Reading the Red Planet
Robert Crossley. Imagining Mars: A Literary History. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2011. 353 pp. $40 hc.
Howard V. Hendrix, George Slusser, and Eric S. Rabkin, eds. Visions of Mars: Essays on the Red Planet in Fiction and Science. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. 216 pp. $40 pbk.
Mars may need, as the 1967 movie suggested, women, or as the 2011 Disney animated film would have it, moms. What the Red Planet does not lack, at least since 1877, is attention, whether in literature, film, or science. Mars has long has been and continues to be a singularly compelling landscape, a place both real and imaginary, a place we “know” so well largely through mistakes and misinformation. 1877 was the year in which the orbital opposition between Mars and Earth marked the planet’s transition from mythological symbol and literary allusion to object of serious astronomical investigation, initiating a long run of serious, not-so-serious, and outright outrageous constructions and representations in literature, radio, film, and TV. Oppositions make Mars appear more vivid to the naked eye, spurring speculation and imagination throughout recorded history, its red color being enough to associate it with blood, battle, and war—not to mention human temperament, both in terms of gender scripting (Mars = men; Venus = women) and non-gendered sensibility, as evidenced by the Wife of Bath’s declaration that her “herte is Marcien.”
But the 1877 opposition was singularly noteworthy both because it brought Earth and Mars closer together than they had been for 30 years and, more famously, because an Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, looked through his telescope and thought he observed on Mars dark lines he interpreted as and represented on the map he was drawing as canali. While Schiaparelli made no claims about the nature of these lines, what he termed canali soon was translated as “canals” and rarely, if ever, in history has such a small lexical shift occasioned so much fascination and inspired so much imagination.
In recent years, speculation about Mars has been fueled by information gained from NASA exploratory ventures such as the 1997 Pathfinder Rover, the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers, and the 2007 Phoenix Mars Lander, as well as celebrated works of fiction such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (1992-96), Greg Bear’s Moving Mars (1993), Gregory Benford’s The Martian Race (1999), Geoffrey Landis’s Mars Crossing (2000), and Brian W. Aldiss and Roger Penrose’s White Mars (2000). Add movies such as Total Recall (1990, with a remake scheduled for 2012), Mission to Mars (2000), Red Planet (2000), Ghosts of Mars (2001), the Steven Spielberg remake of War of the Worlds (2005), Mars Needs Moms (2011), and John Carter (2012). Mars does not lack for attention, but what the above lists suggest is that those of us interested in Mars, whether in fact or in fancy, may need some ways of making sense of its many appearances and appropriations throughout history and in contemporary culture.
Fortunately, two such guides have recently been published and both have much to offer. Robert Crossley’s Imagining Mars: A Literary History is a wonderfully written and impressively comprehensive study of the reciprocal relationships between factual Mars and fanciful Mars, relationships driven in turn by scientific discovery and literary imagination. Visions of Mars: Essays on the Red Planet in Fiction and Science, a proceedings volume from the 2008 Eaton Conference, fills in some gaps in Crossley’s study and adds a number of provocative new perspectives on our uses and abuses of the Red Planet.
Crossley opens Imagining Mars with the simple question: “Of what value is the history of an error?” (ix). Some 353 pages later, that question has been answered in a number of fascinating ways with implications not only for the uses of Mars in the public imaginary, but also for the uses of science fiction, particularly as the example of Mars makes a compelling case not for the predictive power of sf but for its power to inspire. Crossley states that his aims in this study are “(1) to chart the ways in which the literary and scientific perspectives on the planet have intersected and diverged; (2) to explore how specific literary texts have used and abused, ignored and deployed science in order to create usable myths and parables; and (3) to find in the record of fiction about Mars glosses on modern cultural history” (ix). Imagining Mars delivers impressively on all three aims, as Crossley demonstrates again and again “how the literary and scientific imaginations collaborate with each other and exist in tension with each other” (x) and how “the way people imagine other worlds is an index of how they think about themselves, their immediate world, their institutions and conventions, their rituals and habits” (xiv). His skilled readings of texts and masterful prose always contribute to his overarching theme that “The Mars of the literary imagination is the complex product of an interplay between fact and fancy, between evidence and desire, between knowing with the head and knowing with the heart” (xiv).
The fourteen chapters and afterword of Imagining Mars reference more texts, both celebrated and obscure, than I can even count, much less rehash. Crossley’s fine readings of these texts are as economical as they are insightful, never contented with mere categorization, and always attentive to these texts as literary artifacts: representations of Mars that combine scientific knowledge with the persistent concerns of science fiction. Accordingly, I will not often attempt to summarize his deft readings, particularly of well-known texts. Crossley’s chapters progress through a rough three-stage chronology of ideas about Mars, the first stage predating telescopes and characterized largely by myth-making and broad symbolism; the second stage, stretching from the seventeenth century to more than halfway through the twentieth, driven by telescopic discoveries and misperceptions; and the third stage the era of space exploration, with viewing technologies free of Earth’s atmosphere and with information-gathering projects, including the various Rover missions on the planet’s surface.
