A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Echoes: Literary and Historical Mars in the New Narrative

“We could cast our imaginations wider, to those who have tried to speak for all of Mars. To the astronomers looking at it with their telescopes, measuring all the qualities of light reflected from its surface, seeing seasons and imagining civilizations. Or to the writers inspired by those astronomical visions: H.G. Wells and Stanley Weinbaum, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Alexander Bogdanov and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Their imaginations took a point of light and turned it into a world of experience.” Oliver Morton, Mapping Mars, p. 3.

Despite the possibility of alien civilisations on Mars ground underfoot in the relentless stream of new information about the planet, the literary and exploratory history of Mars still influences contemporary authors writing under the new paradigm. The works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury are the most prominently featured old literature about Mars, and the tropes of Martian life and survival in a hostile environment are still influencing plotlines. Life is the ultimate litmus test of planetary exploration in the minds of both scientists and authors. Not one of these novels (or most others published in the last two decades) skips the discovery of some form of life or fossilised evidence of its past presence. These older literary ideas are tied into historical retrospectives about Percival Lowell’s observations and NASA’s Mariner, Viking, and (later on) Pathfinder missions. In other words, there is ‘Nostalgia for an imagined Martian past and speculation about an imagined future,’ as a ‘dialectal responses to the ambiguities that Mars represents after 1972.’[1] This Martian mega-text (to borrow from Damien Broderick’s view of science fiction’s ‘interlocking web of fictive worlds’[2]) is built upon years of speculative fiction and science constantly being reinterpreted and updated, old tropes being assimilated by newer ones. Gregory Benford has noted that hard SF writers ‘hold in common the internationalist idealism of scientific bodies, and in their free trading of ideas often behave like scientists.’[3] This helps to understand the prevalent use not just of classical works, but the commonly shared sources of information, as these proposed soon-to-be-histories are written with a common historical/ literary background. Zubrin’s historian cum astronaut character is blatant in articulating the conflict between past, present, and envisioned future:

Edgar Rice Burroughs already told us about this place. Once there were canals here, and cities, capitals of mighty empires that had names like Helium, Ptarth, and Manator. […]

Ah, Barsoom, you were destroyed by the Mariner probes, which banished you into mere fiction. But now we are here to make amends. Once again, there are people on Mars[4]

It is a rather ridiculous statement to makes; Burroughs knew next to nothing about Mars (only what was gleaned from Lowell’s fuzzy observations), he merely gave it the foundations of a fictive state to exist in. But the sentiment is meant to appeal to those who are familiar with Barsoom’s influence on literary Mars. In adapting to changing perceptions of the planet, these authors are attempting to make Mars interesting again, not with fantasy, but with the facts as they are known by presenting the visage of an adventurous, dangerous new world to explore. The past literary and scientific elements are called upon to invoke a popular nostalgia, and be reconciled with the new Mars, ‘to make amends’ for the years between Viking and the mid-1980s when authors finally began to write about the Red Planet again. They also revel in the early scientific speculation and unmanned expeditions to Mars, reiterating the great efforts leading up to this point in history and the significance Mars has held in the human imagination. These novels are about modifying the mega-text of Martian literature, turning what had become fantasy into the viable, realistic mode of prediction science fiction is often perceived to be, ignoring the extent to which it comments on the present.[5] In order to reshape Martian iconography, these narratives must be woven into the scientific and literary past. Just as latter revelations in both religion and science must take prevalence over those edicts and theories which preceded them, the more recent novels of Mars establish their authority over Burroughs and Bradbury by reminding readers of the fallacious bygone, while presenting the latest NASA findings. This also requires authors to take a planet redefined in less terrestrial terms, and humanise it again with more subtle metaphors; a vision of the Grand Canyon National Park rather than a medieval palace. It is acceptable to be inspired by past literature and scientific deeds, but the ‘new’ must be embraced, or as Gwyneth Jones put it, ‘In the hierarchy of sf plausibility, technophile extrapolation from the here-and-now takes precedence.’[6] This creates a cyclical relationship between the scientists making discoveries, the SF authors incorporating these discoveries into the plots, adding their own speculation, and providing stories of inspiration for a new generation.

