MIND MELD: The Secrets Behind Speculative Fiction’s Love Affair With Mars
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Mars! From Percival Lowell to the forthcoming John Carter movie (check out our John Carter Primer!), Mars has been a locus of interest — if not outright fascination — in the general public and especially within the science fiction and fantasy community. So, we asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
The appeal of Mars is that it’s real. We can see it in the night sky, and we know it’s the next planet out. And now we know a great deal more about it than that. Its surface looks like parts of Earth, and has huge features, much bigger than equivalent features on Earth (volcanoes, canyons). It’s possible it still harbors bacterial life underground. It’s also possible we could visit it, and set up stations to inhabit and study it.
So: it’s real but empty, beautiful and remote, but within our reach, just barely. It’s this combination of qualities that gives it its appeal. We want to fill that emptiness with stories.
I think Mars has a special appeal because of its extremely poetic case of Girl-Next-Door Syndrome. Mars can be seen with the naked eye; ancient civilizations drew conclusions about the operation of the cosmos because of the way Mars behaved against our own Moon or with Venus; tracking its behavior in the night sky allowed for mathematical extrapolations about the nature of planetary orbit.
By the 17th century, telescopes were being used to note differences in light and dark, the reflective polar caps; as the centuries passed, astronomers observed clouds, axial tilt, dust storms that smothered the world. It was an alien planet still made of earth and dust, and close enough to us to suggest life – to suggest adventure on a world enough like ours to accept the idea, and different enough to spark the imagination. And it’s an appeal that I think has increased, rather than dwindled, with the advance of science. Modern observation has given us more information about the planet’s conditions (gravity, atmosphere, evidence of water); Mars is enough like Earth to strongly consider it as a home for some long-past form of life – or some life far in the future, if we make it there; it’s a hope that sparks the imagination.
From the time of Burroughs, the special appeal of Mars had been that it is a place that we know really exists, and yet one that (compared to the Earth, at least) we knew very little about, and so one we could project our imaginations onto. Mars became a blank canvas, a place that existed in both reality and imagination simultaneously, a stage upon which we could set all of our hopes and dreams and fears, all our dramas and our imaginings. Today, the appeal of Mars– at least to me– is the fact that Mars is not a fantasy, but a reality. It is a planet in some ways like Earth, but in other ways very different, a planet of enormous mountains, continent-spanning canyons, craters and vast deserts and ice cliffs. It is the reality of Mars that fascinates me– here is a place that we can actually, some day, inhabit. Will we? Whether this is fantasy, or the future– that remains to be seen.
It’s hard to write this response without some obvious observation about our planetary neighbor, but I think that Mars’ appeal emerges from a fluke of proximity that has made it a literary-cultural playground for SF. It serves as an imaginative borderland between fact and fiction, a terra ficta that serves as a new frontier, a decrepit landscape, a template for exploring the notion of being human. It is ripe for exoticization, for speculations romantic and scientific, and yet we can see it in the sky and grasp its presence. Mars is real like a mirror is real, and in SF we see a lot of things in its reflections and potential illuminations.
I didn’t fully realize the durability of Mars in Anglo-American SF until I started ticking off in my head all of its appearances in the literature that I have read. Some of the first SF novels I read were the John Carter books, which I greatly preferred to any of Burroughs’ other creations. Honestly, I was more taken with Tars Tarkas than with Carter himself; the Thark was of this strange crimson world, he didn’t have the superhero-like abilities of Carter, and his history was significant for his character and, at least early on, for the story itself. Tarkas’ life was a more vibrant creation in my eyes than Carter’s relatively blank slate, and what I remember most vividly from the books (which I have not read in two decades) is the Thark’s life-story and how his companionship with Carter enriched the narrative.
