Maybe Devil’s Island is a poor analogy — prisoners sent there had a 75% mortality rate, but it was a tropical island and they had air to breathe. Mon dieu, free air! And water fell out of the sky! Maybe a Siberian gulag would be a better example. The air is still free, but it’ll eventually kill you if you try to breathe it at -50°C, and they were, of course, work camps. We really have nothing to compare with Mars here on Earth. Yet Elon Musk is dreaming of sending a million people to live there, all beholden to the company store, that is, Elon Musk. Maybe you could find a few utopians who could be fooled into moving there, but the volume Musk fantasizes over? No way. I also suspect the effort would bleed his fortune dry.
But here’s a thought experiment for you: Charlie Stross gives him everything he could want.
Let’s suppose that Musk’s Mars colony plan is as viable as his other businesses: there are ups and downs and lots of ducking and weaving but he actually gets there in the end. All the “… and then a miracle happens …” bits in the plan (don’t mention closed-circuit life support! Don’t mention legal frameworks!) actually come together, and by 2060 there is a human colony on Mars. Not just an Antarctic-style research base, but an actual city with a population on the order of 500,000 people, plus outlying mining, resource extraction, fuel synthesis, and photovoltaic power farms (not to mention indoor intensive agriculture to grow food).
Do I believe that will happen? I do not. I think when the first thousand colonists die off and the few survivors start desperately begging for rescue from this hellhole, the supply of potential colonists will wither away and that venture will end. But it’s a thought experiment — we’ll assume that it all comes together that way at first.
Then Stross flicks over one little domino…what if a new deadly coronavirus variant emerges on this distant world?
You are the Mayor of Armstrong City, facing a variant SARS pandemic, and supplies and support are 15 months away. What do you do?
Alternatively: what are the unforeseen aspects of a SARS-type disease infiltrating such a colony?
And what are the long-term consequences—the aftermath—for architecture and administration of the Mars colony, assuming they’re willing to learn and don’t want it to happen again?
I don’t know, this doesn’t seem like an unusual circumstance for a new colony. It’s happened in the past, many times. You set off to a rich, fabulous bit of country, like Virginia or Massachusetts, in a new land, and initially you’re suviving a hair’s-breadth away from catastrophe, and a plague sweeps through your colony, and it’s the 17th century so you don’t have things like vaccines or even decent medical treatments. What happens?
I don’t think there are that many unforeseen aspects of such an epidemic, although certain people want to willfully ignore the possibilities (they’re not going there after all — some other gullible sap is). This would be a colony that requires a well-maintained infrastructure to maintain the basics of life, like air, water, and food, and something will crumble and the whole thing will collapse, and everyone will die, while sending frantic, woeful transmissions back to Earth at the speed of light.
The long-term consequences will be that no one in their right mind will want to go to Mars, and the way to prevent such a catastrophe is to send robots, assuming there is some economic gain to be had from exploiting the planet in the first place.
Maybe you have a more optimistic perspective? Try to persuade me.