Many authors and scientists were influenced by these tales of Mars, and ‘No matter how whimsical the Mars of Bradbury, or Lowell, or Burroughs, the scientists who now study the planet grew up under the influence of these visionaries. Some modern scientists, like Carl Sagan, have freely admitted their debt; others function in a culture conditioned by them.’[7] They were provided with the wonderland of a living Mars. In acknowledging the influences of these works, authors are demonstrating a hope that their own stories will inspire the future. Discovering life on Mars is fictionalised wish fulfilment, whether to merely alleviate the feeling of being alone in the universe, or to prove Mars a worthwhile destination deserving of further development. The dream of colonising Mars with shining domed-cities is not (completely) dead, but has been replaced with the more realistic near-future structures of buried brick vaults and domes of rip-stop Kevlar and Plexiglas.[8] Now there is simply more science to influence the settlement plan and those writing the narratives. ‘Good science fiction works […] Largely by retaining some contact with the real world,’[9] thus, by the authors maintaining parity with the known past while incorporating newer work, it helps to maintain the verisimilitude, allowing readers to relate more fully to the idea that this is the very near future.

The historical science references, from Lowell to Pathfinder, are meant to keep the reader in the present and aware that this is not intended to be an alternative universe with an alternate history (excluding Stephen Baxter’s Voyage in 1997 which deals with an alternate history and a Mars expedition in the 1980s). Bova makes reference to the first geologist on the moon since Apollo 17 and the use of Mir 5 space station,[10] establishing a continuation of known space programmes. However, as can happen when writing in the near future, the latter element is now a dated assumption considering the destruction of the original Mir and its substitution with the International Space Station (which Landis makes use of in his novel for training the astronauts, along with the fictional Mirusha, ‘“little Mir’- a tribute to the earlier Mir space station’[11]). But it is the Viking missions of 1976 which are more frequently brought up, the first American craft to touch down on the planet and conduct basic experiments, which revealed ‘that there was unusual chemical activity in the Martian soil’ raising the question ‘Could life exist in that soil, if there was liquid water available?’[12] The scientific history raises possibilities for the authors to explore and answer, and it offers a chance for the authors to pay homage to old scientists and explores who helped to shape the new Mars. In the novel, an excursion is made out to the Viking 1 Lander (renamed the Mutch Memorial station after the death of Thomas A. Mutch in 1980) to place a plaque in honour of the geologist who headed up the team which examined the Viking photographs.

DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF TIM MUTCH, WHOSE IMAGINATION, VERVE, AND RESOLVE CONTRIBUTED GREATLY TO THE EXPLORATION OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM.[13]

The plaque was unveiled by NASA in 1981, and is still waiting for a team of explorers to go to Mars and place it with the Mutch Memorial Station.[14] Bova is fulfilling the desire of many NASA scientists, if only in fiction, and adding another thread of reality to the inter-textual web.

A significant source of history that contributes to the plot later on in Return to Mars was the historic Pathfinder mission of 1997, when NASA finally succeeded in returning to Mars after Viking. Bova’s questionably enterprising character Dexter Thumball is determined to scavenge the Sojourner rover from the Sagan site in Ares Vallis to auction off on Earth. Upon retrieval ‘they photographed the area for comparison with the catalogue imagery from the Pathfinder itself three decades earlier.’[15] Instead of a simulacrum stand-in as SF so often must do for their plots, Bova is free to utilise these real artefacts of history as part of the action. Thumball the elder later decided to trek to Mars to check on his investments, citing that ‘older men than I have gone into space, starting with Senator Glenn nearly forty years ago’[16] in reference to Senator John Glenn of Ohio setting the record for oldest astronaut in space.[17] Statements such as this are superfluous to the plot action, but contribute to the verisimilitude of a potential near-future expedition.  NASA is a civilian branch of the US government, and in a (theoretically) transparent democracy, their activities are therefore part of the public domain, and free to be assimilated into the iconography of Mars. An invented NASA mission (for that matter, a fictitious space agency) would be a distraction for readers versed in space travel history, and so it is easier for Bova, and others, to appease the informed and inform the uninitiated.

