to restless young people who may not share their parents' colonial ideals. Planning the activities of the young from Earth would be fatal. But very early on, and however much it costs, there must be room for young colonists in an alien environment to indulge new industries, philosophies, and economic ideals, wild parties, strange arts, and, yes, loud music that their parents don't understand.


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