A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Exploring Mars in Paratext

Of the many distinctive features of the post-Viking Mars narrative (and there are many, as the sf topic attempted to reinvent itself following the discovery that it was a lifeless planet) the increase in paratextual information is most striking. For tales of fiction, these stories include a multitude of introductory and concluding essays, maps, bibliographies, personal references, and ‘info dumps’ that lay outside the narrative. It is interesting to explore the context of these paratextual elements, and the purpose of their inclusion, in forming a narrative of speculative realism. Between 1976 and 2008, over two dozen books dedicated to realistic human prospects on Mars were published, and the justification employed by authors for those realist tones are what make these a unique feature in sf literature.

In 1976, the Viking probes revealed a hostile, barren world, more inhospitable to life than anyone had imagined. No water, no discernible microbes or fossils, nothing. They almost entirely closed the book on the last century of Mars literature. For the next decade, narratives set on the Red Planet dropped off sharply, while authors attempted to reconcile their creativity with this new, stark reality, and the products that finally emerged share an uncommon amount of similarity. In return for closing the window of pure imagination about Mars, Viking opened the door onto a new world. When commenting on hard science fiction, Gregory Benford stated, ‘writers of “the hard stuff” produce more collaborations than other types of science fiction authors, they hold in common the internationalist idealism of scientific bodies, and in their free trading of ideas often behave like scientists’. [1] This ‘hard stuff’ is the basis of the narratives, but there is less inclination in other hard sf novels for the inclusion of so much paratext, making the new Mars novels unusual. Several professional scientists and NASA employees even took up the pen to write on the new Mars. The science portrayed in all of these books places a premium on accuracy. The days of John Carter on Mars are long gone, and Tweel simply never was. Few could think of what to say about Mars until a new narrative paradigm – built around science and the human need to explore – came into print. An adventure plot no longer consisted of aliens and princesses, but science and politics. A plethora of narratives embracing the new knowledge of Mars came forth, heavily scientific ‘travel narratives’ and colonisation stories, set in a finely-researched near-future with every pain taken to convince readers that manned expeditions to Mars are indeed possible, and their scenarios plausible. To put it succinctly, these novels have become the rostra from which authors (and their scientist alter-egos) may profess their faith in the future of humanity on Mars. By framing the narratives with paratextual elements such as footnotes, appendices, authorial introductions and conclusions, and the occasional informational interlude, the authors are establishing a deliberate pedagogy of Speculative Realism to draw readers into their scientific and political fantasy of making Mars travel a reality. The function of including so much information serves three purposes: firstly, to appease the educated reader who is already familiar with the realities of Mars, and secondly, to educate the reader not as well informed. Lastly, it provides a validation for the narrative, supporting evidence for the plot action and authors’ interpretations of the data. This can be a challenge, as ‘part of the art of writing hard science fiction is to introduce technical concepts with which the reader may be unfamiliar without appearing to lecture and without being boring.’[2] These writers have all taken a very scientific approach to the planet, utilising the multitude of publications that discuss NASA’s findings, and pass the information (and its sources) on to the reader.

One of the first methods of paratextual conviction in these beliefs comes from the use of introductions by other established (might we say even revered) voices in sf. Isaac Asimov provided the introductory essay to S. C. Sykes’s Red Genesis (1991) which gives a rundown on Martian facts (distance, diameter, etc.), history of scientific exploration of the planet, from early astronomers to NASA’s Mariner probes, and how this affected literature about Mars. This introduction is meant to familiarise readers with aspects of the history and science of Mars they may not be familiar with, to acclimate their expectations. He also provides some personal, psychological commentary on the human ability to adapt to new environments like the sort colonists might find on an alien planet: ‘I live in Manhattan, a most artificial region of the Earth, not very different from a settlement on Mars. I am far removed from nature and I like it that way.’[1] The attachment of his name to Red Genesis, the implied approval of a Grand Master of the narrative to follow, fortifies the legitimacy of Sykes’s tale. Arthur C. Clarke would go on to emulate this technique and write an introduction to Jack Williamson’s Beachhead (1992) in which he espoused to readers that