Gregory Benford utilises more scientific history than perhaps any other author during this decade, planting his work firmly in the realm of near-future. The Martian Race brings up the 1989 proposal by NASA for a $450 billion budget to reach Mars[18] and the subsequent development of the Mars Direct scenario as a more economic proposal. The history of self-contained environments, from Mir to Skylab to the International Space Station and the Biosphere II experiment (including why it failed) are all brought up, and how self-contained environments still have not been perfected.[19] One of the Viking experiments is recreated, and the scientist confirms that ‘Viking and all the other probes had fund only chemistry after all, no evidence of life.’[20] The 1997 Sojourner rover is reflected upon by one of the astronauts as ‘its plucky nosing around had got Julia started on her Mars fixation’[21] – a statement that may prove true for future scientists. Benford is keeping his narrative firmly rooted in this world, as it were, allowing space exploration history to provide a large part of the context. Besides utilising the inspirations of The Case for Mars, Zubrin himself became a background figure assisting the private enterprise as the ‘Mars guru’, and is joined at a wedding by several more real life individuals[22] (all the scientists who assisted Benford in his research, many of them former member of the Mars Underground) and the base that the astronauts establish on Gusev crater is also named after him. This is a fascinating surreality of art imitating life, as Benford attempts to make his novel as realistic as possible. Zubrin’s work and personality have become part of the new Mars mega-text.

Robert Zubrin’s First Landing is a form of self- contained mega-text as it is self-referential of the author’s professional work; its a story centred on Zubrin’s own previously published theoretical approach to Mars, and Zubrin’s characters cite The Case for Mars and the Mars Society within the narrative. As discussed in the previous chapter, Zubrin is writing with specific agenda of proselytising and recruitment. NASA is the organisation behind the expedition, and the Viking missions’ experiments mentioned (pages 33 and 43). Even Michael Carr’s book The Surface of Mars is quoted (page 184) on a trip to Valles Marineris, as is Percival Lowell’s view on the Martian need to find water (page 111). Nearly a century apart in publication, yet both considered relevant to Mars today. It appears that the Mars Society, The Surface of Mars and The Case for Mars have joined with their predecessors to become part of the mega-text about Martian exploration, as ‘most science-fiction novelists in the 1990s have jumped on the Mars Direct Bandwagon […] and a detailed secondary literature has begun to be developed’,[23] such as Expedition Mars (2004) and Marswalk One: First Step on a New Planet (2005) both of which detail the science and engineering of landing on Mars. This is significant because it means an expanding range of resources for SF writers to draw from, a growth of the secondary mega-text to Mars literature. It means, though, that writers referencing these works will continue to structure their narratives under a set of pre-determined scientific parameters. Science must invariably dictate at least a portion of the plot, which could be argued as true for all so-called hard SF.

Two novels that do not spend many words on the scientific history of Mars are Beachhead and Mars Crossing. The former merited only mentioning the Viking Landers (p. 71) and Mariner 9 probe (p. 113) one time each. While it is indeed the author’s prerogative to ignore a literary and scientific history when writing SF, Williamson (and/or his editor) misdate Asaph Hall’s discovery of the moons of Mars, marking it as 1977[24] instead of 1877. This contributes to the sense of Beachhead as being rather disconnected from the present world. NASA is not even mentioned, but instead an imagined multi-national ‘Mars Authority’ coordinates the mission. Landis at least acknowledges NASA as a force behind Mars exploration (in addition to setting some of the training on the International Space Station) and dedicates three pages of part six to looking around the Pathfinder’s landing site of Ares Vallis, one astronaut recalling that ‘As a kid, he’d spent whole days downloading the pictures of this place from the internet; it was when he’d first become interested in Mars.’[25] However, that is the extent of Landis’s reflections up actual history. He references Lowell only once, when an instructor on Earth claims to be ‘a heretic, an old-fashioned Percival Lowell who just refuses to see the evidence’[26] when he claims there has to have been life on Mars once. It is difficult to decide whether Lowell should even be categorised with the scientific or literary history of Mars, simply because his ideas were a fiction based upon blurry observations, and his greatest contribution was perhaps to the inspiration of science fiction writers for the next half century. Old literary Mars is difficult for these authors to detach themselves from, and continues to influence modern narratives.

