An “invention” in Science Fiction, or reinventing the wheel!

One thing expected of science fiction authors is they should “invent” something, although obviously only in fiction. Remember the Star Trek “communicator”, which now is recognizable as a flip-open cell phone. In other words, Star Trek anticipated it. How? Well, obviously, as with other real inventions, there was a need. People exploring need to communicate with others, so they had a communicator. Obviously, you want it to be small and convenient, so it was small and convenient.

So, what has this got to do with me? Well, in my novels about the colonization of Mars, there were obvious things that had to be done, and one of these was I thought it desirable to have some sort of plant that would live outside of specialized domes. The reason for this is that people badly need the products of plants, and it would be really helpful if you could grow something out in the wastes. This led to the need to “invent” a plant that could grow outside, and hence the genetic engineers developed the “Mars cactus”. So what would it look like?

One thing that a Mars cactus would not need is spikes. No need to defend against plant eaters because there aren’t any. Obviously it had to defend itself against the bitter cold of night, so what I envisaged was a thick-skinned plant that was more like a “flat rock”, and was very thick. Inside, it had antifreeze. It would still need water, so to start with, some form of watering had to be carried out, and more on that in a later post. The next thing it needed was protection against the UV light, and it needed to absorb heat, and fortunately both of these could be achieved with a dark absorber. Many plants on earth actually have UV absorbers. Also, it had to make something useful, but fortunately it is not that difficult to envisage a plant containing cellulose.

However, the really big problem is any plant growing outside has to be able to reproduce to be useful, so I envisaged what I thought was a sneaky strategy, based a little on my experience with seaweeds. Seaweeds have an interesting sex life. They have male and female forms, and these reproduce if they can be close enough together to fertilize each other. Seaweeds, of course, have the advantage that the water currents may et the gametes get together. The offspring of such fertilization are sporophytes, which do not need fertilizing and they send out clouds of spores that if they take hold of anything, they grow into the male and female forms.

So, my Mars cactus had the following reproductive strategy. It grew tendrils underground, and if these touched a tendril of the opposite sex, an entity grew that would reach up and grow on the surface and when mature would send out clouds of spores. The spores would settle, dig into the ground, and form the tendril form. Does that seem plausible? You may think that is ridiculous, but, as I found out later, it is quite plausible. It is, after all, the reproductive strategy of the mushroom, and mushrooms, and other fungi, have existed for a very very long time. Not reinventing the wheel, perhaps, but reinventing the fungus.


9 thoughts on “An “invention” in Science Fiction, or reinventing the wheel!

    • The plant I envisaged did carry out photosynthesis. It was, of course, genetically engineered to do all those things. The big problem is to get the most out of dim light, and to protect it against UV radiation, so, by analogy with algae, the Mars cactus was red 🙂 Or to be more precise, blackish red. The idea is to use as much of the light as possible, and red algae choose that colour because they are frequently in the deeper regions. Certain reddish yellow dyes are also better protection against UV, and the black is simply to absorb as much heat as possible.

  1. Did you read the recent novel: “The Martian”? If we could get to Mars easily (big if, we can’t with present tech), we could settle it relatively easily. The basic problem is energy: that would allow us to get there fast, and would allow to get water on the spot.

    • Yes, I was one of the earlier reviewers of the novel, i.e. before it took off. I think you are correct that the single biggest problem is transport. We have to get away from chemical rockets, other than for fine manoeuvring such as when docking, but we also need a new method for getting mass into space. In my novels, one technique was the mass driver to get started, followed by generating a plasma in front of the vessel, and thrusting it back via magnetohydrodynamics. Fun writing it, if not trying to make it work. But I am not so sure settlement is so easy. I must try some more blog posts on the issues.

      • Europe’s Ariane 6 is supposed to be simpler, cheaper, using French know-how in solid powder rockets (those used by strategic nuclear submarines, and various shorter range military rockets).
        But that can only go so far (although hydrogen powered, but expensive, Ariane 5 succeeded more than 50 perfect launches in a row).

        Reaction engines in Britain works on air breathing rocket engines (under ESA supervision). Probably great for hypersonic transport. At least two companies are working on space planes systems for satellization, one in the USA, one in the EU.

        But the real imaginable solution is the Space Elevator. Creating a plasma in front has been thought of for supersonic transports (a simpler solution is just a spike; that works).

        Given thermonuclear fusion, water could be made on Mars.

  2. Good to hear from you, Patrice. Unlike what you read in “The Martian”, there are easier ways to get water on Mars. In my novels, I suggested squeezing it out of the air and mining it, although you need a good-sized settlement to do the latter. (The atmosphere has about 50% humidity, but the problem is, there is very little atmosphere.) There is plenty of water on Mars, but in an inconvenient form. I am against the space elevator, but I think I shall explain why in a future post because it is too complicated for a simple reply.

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