Thursday, November 21, 2013

Welcome to the Red Planet

The planet Mars has always had a peculiar attraction to the human imagination and has been closely associated with science fiction for about as long as there has been science fiction. Venus is closer and brighter in Earth's night sky, but ruddy Mars, with its war-like associations gets all the attention. Personally, I blame Schiaparelli.

 The Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli made a series of telescopic observations of Mars during the Great Opposition of 1877, when Mars and Earth came closest to each other in their orbits. Among the most notable features of the planet's surface on the maps he drew from his observations were a network of lines, which he called "canali", meaning "channels." He figured that they were natural geological features of the planet, but when his works were translated into English his "canali" were interpreted as "canals", implying artificial waterways built by extra-terrestrial intelligences.

The American astronomer Percival Lowell was fascinated by Mars and in 1894 used his family fortune to build an observatory near Flagstaff Arizona for the purpose of studying the planet. He firmly believed that the Canals of Mars were evidence of intelligent life on Mars, and popularized the idea of Martian Civilizations and that Mars was an older, dying planet -- ideas which the new field of Science Fiction embraced enthusiastically.

Although other novels featuring the Red Planet had been written before, they fade in importance before H.G. Wells's 1898 novel The War of the Worlds.  We've looked at this book before, but let me repeat a couple significant points. The main theme of the novel is about imperialism; Wells imagines what it would be like if alien invaders did to England what Europeans had been doing to the rest of the world. Wells followed Lowell's interpretation of the Nebular Hypothesis that the Martians would have and older, probably dying civilization, and took it farther, imagining what evolutionary changes would have occurred in such a race.

War of the Worlds was so popular that in the same year it spawned an unauthorized sequel called Edison's Conquest of Mars, in which the noted Wizard of Menlo Park builds a spaceship of his own so that the Americans teach the Martians something about payback. The author clearly missed the point Wells was trying to make about imperialism.

Other notable Martian romances of that period include A Honeymoon In Space (1900),  and Gullivar of Mars (1905), whose hero travels to Mars on a flying carpet.

Novels such as these were the inspiration for Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars, which firmly established the Planetary Romance genre.

In the 1920s, Hugo Gernsback began publishing science fiction magazines with two guiding principles: that each story be grounded in science and that each writer be paid as little as possible. (Sometimes the science was pretty tenuous, but then his writers would say so were Hugo's paychecks). Stories about space exploration frequently involved Mars; one of the closest planets to Earth, the one science knew the most about, and the one which, according to Percival Lowell, showed evidence of alien life.

By this time, astronomy had largely discredited the canals of Mars. The lines Schiaparelli saw were the result of flawed equipment and the lines Powell saw were the result of wishful thinking. But they remained firmly fixed in the popular imagination for decades to come.

Probably the best story from this period was Stanley G. Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey", published in 1934. It describes a space explorer who has crash landed on Mars making his way on foot to his expedition's base camp, and is notable for the imaginative martian fauna he encounters and for the friendship that develops between him and the native martian who accompanies him on his journey. Some critics consider the martian Tweel to be the first fictional alien to meet the challenge of later Astounding editor John W. Campbell: "Write me a creature who thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man."

The Northwest Smith stories by C.L. Moore written between 1933 and 1936 were also set on Mars but mixed a bit of noir -- and a bit of Lovecraft as well -- into the setting.

About the same time, a couple of stuffy Oxford professors who had a taste for fantastic literature decided there weren't enough books of the type they liked and so agreed that they would each write a science fiction story. J.R.R. Tolkien would write a story of time travel, and his friend C.S. Lewis would write about space travel. Tolkien never finished his story about psychic time travelers witnessing the destruction of NĂºmenor, but Lewis's Wellsian pastiche became Out of the Silent Planet (1938). Lewis was influenced by H.G. Wells in his story, most notably by The First Men in the Moon, and although the story makes deprecating comments about Wells's novels, Lewis acknowledges in a preface his debt to them.

Lewis felt self-conscious about how he hand-waved the science in his tale. He included the canals in the story, but made them so freakin' huge -- as they'd have to be to be visible from Earth -- that the protagonist spends much of the story inside one and never identifies it as such until he leaves the planet and sees them from a distance.

The year 1938 brought Wells and Mars to the public attention in another way when Orson Welles produced an updated radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds that was so plausible in it's simulated news flashes that it convinced a great many people that Martians really had landed in Grover's Corners New Jersey.

In the 1940s - 1950s, Robert Heinlein wrote several novels set on or involving Mars. Heinlein never tried to shoehorn all these stories into a consistent universe -- not exactly -- but his martians all had points in common. They had three legs, they had a culture largely incomprehensible to humans, and they frequently had powers and abilities that made them terrifying when they were angered. Fortunately, for the most part humans were beneath their notice, so they rarely got that angered. They feature prominently in Red Planet (1949) and Double Star (1956) and are the source of the mystic religion/philosophy taught by Michael Valentine Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).

Ray Bradbury, who as a young boy growing up in growing up in Waukegan Illinois devoured Edgar Rice Burroughs, wrote several stories set on Mars, most of which were collected in 1950 as The Martian Chronicles. The book describes the first human landings on Mars, the enigmatic contacts with the native martians, how men settle across Mars like a tide across the dead martian deserts, and then recedes again.

By the 1950s, Mars had spread from the pulp magazines into popular culture, appearing in science fiction movies. One of the most interesting was Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), a science fiction re-working of the DeFoe classic and featuring a truly creepy performance by Adam West. No, seriously. Arguably the worst was Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) which, if you look at it the right way could be seen as a prophetic allegory about the Fall of the Soviet Empire... nah, it's still bad. Then there was Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953), except that the boys never actually get to Mars; they land in New Orleans during Mardi Gras and just think it's Mars. They do go to Venus though.

Science fiction stories involving Mars also appeared on television as well, most notably on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Isaac Asimov at one point tried pitching an idea for a television space opera. Athough his brainy action hero "Lucky" Starr never made it to the small screen, Asimov adapted his idea into a series of novels starting with David Starr, Space Ranger (1952). The first novel was set in a commercial farming community on Mars and one of the characters, a martian-born human named Bigman, became Lucky's sidekick. Asimov was a little embarrassed about writing trashy space opera, and wrote the series under the pseudonym "Paul French", although by the time he started introducing positronic robots following the Three Laws of Robotics into the series, no one was really fooled.

In 1962, the Mariner space probes gave us our first really good look at the planet Mars, and much of what we thought was true turned out to be false. There were no canals; there were no gleaming cities; there were no oviparous princesses on six-legged thoats.

Something of the romance went out of Mars with the Mariner space probe, but it remains the most likely next step after the Moon if mankind is ever going to go out into space; (Venus, alas, is completely hostile; Mariner was even less kind to her). So it remains an important setting in science fiction.

And who is to say that we can't go retro? In 1998 a very good role-playing game written by Frank Chadwick was published titled Space: 1889, which hearkened back to the era of Edison's Conquest of Mars, describing a world in which the Great Powers of the 19th Century have established colonies on Mars and Venus. Alan Moore's comic The League of Extra-Ordinary Gentlemen had one issue set on the Mars of the 19th Century featuring John Carter, Gullivar and C.S. Lewis's sorns forcing Wells's tentacled martians to flee to Earth.

Percival Lowell's dreams may not have been real, but they haven't yet died.

NEXT WEEK: Who would have guessed it? Next time we're going to Mars! We begin a look at Ray Bradbury's ode to the Red Planet, The Martian Chronicles. Get ready for Rocket Summer!

No comments: