116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Colonize Mars: The Cli-Fi Novel in the Digital Age

Rachel Rochester, University of Oregon

Colonize Mars, a video game/cli-fi novel hybrid, invites users to consider how Earth’s environmental decimation is linked to colonial efforts on Mars, layered onto a 3D map of the red planet. The project models how humanists and scientists might effectively collaborate to improve public climate change education.


Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree that Earth’s climate has been warming over the past century, and that it is likely caused by human activities. Despite scientific consensus, climate change, and how people around the world should respond to it and its attendant threats, remains the subject of much political debate and devastating inaction. The disparity between public and scientific opinions about climate change is partially because climate change education efforts have long operated on the assumption that people simply need more information about the subject. However, recent research suggests that information alone is insufficient; the default climate change education method of supplying credible climate science to the public has failed to galvanize the type of meaningful widespread action that is necessary to remediate and mitigate environmental calamity.

In “Colonize Mars: the Cli-Fi Novel in the Digital Age,” I introduce the concept of a polyvocal digital project, Colonize Mars, to showcase one way in which scientists and humanists can collaborate to make public climate change education more urgent, engaging, and effective. Colonize Mars is part choose-your-own adventure novel, part non-fiction account of Mars exploration both past and future, and part video game. I have built a preliminary version of Colonize Mars, using real-world materials from various entities invested in human settlement on the red planet juxtaposed against creative fictional narratives generated through crowd-sourcing. These narratives explicitly connect the history of Earth’s environmental decimation and the future of colonial efforts on Mars, and are layered onto a three-dimensional rendering of the surface of Mars that allows users an immersive exploratory experience of their own. The ever-expanding project, which can be explored here, http://www.rachelrochester.com/colonize-mars/, introduces a host of colonists through written narratives, music, videos, and other forms of visual art. Users can further develop any colonist’s story (or create a new character of their own), thinking through the environmental considerations and consequences of living on a planet with a hostile environment, be it Earth in the anthropocene or Mars. Users are invited to grapple with the ways in which environmental factors drive real-world plans for human settlements on Mars from organizations like SpaceX and Mars One, and to consider how and whether Mars might be colonized without replicating those same environmental concerns. 

In recent discussions of genres and mediums that are well qualified to drive imaginative conceptualizations of sustainable futures, video games and cli-fi novels have come to the fore, and Colonize Mars is an attempt to imbricate the most effective rhetorical tools of both genres. Preliminary engagement with the project in the introductory undergraduate college classroom suggests it is a rich site for environmental education, and it will only become more so as other users add to the hybrid fictional and non-fictional discourse taking place on the digital surface of the red planet. In this paper I will address the intricacies of developing and building this digital, environmental humanities project, the methodology behind the work, and its potential pedagogical rewards.