Bova’s characters may not reflect so much upon the literary history in Mars, but the author himself acknowledges his thanks to Burroughs, Weinbaum and Bradbury; ‘The different versions of Mars that they wrote about exist only in the imagination – but that is more than enough.’[27] Bova dwells the least upon literary Mars when compared to his contemporaries, as if trying to distance himself and his more serious work from whimsical Barsoom. Lowell, though, is given a little more credit in Return to Mars when the astronauts are discussing microbes living within water-bearing boulders, which are slowly drying out: ‘It’s just like Lowell said – this planet is dying.’ Lowell having been largely discredited for his canal theory, the character qualifies this hypothesis a few sentences later: ‘Lowell’s canals were mostly eyestrain and optical illusion. But his basic idea was that Mars was losing its air and water, the whole planet was dying’.[28] To say that a planet is dying is indicative of the belief that Mars was once alive, an assumption still unverified at this point in history. Lowell’s pseudo-scientific theories have remained fixed within the Mars mega-text because his ideas were so prevalent in the founding texts, and he has not been proved entirely wrong in his ideas thus far.

Williamson utilised very little in the way of literary references. His main character comments that when he was young he read ‘Heinlein[…]. A story about the red planet. I wanted to go there’[29] which provides a realistic motivator, and upon finally reaching the planet, he greets it ‘Hello Barsoom!’[30] (With no explanation for this comment, this indicates an assumption by Williamson that his readers would already be familiar with the works of Burroughs.) But there is no further reflection upon the literary Mars, and John Clute comments that although Beachhead ‘describes an expedition to a Mars according to contemporary knowledge, […] the plot itself is redolent of a much earlier era.’[31] This is an interesting observation, because it indicates an assumption that new tales of Mars must have a narrative updated from more classical tropes, and yet the older fictions continue to shape some of the narrative despite the new scientific data. Beachhead fits less securely into the mega-text of new Mars exploration than any of the other novels from this period, because it is entirely too mired in the Barsoom-ish vision of a great Mars with ‘crystal city domes shining in the dark.’[32] Writer who followed Williamson employed less poetically imperial visages in an attempt to maintain the scientific verisimilitude, but the literature still plays an influential intertextual role.

Ray Bradbury’s work is not commonly mentioned among these texts, but in The Martian Race the astronauts ‘talked about Ray Bradbury’s sand ships, tried to imagine skimming over the undulating landscape.’[33] They even watch the film version of The Martian Chronicles, along with several other Hollywood productions such as Mars Attacks! And Mission to Mars, described as ‘good for laughs’,[34] which keeps readers aware of the more sordid film history of Mars. Later there is a fear of Martian microbes reaching Earth, spurring a less-than logical response; ‘They cited Ray Bradbury, whose fictional Martians died from earthly diseases. That it was fiction was a fine point they didn’t appreciate.’[35] (This is followed by references to ‘The Andromeda strain, the Triffids, various evolved Martians, and lots of squishy aliens’.[36]) Reflecting an interesting dichotomy, they reference inspirational science fiction, to reinforce the ambitions of newer science fiction to push for an expedition to Mars, while at the same time using a derisive tone when SF is employed to argue against the expansion of scientific exploration. To borrow from another science fiction author, as there is no more succinct term, this is an interesting case of ‘double-think.’

Burroughs is quoted most often in First Landing, as if Zubrin is single-handedly trying to resurrect the Barsoom series, and credits Lowell with spawning the field of Mars literature and exploration. Copies of the Barsoom books are brought along, and two of the characters address each other as ‘My princess’ and ‘My chieftain’[37] in direct reference to Burroughs’s novels. The historian cum astronaut (rather banally) testifies

A century ago one dreamer who led us to Mars was Percival Lowell, a scientist who thought he saw canals spanning this planet, brining water from its poles to a thirsty civilization.
[…]
Perhaps in the future some John Carter from Earth will come here to find love in the eyes of a Dejah Thoris, his beautiful Martian princess. […]
Thank you Lowell, and Burroughs, for bringing us here; thanks to all the dreamers. Humanity owes its new world to you.[38]

It is not a soliloquy that will go down in the annals of literary memory, but it drives home the belief that current (and future) Mars narratives and exploration are derivative of the contributions from Lowell and Burroughs. This novel, and the others, is not intended as a pastiche of Burroughs’s work, but the constant referencing creates an obvious simulacrum of characters and situations, attempting to balance the fiction with the overwhelming science. Instead of gradually moving away from the unscientific portrayals of Mars, from Bova to Zubrin there is a marked increase of invocation of historical texts.