This paradox, that mysterious, dead (or dying) Mars serves as a setting for vivid lives and powerful ideas, runs through many of the SF stories set there. Ian McDonald’s sumptuous, quixotic Desolation Road creates a new history for Mars and infuses the world with life, both literally through terraforming and figuratively with the epic story McDonald creates. Mars is vivified not through the coming of a sword-swinging hero, but through the planet’s humanization over time by being lived upon, by becoming infected with humanity and the conditions that humans require to exist. Mars is not a blank slate, but is fallow ground for the imagination nonetheless, and SF authors have envisioned many ways to nurture its potential through the planet’s enigmas and exigencies.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy may be the best example of this, as he spins a saga that shares a few resonances with McDonald’s work, but that has more interest in problems and their solutions, scientific, political, and philosophical (in a very American pragmatic sense). Robinson mines different pleasures and insights from the red soil, urging you to think about our own world by reading about fictional lives on another. This is something that Martian fiction does over and over, providing a setting of alienness and possibility that has changed as our knowledge of Mars has changed, but that returns again and again to questions of how we as humans live our lives.
From quaint 19th-century utopias to sharp satires like Terry Bisson’s Voyage to the Red Planet, Mars has been a tableau for challenging how we conduct our lives on Earth. We journey to Mars through stories to see truths about life questioned, to wonder how durable and adaptive humans can be, and often to discover all sorts of limits, intended and unexpected. When authors transpose life from here to Mars, we uncover biases and flaws, some of which the authors intend to write about, others (from racialized metaphors to over-emphasis on science) which arise in the reading. All stories about Mars fail on some level, because what we know about Mars changes, what we know science can do changes, but most of all, because stories about Mars show us the limits of our vision.
The most obvious aspect of this thought is the maleness of Martian fiction. The overwhelming majority of SF authors who have used Mars in their work are male; the major works by women that come to mind are those of Leigh Brackett and Kage Baker. Mars is not just a location for infinite stories; its tales are quirkily gendered, often centering on a challenge for a man (or men) to undertake. There are exceptions, certainly, as Jo Walton demonstrated in a recent discussion of H. Beam Piper’s “Omnilingual,” and more recent novels have more of a gender balance in the character roster, but Mars is a planet to exploit and colonize for the most part, a place where men go to improve it, either by challenging the ossified social structure or by remaking the planet for humans. Mars is rarely taken on its own terms; it is a place to be conquered, mined of resources, or transformed into human habitation.
This makes Mars a peculiar nexus of paradox. When I look back at the Martian fiction I have read, I see beloved stories that often contain worrisome elements, and classics whose power falters when examined closely. I think about Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and how his Martians, detached from any form of realism, empower humans by dehumanizing them, representing what is not-human and instilling those qualities in a human. I recall what I gleaned from D. G. Compton’s Farewell Earth’s Bliss and its combination of cautionary tale and displaced oppression. Why do so many writers have a need to set their stories on what is almost always an unwelcome, far-off landscape? Why do we need to then transform that landscape, or humans themselves, to achieve some sort of harmony with it? I wonder what hungers and anxieties we are trying to assuage by reading stories about the red planet, and how much more there is to discover there.
It was natural for writers to turn to Mars for the settings of their stories. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the development of the aeroplane and sophisticated cartography led to the gradual elimination of any large tracts of unknown territory on the Earth. Writers who strove for a certain kind of panoramic adventure, replete with armies and empires – who might once have found enough imaginative latitude in tales of “darkest Africa” or the “mysterious orient”, were obliged to translate their stories to entirely imaginary realms or onto the surfaces of other worlds. Venus and Mars, being our near neighbours (and at the time presumed to be sympathetic to life) were obvious candidates for the latter. Only with the realisation in the middle decades of the century, that neither planet was in fact hospitable, led to the abandonment of the solar system as a venue for such stories. Unlike Venus, however, Mars has retained a hold on our imaginations.
The Mars as revealed to us by science may not have been the Mars of our dreams but with each new probe, each new rover, it becomes less some distant dot in the sky and more a richly textured world, with weather, sunsets, seasons and scenery. The more we learn about Mars the more we want to learn. We have opened a door to another world and there is no closing that door.
Mars lodged itself firmly in my mind when, in my early teens (or possibly before), I waded through my brother’s collection of mostly Louis L’Amour westerns to find some books with the weirdest covers I had ever seen. The first of these was A Princess of Mars and that cover thoroughly appealed to me since, at the time, I was reading through books by Robert E Howard and those who were aping him (Swords, monsters and half naked women – everything a pubescent boy requires). I went on to read most of the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter books, but when I ventured upon his Carson of Venus stuff it just didn’t have the same allure because I had learnt by then that Venus wasn’t anywhere near how he depicted it.