That second stage gave us most of our persisting fictional images of Mars, whether the fiction came from the erroneous “science” of Percival Lowell or the powerfully imagined Mars of sf literature. As scientific knowledge became more and more verified, exposing the second-stage Mars as largely a romantic fantasy—albeit one with remarkable resistance to fact—third-stage Mars began to emerge in fiction as a barren planet apparently stripped of romantic possibility, drawing the attention of writers with a new respect for “the ecology of Mars as a wilderness planet, and (with) a technically conscious interest in the prospects, methods, risks, and ethical dilemmas of metamorphosing that wilderness into a future human habitat” (6). As Crossley sums up his stage-setting first chapter with what is also a preview of the rest of his book:
Mars has many meanings. Once upon a time it meant a dying world that served as a grim and cautionary text for our own terrestrial destiny. It often has served as the canvas on which writers could depict their wildest fantasies, their darkest fears, their otherwise most unspeakable critiques, their spiritual aspirations. For some, Mars still represents a reconstituted frontier for a world in which all the frontiers have now vanished. For others, Mars is a laboratory and a playground of the mind, where speculation about alternative realities and alternative futures is sanctioned, and where imagination is granted a license to explore ways in which we may save our own endangered planet. (19)
Schiaparelli’s 1877 mapping of what he perceived to be canali may have inaugurated the second stage or “Golden Age” of speculation about Mars, both scientific and literary, but it is Percival Lowell who was, and in some ways remains, the driving force behind our imagination of Mars. While Crossley devotes an informative and frequently surprising chapter to largely forgotten writers such as Percy Greg, Robert Cromie, Wladislaw Somerville Lach-Szrma, and Robert D. Braine, all of whom wrote novels prominently featuring Mars in the years between the oppositions of 1877 and 1892, those novels are mere warm-up acts for works by Camille Flammarion and by the irrepressible Lowell. Flammarion’s La Planète Mars (1892) offered both a history of astronomical observations of Mars and an argument that its discovery paralleled the importance of Columbus’s discovery of America. But what Flammarion could not have anticipated was that the “discovery” of Mars by one of his readers, Percival Lowell, would have an immeasurable impact on subsequent thinking about the planet.
Crossley presents Lowell as a P.T. Barnum-like genius showman, with the noteworthy exception that Lowell apparently went to his death in 1916 believing his own “hoaxes” about Mars, refusing to let science disabuse him of his view of a vegetated planet criss-crossed by canals built to control and distribute water by an ancient and dying race of superior beings. A member of a famous and wealthy family, Lowell was an amateur astronomer with no formal training in astronomical research but with the wherewithal in 1894 to finance and build outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, an observatory with a twelve-inch telescope and several flimsy connections to the Harvard Observatory. Lowell used his observations and emerging theories to quickly publish Mars (1895), followed by the more influential Mars and its Canals (1906) and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908). Following the example of Flammarion, who had claimed in his 1894 book Popular Astronomy that Mars was “a living world, adorned with landscapes similar to those which charm us in terrestrial nature,” a landscape “on which, doubtless, a human race now resides” (qtd. in Crossley 71), Lowell claimed that Mars was “peopled by highly civilized and ingenious beings who were staving off extinction with a global irrigation system” (73). Through his three books, essays in The Atlantic Monthly, and popular lectures, Lowell, notes Crossley, “wrote the most vivid and influential—and profoundly erroneous —chapter in the history of Mars in the human mind” (73).
Scientists and astronomers quickly tried to refute Lowell’s sensational claims, but to little effect. Shortly before his death, against all evidence presented by credentialed astronomers and geologists, Lowell persisted in opening a lecture with the even-then preposterous claim: “That Mars is inhabited we have absolute proof” (88). Lowell’s influence may have been “largely disastrous” for science, but Crossley offers and continues to sustain throughout Imagining Mars a larger perspective: “If we ask what might be the value of the history of an error as massive as Lowell’s erroneous conception of Mars, part of the answer must be that he showed that it was possible to persuade people that other worlds mattered, that in constructing images of Mars and Martians, human beings inevitably constructed images of themselves and their own world” (82-83).