The echo of Lowell and Burroughs which resonates most profoundly in all of these novels is the ‘discovery’ of life on Mars. Every novel uncovers life from the microbial to the arboreal, and evidence from fossils to abandoned ancient cities. The perception is a consensus that life simply has to have evolved on Mars at some point in the last four billion years; even historically ‘As the canal builders retreated into science fiction, the idea of “primitive” life on Mars persisted’.[39] In the simple terms of Zubrin’s biologist upon discovering coccoid bacteria fossils, ‘There was life here once! […] That’s all that counts.’[40] This sentiment is echoed by the other authors/ narratives; in Mars, when the comment is made that the scientists who discover a simple lichen will win the Nobel prize, one responds ‘But what does that matter? Nothing matters now. We have found what we came for! Whatever happens from now on, it does not matter.’[41] The authors cannot conceive of a mission to Mars that does not include the discovery of some evidence of life, as if a Mars devoid of life cannot be interesting or worthwhile in itself. Life is the ultimate justification for reaching out to another planet, and as these authors are pursing an agenda not just to entertain, but to inform and perhaps even influence, they must pass this litmus test in their own fiction.

Though the appearance of Mars in fiction over the last century may have changed from crystal palaces to arid volcano peaks, from egg-laying princesses to coccoid bacteria, the sentiment remains; Mars is the closest planet to Earth that may harbour life. In concocting new narratives of this place, there is a common web of scientific history and information that invariably shapes the environmental setting and even the plot itself is not free from textual history. Authors will read the work of both their forbearers and their contemporaries, and though they reference their common literary past, they do not reference each other’s work, as if it would tarnish their own literary/scientific/political goals. They are all writing alternative (supposedly viable) futures of Mars exploration for the opening decades of the Twenty-first century, crafted by the mega-text of previous scientific and literary aspirations. Time will determine their successful integration into and influence upon the Mars mega-text.

________________________________________________________________

[1] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 270.

[2] Damien Broderick, Reading by Starlight, p. 48.

[3] 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.

[4] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 24.

[5] For evidence of this, just look at such titles as Robert Bly’s The Science in Science Fiction: 83 SF Predictions That Became Scientific Reality; this notes the speculation that formaldehyde detected in Mars’s atmosphere is evidence of methane producing bacteria, thus, proof of life on Mars.

[6] Gwyneth Jones, ‘The icons of science fiction’, in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, ed. by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 169.

[7] Bergreen, The Quest for Mars, pp. 185-6.

[8] Zubrin, The Case for Mars, pp.175-8.

[9] Lambourne, et. al., Close Encounters, p. 113.

[10] Bova, Mars, p.47

[11] Landis, Mars Crossing, p.144.

[12] Bova, Mars, p. 125.

[13] Bova, Mars, p. 287.

[14] Malin Space Science System website. Mars Global Surveyor – Mutch Crater. <http://www.msss.com/mars_images/moc/2006/08/27/&gt;. Accessed 29 June 2008.

[15] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 355.

[16] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 504.

[17] Senator Glenn was 77 years old, aboard the space shuttle Discovery, mission STS-95 (October 29 – November 7, 1998).

[18] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 20.

[19] Benford, The Martian Race, pp. 181-2.

[20] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 259-60.

[21] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 17.

[22] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 54.

[23] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 349.

[24] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 121.

[25] Landis, Mars Crossing, p. 287.

[26] Landis, Mars Crossing, p. 77.

[27] Bova, Mars, p. i.

[28] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 159.

[29] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 24.

[30] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 134.

[31] Clute and Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, p. 1330.

[32] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 181.

[33] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 30-1.

[34] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 325.

[35] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 109.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 222.

[38] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 38.

[39] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 150.

[40] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 64.

[41] Bova, Mars, p. 429.

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