Back in the day I watched Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles (1980) and loved it, just as I loved Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) and the old American version of War of the Worlds (1953). Now I’m looking forward to the John Carter film, if only for reasons of nostalgia. I’ve enjoyed numerous books that planet featured in – the early authors springing to mind being ones like Heinlein, Asimov, Clark, Niven and Vonnegut, and later ones including Bear, Benford and Reynolds. And now I’m venturing there myself with The Departure and the ensuing two books.
But why, since learning that no, there aren’t any canals there and no, there aren’t any big green sword waving buggers or half naked women, has the appeal remained for me? I think it’s due to a steady accumulation of mental images imparted by all that fiction and film. I think it is the firm association with Edgar Rice Burroughs who, if he was not the one then was one of those who dispatched me off on a voyage of discovery across the ocean called science fiction. Mars is wedded in my mind to the old lurid covers I loved and the fiction they contained. Even now, if I look at pictures sent by the various rovers on that planet, I cannot help but be reminded of books I probably read thirty to forty years ago.
Of course, the other enduring appeal, and the reason why Mars has featured in so much SFF literature and film, is because it is within reach. Mars is the next big step and one that, with numerous hesitations, the human race is making even now. The red planet is as firmly embedded in our future as it is in my past.
It’s that pale red dot at the edge of our desire. It’s when we understand that the little red spark in the night sky isn’t just a star, that’s it’s a planet, a world, complete in itself, like ours, just far enough away to be the receptacle of our desires and dreads, and close enough that we can visit it, through our vision, through our machines and most of all through our imaginations. There are enough clues from astronomy –a world, with moons, redness, small– to shape our imaginations –it’s not a blank slate. It’s been a god for a while –a war god, and has gone from a world of wars and invasions to a world of decaying civilizations in a long desiccation, to our new home in the sky, whether that’s after Rocket Summer, or by terraforming. It’s been a world of mystics and enigmatic aliens we can hardly even visually process and the fortress of solitude of Dr Manhattan. It’s had faces on it, and pyramids.
There are characteristics to Mars –every generation of writers rediscovers and re-interprets it and seems to agree the ground-rules for its shared Mars. When I was writing Desolation Road, a magic realist novel set on a terraformed Mars (with Big! Fusion-Powered! Steam! Trains!), the consensus was terraforming — it was the possibility of creating a new, and implicitly better, world, right next door, so to speak. Now it seems to me that the consensus is retro-Mars. Is it an out-growth of steampunk, or some larger retro-futurism movement? Is it because we seem less likely than ever to put human foot on it, and the foot that does step onto it may very well not be Western? Are we like the fox that couldn’t reach grapes and concluded they were probably sour anyway? It seems to be the Mars of the moment, but it will change again –it always does. In science, the Mars rovers have ignited new interest in the next planet out –and the quest there (and there are quests and trends on science as much as in science fiction) has become the question of life –is there, was there, has there every been? Mars will continue to be a versatile and powerful receptacle of our hopes and fears, because we can see it, up there in the sky, and hope for the day when we can say, ‘There are people up there’ and feel powerfully that with a sufficiently powerful telescope, we could look up at them and see them waving to us.
I think the appeal of Mars is it’s proximity and potential. Though Venus is closer, it is shrouded in poison and hides its topography. It is hard to even guess what it might be like on its surface. Mars, on the other hand, shows its face, and that face has always suggested possibility – the possibility of water, the possibility of life, the possibility of ancient civilizations now crumbled to dust, the possibility of colonization. Also, it is so teasingly close, just beyond the reach of our finger tips. The further planets are so distant as to be almost beyond the realm of possibility, but Mars is close enough to be possible, and is therefore intriguing. If we could all come together and work at it, we could get there, and we could explore its mysteries for ourselves. That knowledge, I think, creates a collective longing, and so Mars is always on our minds.
I think the appeal is that it *is* the other planet. The planet closest to ours in most imagination. Sure, Venus used to be just as exciting, but Mars is the one we moderns focus on because maybe, just maybe, the situation was perfect for life. And today’s Mars, unlike Venus, is comprehensible. Venus is hell: pressure, heat, it’s almost unimaginable up in that joint.
