A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Science Fiction’s Political Mars

“A paradigm, and a million dreams, died with a single, grainy snapshot. Space insiders believe that the disappointment of Mariner 4 killed off the post-Apollo space programme: if Mars had turned out to be a worthwhile destination, we’d have gone there by now.”

Stephen Baxter[1]

Mars Books

When Science Fiction Took the Government to Mars

The use of new scientific information about Mars may have been intended to establish a sense of speculative realism, but it is the political speculation of these narratives that is most revealing of the authors’ sentiments, and perhaps even more so than science, politics adds fuel to the plot. The language utilised, though, is reminiscent of the inspirational rhetoric employed during Europe’s Age of Exploration, and America’s own expansion across the continent. Where missionaries once sought to bring civilisation to the uncivilised, scientists seek to bring life to a lifeless world and science fiction authors are composing the long tracts of how to make this possible. In a democracy, the people must be convinced along with the representative government. From their fervent intrepid characters to the authors’ own addresses beyond the fourth wall, there is a belief that ‘there is a fork in the road leading to the future: either civilization will collapse, or humans will reach Mars!’[2] To this end, the narratives are an extension of the hope of changing opinions about Mars, producing an art imitating life with the desire for life to imitate art. First, it is necessary to understand the various motivations the authors have contrived for going to Mars, ones that are striking similar to those which pushed European explorers out into the world. Next, the methods the authors use to convince their audience are again strikingly similar to those used by early explorers in their travel narratives. The unique updated aspect of these novels is that the politicians and exploitative industrialists must be identified, vilified and cowed into standing aside so that the scientists and explorers may reign triumphantly vindicated.

These writers and proponents of exploring Mars have crafted narratives of man-versus-man-versus-society, which are filled out with as much, or more, politicking than science. To note that ‘Novels do not merely reflect the regime; they contain significant reflections on it’[3] is indicative of the authors’ frustrations with the present (presumably American) political system’s stance on Mars exploration; a continuing reliance upon unmanned missions, and unfulfilled promises of manned expeditions serving as political distraction from more dire situations. Mars is a significant step in the opinion of American space enthusiasts because the nation has always been at the forefront of space exploration; there is the fear of losing ground, of giving up the fight to reach beyond Earth’s orbit. The ability to reach the moon has already been lost. But an adept student of history can verify that politics and profit is the driving force behind human exploration, from Prince Henry the Navigator to the Apollo missions, as ‘politics is inextricably bound up with the personal needs, yearnings, and fantasies of its participants.’[4] Pragmatic politicians only concerned with the bottom line, taxes, and re-election (something the old monarchies never faced when sponsoring a voyage) therefore must be convinced of why such an endeavour is necessary. Failing the politicians’ ability to act, within the stories it is private enterprise which takes up the charge to Mars, looking to turn a profit. These motivations stand in juxtaposition of the authors’ perspective of the dreamer. They are putting forth their own political ideals and perceived political enemies in none-too-subtle narratives and addresses to readers. In Robert Zubrin’s mind, the reasoning for this push to Mars is clear, and he spells it out succinctly in The Case for Mars, which served at the framework for his fictionalised Mars travel:

“The creation of a new frontier thus presents itself as America’s and humanity’s greatest social need. Nothing is more important: Apply what palliatives you will, without a frontier to grow in, not only American society, but the entire global civilization based upon values of humanism, science, and progress will ultimately die.
I believe that humanity’s new frontier can only be on Mars.”[5]

This is the American philosophy of ‘Manifest Destiny’ reconstituted. These are distinctly American novels with a distinct interpretation of the word ‘frontier’; were in the US it is indicative of a region awaiting settlement, in Europe it is identified only as a border between countries, not a region for exploration. The authors, then, are all employing the American ideal of the frontier (all being Americans themselves). To accompany this perceived need for a new frontier to keep the human spirit alive is the undying hope of finding life, the new ‘gold’ to be sought in the new world, though undoubtedly, finding gold on Mars would certainly raise a few more voices calling for a manned expedition. The debates between the characters of idealistic explorer and seemingly callous politician appear to be a sort of catharsis for the authors – the idealistic explorers always win the argument, and hopefully the reader will be convinced as well.

