The world’s richest human wants to build a city on Mars: Fifty years ago, Elon Musk’s vision of our future on the Red Planet might have sounded like science fiction — but today, Musk is actually serious about the idea of using billions of dollars from ventures like SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network to finance the move to Mars.
“In looking in the long term, and saying what’s needed to create a city on Mars, well, one thing’s for sure: a lot of money,” Musk said back in 2015. “So we need things that will generate a lot of money.”
What kind of city would Musk want to see on Mars? His vision calls for a place that offers “everything from iron foundries to pizza joints to nightclubs” while getting rid of “special interests and coercion of politicians.” But what if cities on Mars turn out like cities on Earth, complete with wealth disparity, racism — and ambitious billionaires?
“I truly think that people often jump to that aspirational part of living on Mars,” Barnes says in the latest episode of Fiction Science, a podcast focusing on the intersection of science and fiction. “But the practical thing is that you’re going to need people to build stuff once you get there. So the working class, the underclass, I believe will be the first people on Mars to actually build the White House there.”
Barnes himself voices the main character in “Maurice on Mars”: a struggling artist and barista who hops onto a shuttle heading for Mars, only to become a struggling artist working in a Martian coffee shop.
Maurice “realizes that this utopic society is actually just putting a new face on the same old Earth problems,” Barnes says.
In the first episode, Maurice runs into a group of college students who have been brainwashed to believe that Earth was always free of conflict, thanks to a Fact Inhibitor Chip.
Maurice somehow missed being implanted with the chip, and when he takes issue with what the students are saying, the drone police are summoned. “He’s teaching radical Earth theory!” one student says. Fortunately, Maurice’s robot boss comes to the rescue.
“The second episode is about sports on Mars. And the third episode is an episode in which Maurice accidentally causes the first recession on Mars,” Barnes says. “There’s just something wonderful about saying something and then [adding] ‘on Mars’ at the end.”
Space billionaires come in for some jabs. “There is this ominous figure throughout these three episodes of ‘Maurice on Mars’ named Braxton Tusk, who is a combination of Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos — a billionaire who basically runs this whole ‘utopic’ operation on Mars,” Barnes says.
Barnes drew upon multiple streams of experience to put together the Comedy Central project. One stream has to do with his decade’s worth of work as a writer and performer for shows ranging from “Explosion Bus” in 2013 (where he voiced Talent Scout #2) to “The Tonight Show” (where he riffed on his role as a Black writer in a one-on-one bit with host Jimmy Fallon in 2020).
Along the way, Barnes got to know a host of other writers, actors and comedians — some of whom do the voices for characters in “Maurice on Mars.” For example, Lori Beth Denberg (of “All That” fame) plays Maurice’s robot boss, and Clare O’Kane (a writer for “Saturday Night Live”) plays a co-worker who may or may not be an alien.
Another stream of experience comes from his early days as a struggling comedian. “One of the first jobs I got was a very miserable one, where I was working at a Dunkin’ Donuts,” he recalls. “I always got the night shift, which didn’t allow me to pursue my actual goal of going out to open mics every night, because I was too busy selling doughnuts.”
Barnes also draws upon his perspective as a Black sci-fi fan: He’s the co-host of a podcast called Yub Nub, which is aimed at “Star Wars fans who actually like Star Wars.” The Yub Nub clan recently addressed the controversy over racist comments about the casting of Black actress Moses Ingram as Inquisitor Reva in “Obi-Wan Kenobi” on Disney+.
Barnes notes that the Star Wars saga has had an “interesting history” over the past 45 years: In the beginning, the cast was almost exclusively white, with a villain “voiced by the most intimidating Black voice imaginable,” Barnes says. Today, the keepers of the Star Wars flame have embraced racial diversity and inclusion — to the point of drawing flames from hard-core harassers.
“This feels like a big turning point for Star Wars itself, because Star Wars as a brand took the time to make a public comment on this, stating that they stand with her [Moses Ingram] and that there is no place in the Star Wars community for comments like this,” Barnes said. “It says a lot that you can feel like someone does not belong in a science-fiction franchise because of the way they talk, the way they look, who they are as a human being. It is so strange.”
Barnes says he’s trying to strike the right balance for his own sci-fi show. “Maurice can hopefully be a character that people don’t just think of as, ‘Oh, the character who’s Black on Mars,’ ” he says. “I think it’s about more than that, but it is also about being Black on Mars.”
If the three pilot episodes do well online, “Maurice on Mars” stands a chance of becoming a TV show on Comedy Central’s main platform — and Barnes is already thinking about how far his alter ego can go.
“If this ever were to become a show, or something like that, I think that we can find interesting paths to talking about things that can be quite difficult to talk about on other shows,” he says.
If Maurice goes far enough, Barnes just might have to change his job title from comedy writer to sci-fi writer. Which would be fine with him.
“When I catch up with friends who do comedy, I say in hushed tones, I really want to be writing science fiction,” Barnes says. “I don’t really know how to enter that world, but I am always thinking about science-fiction plots or things that are vaguely in that direction.”
Cosmic Log Used Book Club
Tim Barnes has recommendations galore for science fiction worth watching or reading. You’ll have to listen to the podcast for the full review, but here’s a bullet list of streaming shows:
- “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” on Paramount+
- “The Man Who Fell to Earth” on Showtime
- “Obi-Wan Kenobi” on Disney+
For what it’s worth, Barnes traces the roots of “Maurice on Mars” to two short stories written by Ray Bradbury that touch upon race relations as well as the Red Planet: “Way in the Middle of the Air” from “The Martian Chronicles”; and “The Other Foot” from “The Illustrated Man.”
“I thought, ‘Wow, is Ray Bradbury the Blackest white sci-fi writer? Because he always seems to be writing these little things that just like blew my mind, even reading them years later,” Barnes says.
Barnes says he’s looking forward to a soon-to-be-published novel by Mat Johnson titled “Invisible Things,” which is set in a domed city on Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter.
“I hope that our two domed cities can co-exist,” Barnes jokes.
Johnson is also the author of a 2018 graphic novel titled “Incognegro,” illustrated by Warren Pleece. The tale, set in the American South of the early 20th century, centers on a light-skinned Black reporter who tries to solve a murder mystery and save his brother from a lynch mob. “It’s so good,” Barnes says. “I think he’s one of the greatest writers.”
That recommendation qualifies “Incognegro” to become this month’s selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. The CLUB Club highlights books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to turn up at your local library or secondhand book shop.
This year marks the 20th anniversary for Cosmic Log and the CLUB Club. Check out our rundown of recent CLUB Club selections — many of which are tied to Fiction Science podcasts — and take a look at our backlist of book recommendations going back to 2002.
My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.
Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts, Radio Public and Reason. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.