In chapters subsequent to his focus on Lowell, Crossley details ways in which Lowell’s romanticized Mars figured in both feminist and masculinist utopias and in ideological polemics such as Kurd Lasswitz’s Two Planets (1897)and Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star (1908), the two novels Crossley identifies as “the peaks of the first wave of utopian writings about Mars” (103). While he notes that “many dozens of works of utopian fiction were inspired by Schiaparelli or Lowell” (90), Crossley mercifully devotes attention to only a few of them before turning to Lasswitz and Bogdanov. Crossley offers compelling readings of Lasswitz’s novel, with its brief for universal brotherhood and the need for changes in human perception and philosophy, and of Bogdanov’s anticipatory Marxist utopia, showing how both works clearly drew upon the Lowellian depiction of Mars.
If twentieth-century fictional visions of Mars were almost always cast in some relation to Lowell’s views, they were also almost always cast in some relation to H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1897)—although, as Crossley points out, Wells himself was probably not much aware of or interested in Lowell. “Darwin, not Lowell,” notes Crossley, “is the key intellectual influence on Wells’s Martians” (113). While I do not think there is much that is new in Crossley’s reading of Wells, he establishes War of the Worlds as a standard against which other Mars narratives aimed at exposing “the delusions of grandeur and moral callousness in England’s pursuit of its imperial goals” must be measured: “Wells’s greatest achievement in The War of the Worlds is his critical examination of what it means to colonize another world, another species, another race” (122-23). And Crossley calls attention to the fact that the lesson constructed by Wells was apparently lost on an America that was projecting its colonial desires onto Cuba and the Philippines. Garrett Serviss’s Edison’s Conquest of Mars (1898) was serialized in the New York Evening Journal immediately following its serialization of The War of the Worlds and described a retaliatory and preemptive counter-raid on Mars by a United-Nations-style coalition of Earth powers. This “conquest” of Mars results in a fairly carefree genocide of all Martians. Here is Crossley’s wonderfully crafted assessment of this opportunistic “reply” to Wells: “As fiction it is hackwork; as a commentary on The War of the Worlds it is astonishingly impervious to Wells’s anti-imperialist motive; but as an example of how cultural and national values get drawn into the Martian myth it is both instructive and appalling” (124).
Crossley next takes his readers on a brief detour through appropriations of Mars by spiritualists and mediums and by purveyors of masculinist fantasies aimed at young boys. His chapter on “Mars and the Paranormal” finds an odd echo of Lowell in psychics, mediums, and spiritualists who in claiming to communicate with spirits on Mars “believed they had proceeded from mere fantasies about other worlds to the higher level of romance of fact” (148). Most noteworthy among these proponents of paranormal phenomena tied to Mars was Camille Flammarion, who Crossley suggests was “as devout about para-psychology as he was about Mars, and the two subjects often commingled in his books” (130). Flammarion’s definitive summary in 1892 of 300 years of telescopic observation of Mars, La Planète Mars, followed Uranie (1889), which claimed communication through séance between the living on Earth and the dead who have been transported to Mars and reincarnated as ethereal spiritual beings.
Similar misappropriations by spiritualists of scientific research on Mars include the case of Hélène Smith, a Swiss medium who claimed to be able to “channel” Mars in her paintings of its landscape and in her ability to speak and write “Martian.” And then there was the “psychic revelation” of Sara Weiss, who declared herself an amanuensis recording messages from Mars, which she published in 1903 in the marvelously titled Journeys to the Planet Mars or Our Mission to Ento (Mars), Being a record of Visits made to Ento (Mars) by Sara Weiss, Psychic, under the Guidance of a Spirit Band, for the Purpose of Conveying to the Entoans, a Knowledge of the Continuity of Life, Transcribed Automatically by Sara Weiss Under the Editorial Direction of (Spirit) Carl De L’Ester. While Crossley dismisses most of these psychic Martian fictions as “a hodge-podge of utopian vignettes of communal life, spiritualist propaganda, earnest moralizing, highly colored sentiments and descriptions, and unintended farce” (133), he points out that three literary masterpieces we might see as oblique inheritors of this spiritualist tradition are Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930), C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (1938), and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950).
Crossley then briefly turns to the phenomenon of nostalgic masculinist fantasies, “peopled with princesses and slave girls, and virtually no other female characters,” that offer a mostly unintended counterpoint to the feminist utopias set on Mars (150). Of course, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars (1912) may be the apotheosis of this subgenre, with John Carter’s subsequent reappearances not far behind; but it was well-represented in dime novels and boy’s papers such as Fenton Ash’s A Trip to Mars (1909), as well as by “Roy Rockwood,” the Stratemeyer Syndicate house name, one of whose users was Howard R. Garis (of Uncle Wiggily fame), who wrote Through Space to Mars (1910).