Historically, the travel narrative has been about adventures into terra incognita for purposes of mapping and scientific inquest. Mars has been mapped in detail, and yet there is still a sense of mars incognita because no one has actually been there. It is not enough to simply have the map, as history tells; ‘Cartographers and other map makers, including adventure story writers, charted areas of geographical knowledge and terra incognita, and through their maps they possessed real geography. In cartographic and literary maps, Europeans charted the world then colonised it’.[6] NASA has mapped the Red Planet; the next move then, in the opinion of these SF writers and in keeping with historical trends, is to explore and colonise. By undertaking the immense task of Mars cartography, there is perhaps a sense of proprietary entitlement among scientists and Mars supporters, laying the groundwork of pre-colonial appropriation with the defence ‘We mapped it, therefore it is ours.’ During the nineteenth century, the US federal government would subdue and/or remove local native inhabitants (something that in all likelihood would not be repeated on Mars) then send out the cartographers, naturalists and the US Geological Survey (which has assisted in the mapping of Mars today) to study and map the land in preparation for the arrival of settlers. Mars has been surveyed and is currently awaiting the arrival of a few naturalists to pave the way for colonists. In Zubrin and the Mars Society’s philosophy, the survival of the species depends upon reaching out to a new frontier, creating a human empire. Other science fiction writers of this particular type of narrative may not be as conscious of this impetus, but they are still encouraging their readers to go forth.

Politicians must respond to their fickle constituency, and the dream of going to Mars has become extremely political. The Mars Society and the authors of these books are attempting to placate public doubts with their rhetoric: The ethos of the authors presenting their scientific credentials and sources; the logos of the long debates between scientists and their detractors (the former always carrying the argument); and pure pathos, such as the spectacle-filled return of Zurbin’s astronauts accidently splashing down in New York harbour, which quickly wipes away the quarantine concern, and the ecstasy in each book as life, in one form or another, is found on Mars. The logic of science may be a useful tool for framing a new world in an SF novel, but the modern consumer is driven by their pathos, and Mars must be sold to the public and politicians. Utilising the work of researchers and the Mars Society to present a facade of scientific justification is merely political fodder to feed the dream of going to Mars, and these novels are an attempt to pull in the uninitiated who would rather read science fiction than Scientific American.  Zubrin’s own character is part of this political fodder, as in Benford’s The Martian Race: ‘They had a joyous visit from Bob Zubrin, the Tom Paine of Mars who had pushed the earliest ideas about going on the cheap.’[7] This particular analogy is in all likelihood a reference to Thomas O. Paine, a NASA administrator during the Apollo years who once stated, ‘Well, if you want to go to Mars, go to Mars!’[8] But there is also (a perhaps unintended) reference to Thomas Paine, revolutionary and writer of Common Sense, and alludes to a perception of Zubrin as the man who will inspire a scientific revolution, that The Case for Mars is the new Common Sense.

While the push for a Martian revolution here on Earth is a new idea, the motivations for a manned expedition so far out into space are the same in every narrative, as Bova sums up most concisely:

“The scientists wanted to go to Mars for curiosity’s sake. To them, exploration of the universe was a goal in itself.
The visionaries wanted to go to Mars because it is there. They viewed the human race’s expansion into space with religious fervor.
The military said there was no point in going to Mars; the planet was so far away that it served no conceivable military function.
The industrialist realized that sending humans to Mars would serve as a stimulus to develop new technology – on risk-free money provided by the government.”[9]

The only group excluded from this list is the politician themselves, and for them, Mars is only political capital, to be encouraged or derided as it suits the mob’s opinion du jour. The first two groups of ‘scientists’ and ‘visionaries’ may certainly encompass these authors’ perceptions of Mars and humanity’s future, as demonstrated by the previously discussed pre- and post-text notes included in the novels. None of these narratives are meant to serve as pure camp science fantasy; the authors have their own visionary political goals, ‘Mars in our time’ as Gregory Benford (a Mars Society board member) states in his dedication to The Martian Race. Industrialists have not yet gotten in on the push for Mars, but Benford and Bova’s latter book both make use of private funds for reaching the Red Planet. Historically, both governments and entrepreneurs have been involved in the push to open new frontiers.


[1] Stephen Baxter, ‘Martian Chronicles: Narratives of Mars in Science and Sf’, in Foundation: the international review of science fiction, Vol. 68, p. 12.

[2] Hartmann, A Traveler’s Guide to Mars, p. 434.

[3] Catherine H. Zuckert, ‘The Novel as a Form of American Political Thought’ in Reading Political Stories: Representations of Politics in Novels and Pictures (Lantham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1992), p. 136.

[4] George Von der Muhll, ‘The Political Element in Literature’, in Reading Political Stories: Representations of Politics in Novels and Pictures (Lantham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1992), p.42.

[5] Robert Zubrin, The Case for Mars, p. 297.

[6] Richard Phillips, Mapping Men and Empire: A geography of adventure (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 6.

[7] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 25.

[8] Zubrin and Wagner, The Case for Mars, p. 137.

[9] Bova, Mars, pp. 16-17.

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