But Mars? It’s kind of like Antarctica, but without as much breathable air. You can sort of wrap your mind around it.
Add in the fact that while Venus was always a cloud-covered mystery, we’ve always been able to lay eyes on Mars with a telescope. It’s accessible, it’s open, it’s friendly (forget what the Romans said about it being the god of war). And once Percival Lowell became convinced he saw canals on Mars, why, that just sealed the deal. Since then we’ve always had this faint… suspicion that Mars is a kindred planet. A distant cousin.
The planet Mars has a number of points of appeal. It has a reddish tinge, which invites speculation. It is close enough to earth that its surface can be seen, and early observations suggested the possibility of possible inhabitants. It’s mysterious enough to be intriguing and close enough in astronomical terms that traveling there at some point in the not too distant future seems feasible, at least to F&SF writers and readers. All those factors sparked early fiction, particularly the John Carter of Mars books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which interested me as a teenager far more than Burroughs’s Tarzan books.
I never quite lost the fascination with Mars, even after later and more accurate observations revealed an arid and inhospitable planetscape, because I was always intrigued by various proposals to make Mars inhabitable, whether through “bombing” it with water asteroids, creating a new atmosphere from on-planet sources in order to retain heat, or some far-fetched attempt to restimulate planetary volcanism. I suppose that was why, when approached by John Joseph Adams, I jumped at the chance to write a story set in the Mars of Eric Rice Burroughs for the anthology, Under the Moons of Mars. The anthology was published in early February and, yes, my story, “The Bronze Man of Mars,” is included.
Just the word Mars fills me with wonder and a red haze of imagination. I suppose this is because I was born in 1951. The world was larger then, and so was our solar system. We didn’t know what we know now about Mars, and there was the hope that it might contain life. That hope, at least to some extent, has been revived as of late with the discovery of water on Mars. But it was a magical thought then, and we were honestly hoping for more than a way to wet our whistle or microbes to study under a microscope.
There was the idea of great beasts and adventurous warriors; the world of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Early on the comics made me want to be a writer, and Burroughs, made it so I could only be a writer. His stories of John Carter of Mars opened the doors to my imagination, and the doors he opened were vast. There were other appealing ideas of Mars as well. The one of the DC comic book hero The Martian Manhunter, for one. The world of Leigh Brackett, and Ray Bradbury, and oh so many. Great movies, or at least great to a kid, like Invaders From mars, were there to fire my imagination. I spent many nights looking out my window or standing in my yard looking up at Mars, and as many boys of my era did, I spread my arms like John Carter and stared up at the red planet, which I had located with my nifty space map, and wished to be called there to a life of adventure. Not considering that if I could in fact be pulled across that void to John Carter’s Mars, as a kid I’d be slain by Tharks or killed and eaten by Martian monsters before I could get my feet under me.
Still, it was a sad day when the Martian Lander reported back to us that Mars was a bleak red planet without the canals that had long been suspected and hoped for; it was a small hole in my heart. I miss those days when the world was small and continents like Africa and South America, and even vast regions of the U.S. and the northern climes could honestly be thought to contain mysteries as varied as dinosaurs and noble prehistoric warriors; I miss even more the glittering, ancient, and dangerous and adventurous world that we all hoped Mars would be.
Lately I had the chance to write a John Carter of Mars story, titled, “The Metal Men of Mars“. My career influences had gone full circle, and it was a wonderful moment. I am writing yet another story about the old world of Mars, something I hope to finish this summer. That is my way to say goodbye, at least in the story sense. But the Mars I believed in, the Mars that filled me with excitement and magic and enthusiasm, is forever nestled in some corner of my brain; a corner where it is all real, and John Carter is flesh and blood and the weak gravity of Mars allows me to be phenomenally stronger with the ability to leap vast distances like a kangaroo on steroids.
Sometimes, when I lie down to sleep, I imagine myself wrapped in what Burroughs called sleeping silks, tucked in comfortable and tight in a Martian flyer, while the beautiful Dejah Thoris, takes her shift at the controls, drives us forward through the thin air of a beautiful Martian night, guiding us swiftly into a new Martian adventure.
Tagged with: Kim Stanley Robinson
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