“Anyone writing about Mars today is labouring under a severe disadvantage, from which his/her precursors like Wells, Burroughs and Bradbury were happily free. We now know that, alas, there aren’t any Martian princesses, ruined cities or vast canal systems – or indeed any atmosphere worth talking about. It’s quite a challenge, therefore, to write an exciting story about the exploration of Mars, without inventing implausibilities which may be refuted in a few years’ time.”[2]

Clarke has established a framework of plausibly for the narrative, and plausible deniability, should any of Williamson’s prognostications fall short. To add the impression of power to Williamson’s work, Clarke’s introduction attests to Williamson’s ‘long and influential career’ and the assertion that ‘the first expedition to Mars is the topic for the closing decade of this century’.[3] He is tempering reader expectations while bolstering the author’s credibility and providing an informational framework with which to approach the text.

The end of Sykes’s Red Genesis includes an essay, ‘Off to Explore Mars’, by MIT astronautical and environmental engineer Dr. Eugene Mallove. Where a renowned writer of science fiction introduced the novel, now a genuine scientist will conclude it by providing all of the information readers might require knowing that the narrative they have just read is indeed speculative realism. The first section, ‘Mars at Last!’, begins with the statement ‘Mars is so near we can almost touch it.’[1] It goes on for 26 pages, detailing Mallove’s own Mars aspirations, contemporary hindrances, technological capability, and what it would be like for colonists living on Mars. He concludes, ‘The vicarious exploration of Mars by automated spacecraft only whets the appetite for a more intimate meeting with this still mysterious world. […] There is no question that if we can muster the resolve, there will be a way for people to alight on the sands of Mars to begin a world anew.’[2] This is rhetorical language in the extreme, no longer forensic but epideictic. At the end of The Martian Race, Gregory Benford includes both an acknowledgement of the scientists that provided information for his work, and concludes in much the same way the Mallove’s essay did eight years before:

“This novel attempts a portrayal of how humanity might explore Mars in the near future, at low cost and with foreseeable technology.

Undoubtedly reality shall prove the details wrong. Still, I hope to sound a note of realism in the sub-genre of exploration novels, to depict how demanding true planetary adventuring will be.

Going to Mars could be a defining moment in the twenty-first century, precisely because it will be hard, tough and exciting. Our most basic questions about life there simply cannot be answered by robots.”[3]

This is an unmalevolent piece of propaganda, the statements of conviction that exploration on Mars is essential to humanity, and that the narrative itself is a long pamphlet on the realistic possibility of getting there. Much the same could be said for many of these new narratives, all presenting readers with the plausibility of a shiny new frontier on a neighbouring planet.

The publication of Mars texts has slowed to a trickle in the last decade, as if the genre has been tapped out on new ideas, one of the side effects of having to write within an already well known world that will abrogate no derivation from the known. In the books to come it will be curious to see if the same care is given to paratext as was taken during the apex of New Mars narratives, especially with the recent Mars probes sending back information in increasing detail. Or will readers already be so well informed, and so disillusioned by the inability for forward moment in the space programme, that these elements will no longer be necessary?


[1] Eugene Mallove, ‘Off to Explore Mars’ in Sykes, Red Genesis, p. 233.

[2] Mallove, in Sykes, Red Genesis, p. 358.

[3] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 445.


[1] Isaac Asimov, ‘Introduction’ in Red Genesis by S.C. Sykes (New York: Spectra/ Bantam Books, 1991), p. xix.

[2] Arthur C. Clarke, ‘Introduction’ in Beachhead by Jack Williamson (New York: Tor, 1992), pp. 10-11.

[3] Clarke, in Williamson, Beachhead, p. 10.


[1] Gregory Benford, ‘Real Science, Imaginary Worlds’, in The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF, ed. by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (London: Orbit, 1994), p. 15.

[2] Robert Lambourne, Michael Shallis and Michael Shortland, Close Encounters?” Science and Science Fiction (Bristol: Adam Hilger, 1990), p.34.

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