A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Archive for the tag “Mars”

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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

Post Navigation