Crossley’s next two chapters form a kind of vital center of his study, as Chapter Nine, “Quite in the Best Tradition,” takes on the classic fictions of Stapledon and Lewis, while Chapter Ten, “On the Threshold of the Space Age,” considers the Mars books of Heinlein, Bradbury, and Clarke. These are books for which we look to Crossley for characterization and contextualization, and he does not disappoint. Chapter Nine covers roughly the era between World War I and World War II, a period of scientific exploration that begins with a displacement from sight to sound, as telescopic investigation took a back seat to attempts to use wireless radiotelegraphy to intercept “messages” from Mars. The period “ends,” as far as scientific interest goes, in 1941, when astronomers at the Mount Wilson Observatory in the San Gabriel Mountains in California, using its giant telescopes and spectrographic analysis, conclusively found that Mars lacked both the oxygen and the water necessary to sustain any life form from whom Earth might expect communication, thus finally ending serious speculation about the possibility of intelligent life on Mars. In the years between these two scientific efforts, Crossley explains, “we begin to see scientific Mars and literary Mars growing increasingly apart—as they would for much of the twentieth century” (171).
In his ninth chapter, Crossley charts the increasingly self-conscious recognition in literature that Mars had assumed a mythic life in the imagination quite apart from the Mars known to science, with George Babcock’s 1922 Yezad: A Romance of the Unknown and Alexei Tolstoi’s Aelita (1922) referencing both the “signaling Mars craze” of the day and a growing recognition of the literary tradition of Mars books. H.G. Wells foregrounds this literary self-reflexivity in his “return” to Mars in Star-Begotten (1937), where he has a character refer to a book “called The War of the Worlds,” although claiming not to remember its author: “I forget who wrote it—Jules Verne, Conan Doyle, one of those fellows” (qtd in Crossley 177). Crossley explains: “Wells turns Star-Begotten into an instrument for promoting, through his biological fantasy, a discussion of the necessity of changing mental habits on a global scale—the cause that became the hallmark of his fictional and nonfictional writing from the 1890s forward” (178). And two of the writers obviously influenced by Wells were Olaf Stapledon and C.S. Lewis.
In its sweeping scope, Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) reflected the influence of Wells’s Outline of History (1919) more than that of The War of the Worlds, but Stapledon told Wells he had read his Martian invasion book. Crossley credits Last and First Men with being “one of the most persistently inventive philosophical romances ever written,” but he devotes most of his attention in this chapter to Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, locating both books in an emerging literary tradition that “adopted a Wellsian conception of the alien” while showing “a new self-consciousness that there was already a tradition of Martian representation that needed (often ironic) recognition” (179). Briefly mentioning Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” (1934) as another example of “the tendency to shift Mars out of the realm of the familiar and into alien, sometimes Dadaist, territory,” Crossley urges that more attention be paid to John Wyndham’s Planet Plane (1936), which he credits with illustrating the “degree to which literary mythology has begun to function independently of astronomy” in Mars narratives. But it is Out of the Silent Planet (1938) that Crossley judges “the finest piece of Martian fiction published in the interwar years,” identifying its achievement as the creation in the Mars-analogue Malacandra of “a successful secondary world” as defined by Tolkien (185). What Crossley identifies as the theme that matters most to Lewis is “how we see another world, how perceptions are transformed when one surrenders to an experience unfettered by expectations”—the need for a “fresh view” of Mars, one “favoring religion over science” (187).
As a kind of coda to a chapter that opens with descriptions of Signal Corps efforts to contact Mars, requiring radio stations to temporarily shut down at the 1924 opposition to preclude any interference with possible transmissions, Crossley closes this chapter with a brief consideration of Orson Welles’s infamous 1938 radio-play adaptation of The War of the Worlds. In considering possible reasons for the irrational, if not hysterical, public reaction to that broadcast, Crossley makes an important larger point by citing a New York Tribune column written by Dorothy Thompson, who sadly anticipated: “If people can be frightened out of their wits by mythical men from Mars, they can be frightened into fanaticism by the fear of Reds, or convinced that America is in the hands of sixty families, or aroused to revenge against any minority, or terrorized into subservience to leadership because of any imaginable menace” (qtd. in Crossley 191).
Chapter Ten, “On the Threshold of the Space Age,” views postwar literary uses of Mars, starting with Keir Cross’s macho juvenile The Angry Planet (1946), but quickly moves on to the more important game of Heinlein’s Red Planet: A Colonial Boy on Mars (1949), Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950), Clarke’s The Sands of Mars (1951), Fredric Brown’s Martians, Go Home (1955), and Rex Gordon’s No Man Friday (1956; retitled First on Mars for US issue in 1957). The big story here is The Martian Chronicles, since, as Crossley reports, “not since Wells’s The War of the Worlds in 1898 had any work of fiction about Mars attracted so many readers and influenced so many other writers” (199). One writer who famously detailed why he was not influenced by Bradbury’s novel was Heinlein, who despite the completely unscientific libertarian construction of Mars in his Red Planet and in advance of his equally unscientific Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and Podkayne of Mars (1963), called out Bradbury for his “mistakes” in The Martian Chronicles, sniffing: “A man who provides Mars with a dense atmosphere and an agreeable climate, a man whose writing shows that he knows nothing of ballistics nor of astronomy nor of any modern technology would do better not to attempt science fiction” (qtd. in Crossley 198). Crossley’s impatience with Heinlein is palpable as he dismisses this critique as an attempt “to discredit his chief American rival for popularity in the 1950s” by accusing Bradbury “of failing at aims that he never embraced and in the process inflat[ing] his own commitments to scientific purity” (198).
Crossley does not offer individual readings of the stories in The Martian Chronicles, but answers the charge that some imported “a facile Norman Rockwell sweetness to his Mars” with the observation that many of the tales “offer devastating critiques of the blandness, the vulgarity, the complacency, the cultural homogenization of mid-century America” (200), skewering “Americanness at the midpoint of the twentieth century as effectively as The War of the Worlds captured the ethos of British imperialism and the last years of Victorianism” (199). He also notes the political topicality of Bradbury’s Mars, its stories written under the widespread fear of atomic war and in prescient anticipation of the Civil Rights movement, with “Way in the Middle of the Air” (1950) a parable of a Black exodus to Mars in reaction to Earthly racism. And, of course, Crossley calls attention to the celebrated moment in “The Million Year Picnic” (1946) in which the father has his children look for Martians in the mirroring waters of a nearby canal, terming the scene “a moment of authentic literary magic” (205).
Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars (1951) was intended by its author to be a counter to “the romantic fantasies of Percival Lowell, Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis and Ray Bradbury” (207), but Crossley presents it more as a direct ancestor of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy in its “celebration of the bleak grandeur and theatricality of Martian topography” (210). Mentioning the novel’s “slenderest of plots, little dramatic tension, and a forgettably adolescent love interest,” Crossley quickly focuses on what he sees as its more significant features, including the challenge of terraforming, the analogy between Martian settlements and the American colonies in the “new world,” and the individual process of “becoming Martian” (210). These motifs mark for Crossley the shift to the “post-romantic novel about Mars,” and he notes that this shift also occasioned in Clarke a not-so-bullish self-reflexive consideration of the problems facing sf in the space age as writers would henceforth seem to be forced to choose between offering factual accounts of solar system exploration—“journalistic travelogue”—or “fairy tales,” “pure fantasy (acknowledged as such)” (qtd. in Crossley 211).
Crossley offers two examples that remind us of the limits of Clarke’s somewhat bleak contemplation of the future of sf as a choice between journalism and fairy tales: Brown’s Martians, Go Home and Gordon’s No Man Friday. Brown’s “occasionally hilarious” novel takes its place in Crossley’s schema as one of a number of texts offering “fiction about the fictions of Mars” that serve as “the necessary bridge between the old romance culminating in Bradbury and the new realism heralded by Clarke and Asimov” (215). Of greater interest to Crossley is Gordon’s novel, a science-fictional Robinsonade (or, as Crossley suggests, an anti-Robinsonade) that he calls “the most persistently self-conscious of the Martian fictions of the 1950s” (219).
Crossley’s Chapters Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen move his study from the 1960s to the 1990s, chronicling the period when scientific observation of Mars transitioned more and more into direct exploration, starting with the Mariner 4 flyby in 1965, Mariner 6 and 7 in 1969, Mariner 9 in 1971, Viking 1 and 2 in 1976, and Mars Pathfinder, consisting of a lander and the Sojourner Rover, in 1996. Each of these missions added immeasurably to our scientific knowledge of Mars, and with each new set of information, all of it fascinating in its own right but deathly in implication for romantic notions of life on Mars, it became more difficult for sf writers to decide how to construct Mars in their fictions. Crossley correlates the dates of the various Mars Missions with fictions that tried to reflect this new understanding of the planet, with fictions that grudgingly accepted some of the information but clung to more traditional romantic depictions and misunderstandings, and with fictions that simply refused to acknowledge the “new” Mars revealed by science. Different writers adopted different strategies. In Dune (1965), Frank Herbert simply displaced what seems much like a Martian narrative to Arrakis, apparently deciding to “smuggle the old Mars into a new dust jacket” (223). Heinlein displaced his Martian to Earth in Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), shifting his focus from the planetary romance to the “Man from Mars” formula. Walter Tevis did much the same in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963), although giving his Man from Mars, T.J. Newton, the fairly transparent cover story that he came from a very Mars-like planet named Anthea. Philip K. Dick set on Mars both The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964) and Martian Time-Slip (1964) during this period and in both constructed Mars in “retrogade” fashion, featuring pre-space-age iconography; but Crossley notes that “scientific plausibility was no more a priority for Dick than it had been for Bradbury” (227).
Crossley singles out Lester del Rey’s Marooned on Mars (1962) and John Brunner’s Born Under Mars (1967) for clinging to old myths and thus serving as “regretful swan songs of a certain tradition of Martian novel” (231), with Leigh Brackett’s 1967 collection of Mars stories, The Coming of the Terrans, defiantly retrograde in its hostility to new scientific information. Brackett’s foreword reveals a grudging view undoubtedly shared by more than a few other writers, decrying the reduction of romantic dreams of Mars “to cold, hard, ruinous fact” and “dreary realities” (qtd. in Crossley 232). Against Brackett’s refusal to be swayed by the “dreary realities” of the Mariner Missions, Crossley celebrates another “overlooked” novel, The Earth is Near (1970) by Ludek Pesek, declaring “Of all the fiction about Mars published between 1965 and 1976, I know of none that takes the current state of knowledge about the planet more seriously” (233). Pesek’s novel and the Mars and the Mind of Man Symposium held at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena in 1971 both strike Crossley as turning points in the imagination of Mars, with the JPL symposium offering “a distinct boundary line in the literary history between the old traditions and the new scientifically based fictions” (236).
“New Mars” became more and more indisputable after the Viking Missions of 1976, which ruled out the possibility of any life on Mars other than the record of, if not the survival of, micro-organisms underground, although some evidence did suggest the existence of frozen water beneath the barren surface. For sf writers determined that their fictions be driven by plausible science, the question shifted from whether there was or had been life on Mars to questions about how humans might survive there. In Chapter Twelve, Crossley inventories the quite different paths taken by responses to this new challenge, some privileging Mars as a site for multiculturalism and sociological interrogation over against geological concerns. Constructions of an exhausted or “ugly” Mars appeared in fictions by Lewis Shiner, Harry Harrison, Jack Williamson, and the writing team of Gordon Eklund and Gregory Benford. What most interests Crossley, however, is not this “ugly” Mars of the 1970s, but the visionary effort of Frederick Turner, who in 1988 published a 10,000 line epic poem, Genesis, in which he makes Mars the location of a new creation myth that aligns the planet’s future with the future of the human spirit, in the process transforming “ugly” Mars into “beautiful” Mars. Crossley devotes nearly twelve rhapsodic and perhaps quixotic pages to describing this poem, which he calls “the most original treatment of Mars produced in the 1980s” (258).
The 1990s saw renewed scientific interest in Mars, promoted by the 1996 Pathfinder Mission (which placed the Sojourner rover on the surface of the planet), by the Biosphere 2 experiment viewed by many as a test-run for a sustainable Mars habitat, and by the creation of the quasi-scientific “lobbying” groups Mars Underground and the Mars Society, both pushing for more Mars exploration. Crossley identifies Robert Zubrin as the leading public advocate for Mars Exploration, publishing his nonfictional The Case for Mars in 1996, founding the Mars Society in 1998, and adding his own fictional account of an expedition to Mars, First Landing, in 2001. Zubrin’s efforts were directly reflected in two novels by Ben Bova, Mars (1992) and Return to Mars (1999), and by Gregory Benford’s The Martian Race (1999). The daunting estimated cost of Martian exploration is part of the inspiration for Terry Bisson’s Voyage to the Red Planet (1990), a gleeful send-up of both NASA and Hollywood.
The balance of Chapter Thirteen is then devoted to a brief analysis of Sondra Sykes’s Red Genesis (1991), a much more detailed reading of Greg Bear’s Moving Mars (1993), and another entry into Crossley’s archive of overlooked novels, planetary scientist and space artist William K. Hartmann’s Mars Underground (1997). Although it is clear that Crossley faults Moving Mars (in which Bear relocates Mars outside of our solar system) for its “allegiance to romantic plotting, to fantasy rather than scientific realism” (270), he acknowledges that the novel “does exhibit important features of the new Martian novel that developed in the late twentieth century,” most notably “a new conceptual framework in which dead Mars is supplanted by a revivified planet that is the site for building a new, human, progressive community” (271).
In his afterword to Imagining Mars, Crossley warns against “succumbing to the temptation to judge Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy as the omega point toward which the literary history of Mars has been tending” (307). But the warning comes too late and without enough conviction to be effective, for the preceding chapter, his final one, offers argument after argument that does indeed make Robinson’s Mars trilogy the apotheosis of the literary imagination of Mars toward which most previous works had been little more than preparation, and Imagining Mars effectively ends with a love song to Robinson. Jack Williamson may have coined the term “terraforming” in his 1942 story “Collision Orbit,” Frederik Pohl may have described the process of “aeroforming” in his 1976 novel Man Plus, and Kevin J. Anderson may have taken the concept of aeroforming to new narrative heights in his Climbing Olympus (1994), but Crossley makes it clear that it took a Kim Stanley Robinson to refine the dialectical opposition between terraforming Mars to make it habitable to humans and aeroforming humans to alter them for survival on the inhospitable planet. Crossley’s final chapter is almost exclusively devoted to showing “how Robinson, the most accomplished of the new Martian novelists, has turned the relationship between terraforming and aeroforming, between the urge for a green Mars and the commitment to a red Mars, between utopian progress and arcadian preservation, into the central dramatic and spiritual tension underlying his masterpiece” (285). And Robinson’s importance is not limited to the tradition of Mars fiction, as Crossley suggests: “For the deepest and fullest inquiry into the interplay between human development and extraplanetary habitation, as well as one of the great American imaginings of the building of utopia, the work of Kim Stanley Robinson is indispensable” (290).
Crossley’s Imagining Mars offers a stunning history and analysis of “the matter of Mars,” but in his celebratory readings of Robinson and of Robinson’s many literary ancestors, he also presents a compelling case that “Mars matters,” instantiating most of the great themes of science fiction, exposing again and again the complicated reciprocal relationship between extrapolation and speculation, between science and sf, and, most significantly, offering an inexhaustible heuristic for human imagination. This is a great book, an important book.
Any comparison of a single-authored monograph such as Crossley’s with a volume of conference proceedings is going to be skewed by a wide range of factors, even if the conference focused on a topic quite similar to that of the monograph. Still, the convergence of Crossley’s Imagining Mars with the 2008 Eaton Conference proceedings volume, Visions of Mars: Essays on the Red Planet in Fiction and Science, offers some tantalizing opportunities for comparison, particularly since a number of contributors to this volume are prominently featured in Crossley’s and the collection includes an essay by Crossley himself. It is cheering to see a new collaboration between George Slusser and Eric Rabkin, co-organizers of many celebrated Eaton Conferences in the past and co-editors of a number of noteworthy conference proceedings volumes published first by Southern Illinois University Press and then by the University of Georgia Press. This time they are joined by the very capable Howard V. Hendrix, who brings both scientific and fiction-writing savvy to the enterprise.
In his Introduction to this volume, Hendrix riffs on two different levels in which the “Visions” of its title functions: on one level, visions can be things seen, particularly as “seen” by science, or visions can be things dreamed, particularly as “dreamed” by literature; on another level, visions can be reflections in the mirror of literature, since “the face in the mirror is always both what we see of ourselves and what we dream of ourselves” (13). Mars serves particularly well as an inspiration for vision in all of these senses, just as it blurs the distinctions among them. As Hendrix puts the problem: “A book which presents a scholarly overview of the ways in which Mars—its past, present, and future—has been envisioned in theory and fiction produced on Earth is probably, in its own way, almost as entangled with the imaginary as a book by a terrestrial author which purports to be a history of envisioned future events on Mars” (10). Visions of Mars gives us a number of rewarding glimpses of the ways in which Mars has been used throughout history as a site of dreams, of mirrors, and of headaches.
That said, however, it remains the case that Visions of Mars is a conference proceedings volume and thus reflects the vagaries of conference papers, even when the conference is focused on a single topic. The 2008 Eaton Conference was organized around the theme “Chronicling Mars,” and while that conference preceded the publication of Crossley’s Imagining Mars and anticipated a number of its themes, the temptation to map this collection’s somewhat eclectic essays onto the more comprehensive and systematic grid of Crossley’s study is too strong to resist. Noteworthy overlaps between Visions of Mars and Imagining Mars include Crossley’s own essay, “Mars as Cultural Mirror,” a truncated version of what would become the eleventh chapter of his book and an appealing introduction to the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of his approach. Other essays in Visions of Mars offer valuable complements to Crossley’s study, notably Eric Rabkin’s reading of The Martian Chronicles and his extended meditation on this work’s larger importance to the public reception of science fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson’s contemplation of the importance of the tradition of Mars literature and speculation about possible future directions that tradition might take, and essays by Sha LaBare and John Huntington with provocative implications for our view of sf itself.
Rabkin’s characteristically panoramic view of the importance of Bradbury and his celebrated Mars novel is bolstered by his equally characteristic meticulous attention to the subtleties of Bradbury’s language, a rigorous scrutiny shared by Phil Nichols’s brief comment on Bradbury’s “self-adaptations” of one story from The Martian Chronicles, “And the Moon Be Still as Bright” (1948), for film and television. Robinson’s “Martian Musings and the Miraculous Conjunction” offers capsule assessments of the lasting impact of the major players in the “matter of Mars” before turning to the intellectual challenges and personal considerations that shaped the writing of his own Mars trilogy. The Robinson essay pairs well with Christopher Palmer’s “Kim Stanley Robinson: from Icehenge to Blue Mars.”
John Huntington, in “The (In)Significance of Mars in the 1930s,” draws from his intimate knowledge of Wells’s much later second Mars book, Star Begotten (an edition of which, edited by Huntington, was published by Wesleyan in 2006), to contemplate the differing views of the limits of sf speculation held by Wells, Lewis, and Stapledon. Sha LaBare’s provocative “Chronicling Martians” reminds readers that “any war between worlds is an ecological war” (154) as part of its brief for the expansion of our interest in Mars to a broader recognition that a focus on ecology and critique of anthropocentrism is vital to science fiction.
The eighteen essays in Visions of Mars are uneven in length, ranging from brief three- and five-page offerings that seem more like notes to George Slusser’s fifteen- and seventeen-page entries on J.-H. Rosny’s Les Navigateurs de l’Infini (1925) and on the influence of Wells on the Strugatskys. The essays in this collection are also uneven in degrees of focus on “the matter of Mars,” perhaps best suggested by Terry Harpold’s investigation of why Jules Verne did not write about Mars; however, “Where is Verne’s Mars?” answers an obviously pertinent question and explains that Verne’s interest was in movement rather than landscape, in journeying rather than in destinations. Slusser’s own two essays, as engaging and informative as they are, may better suggest the straying focus of the collection. Slusser’s piece on Rosny seems more about the author’s commitment to Darwinian evolutionary theory than to the ecology of Mars. In somewhat similarly oblique fashion, Slusser’s essay on the Strugatskys makes a strong case for their adaptation of Wellsian critique to Soviet socialism, but the essay’s readings of the Strugatsky canon through Wells seem much more about the critique of Marxist ideology implicit in Wells and explicit in the Strugatskys than about “the matter of Mars.” What Slusser’s essay on Rosny does offer is an intriguing introduction to a frequently overlooked pioneering sf writer, part of Slusser’s ongoing campaign to establish Rosny as the father of hard sf, a campaign furthered by Brian Stableford’s recent translations of Rosny’s novels into English and by Slusser’s and Daniele Chatelaine’s translations of Rosny in Three Science Fiction Novellas: From Prehistory to the End of Mankind (Wesleyan, 2012).
Visions as seen by science in this volume are mostly to be found in Joseph D. Miller’s opening essay, “Mars of Science, Mars of Dreams,” and in Howard Hendrix’s closing essay, “Beyond Goldilocks and Matthew Arnold: Interplanetary Triage, Extremophilia, and the Outer Limits of Life in the Inner Solar System.” Both essays discuss the science of our knowledge about Mars—what we know, do not know, and might not be able to know for quite some time. Miller, who was a co-author of published research based on data analyzed from the Viking Lander Labeled Release Experiment, explains the CHOSEN Hypothesis that provides the assumptions concerning carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur, nitrogen, and energy for pre-conditions of life on Mars and suggests some of the complications of that hypothesis. He then describes the findings—and the limitations of findings—from the life-detection experiments carried out by Viking Landers and from the chemical analyses from the Phoenix Mission.
In a quite nifty analytical model, the “Goldilocks” in the title of Hendrix’s closing essay refers to the “Goldilocks Zone” hypothesis that constructs Venus as too hot for life, Mars as too cold, but Earth as just right (175). Hendrix then applies to three planets the chronological triad of Matthew Arnold’s line about “Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/The other powerless to be born,” suggesting that Earth is the wanderer between “dead Mars” and “powerless to be born” Venus (227). He concludes his analytically creative cascade of three-part schemas with the protocols of battlefield first-aid that divide casualties into those beyond help, those not badly wounded enough to require immediate attention, and those for whom immediate attention would have the greatest impact. And the point of these organizing triads, Hendrix suggests, is that “what has been going on in both the scientific and popular imagination has been a variety of ‘speculative triage’” (175) in which Earth has been assumed not to need immediate attention, Venus is assumed to be beyond saving as a possible human habitat, and Mars has been deemed deserving of and rewarding our imagination concerning possibilities of native life or human habitation. Having thus established a three-part matrix in which triage trumps both the Goldilocks and the Arnoldian schemas, Hendrix goes on to recast the triadic relationship among planets into the more specific conflicts among “planets, persons, pathogens” as he refigures these relationships in terms of triage protocols—which is the analytical framework that helps account for our continuing focus on and fascination with Mars.
The essays in this volume contribute in ways both large and small, but always of interest, to our understanding of “the matter of Mars,” and offer a useful complement to Crossley’s more extensive and systematic study. At the very end of Visions of Mars are two appendices, the first a transcript of a dialogue at the 2008 Eaton Conference between Ray Bradbury and Frederik Pohl, moderated by George Slusser, the second a broader discussion among David Hartwell, Geoffrey Landis, Larry Niven, and Mary Turzillo. Even though the resulting conversations are not particularly productive of new or useful information, who would not want to hear what these folks have to say about Mars?
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