Though Venus is more like Earth in size, Mars is the planet that regularly makes headlines. New ice under its sandy cliffs has been caught on camera, causing more hope that life may have been present at some point in the past. Prominent people like Elon Musk are talking about going to Mars in the near future.
Scientists are once again planning sustainable living quarters for the colonization of the fourth planet from our sun. This is not the first time humanity has endeavored to send a manned mission there. For more than a century this planet has been popularized in the news as well as in pop culture. Mars has especially held a rich place in world literature.
In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli said he saw channel-like structures in his observations of the Martian surface. Partially through mistranslation, some scientists further thought these were actually canals built by intelligent life-forms. A few years later, American astronomer Percival Lowell agreed wholeheartedly with Schiaparelli’s so-called findings. Years later, when better telescopes were more readily available, the scientific community for the most part dismissed the concept of the channels for they were not present on the planet’s surface. However, Lowell was no fool. He predicted that another planet in our solar system existed outside Neptune’s orbit.
This extraterrestrial body was indeed discovered (it was called Pluto). But despite their brilliance, Lowell and Schiaparelli (and others) saw things in their telescopes that weren’t really there. It has been suggested that the optics or even tired eyesight brought on the effect that tricked these astronomers. This is still a bit of a mystery.
Prior to the scientific community’s brushing-off of this concept, another French astronomer, Camille Flammarion, wrote several works that would today be considered sci-fi novels. In one of these, Les Terres du Ciel (1884), Flammarion describes the scenery of bodies such as the moon and Mars to his readers. Flammarion’s interest in the moon may have been sparked by the 1865 novel by his fellow countryman Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon.
Percival Lowell was also able to write and have published a number of lengthy essays about the proposed life on the Red Planet. His first was a book that was simply called Mars, originally published in 1895. Two more followed: Mars and Its Canals (1906) and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908). Lowell died in 1916, and Pluto would be discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh.
Around 1898, a mere three years after the publication of Percival Lowell’s first Martian book, H.G. Wells’s epic sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds was published. The story he tells is one of invaders from Mars coming to Earth and leveling cities with their destructive lasers. Humanity retaliates with what it can, but the Martians’ tech is too advanced and efficient. It is fitting that the Earth finds itself in a desperate fight with the inhabitants of Mars, the name for the ancient god of war. The War of the Worlds enjoyed a host of Hollywood film adaptations. It was also converted into a radio play in 1938, late in the Great Depression, and was broadcast and narrated by Orson Welles. His realistic rendition and delivery of the script famously caused a panic throughout the U.S. (although, this historic aspect has been disputed in recent years).
In 1917, the year after Percival Lowell’s death, a novelization entitled A Princess of Mars was published. This book was the first in the Barsoom series; its author was the renowned Edgar Rice Burroughs. Apart from the Barsoom series, Burroughs other famous story was that of Tarzan. Ten sequels were produced, most of them being attributed to Edgar Rice Burroughs. The last of these was John Carter of Mars, which was published in the early 1940s. Barsoom is the Martian word for Mars itself. Thus, the series is referred to as the “Barsoom series.” (It was the basis for the 2012 film John Carter.)
Sci-fi was a new and rising genre in the 1930s. Stanley G. Weinbaum’s short story “A Martian Odyssey” was published around this time. Many stories of the same caliber were being published in that decade. In 1938 (the year Orson Welles made the renowned radio broadcast), a book called Out of the Silent Planet was published. It is often overlooked by sci-fi fans, and yet is was created and penned by one of the greatest fantasy authors of the 20th century. Its author was none other than British professor C.S. Lewis, a good friend of J.R.R. Tolkien. Out of the Silent Planet was the first installment of Lewis’s sci-fi trilogy. The alien planet on which much of the story takes place is Malacandra, which is meant to be Mars.
The next notable literary work is Robert A. Heinlein’s 1949 novel Red Planet. The Martian Chronicles, a collection of short stories about the colonization of Mars by Ray Bradbury, was published the year later. Then in 1951, Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars was published. This whole period was filled with Martian literature. The 1950s and ’60s were the golden era of sci-fi, and so Mars appeared frequently in much of the pop culture of the day. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) also takes the reader to Mars.
It was really not until the ’90s when quality literature about Mars and Martians became popular again. This is because it was in the 1990s that high-tech probes like Mars Global Surveyor, Pathfinder, and Sojourner landed on the planet, giving us new, more detailed imagery of the Martian surface. The Mars Society was also founded in the late 1990s. In this decade, astronomer and astrobiologist Carl Sagan said, “Because of the historic romance of the general public with Mars (consider even today the associations of the word ‘martian’), the exploration of Mars has a public resonance and support that probably no other goal of the space program can claim.”
In 1993, Greg Bear published his award-winning novel Moving Mars, a futuristic story that discusses many political themes. Kim Stanley Robinson also published numerous Martian novels throughout this decade. Dr. John Gray published a book entitled Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992), which covered topics about the psychological differences between men and women. It employed the metaphor of the title to get its point across, picturing that the two sexes originated from two different planets of drastically different societies. Apparently, it was the longest-running nonfiction bestseller of the ’90s. And in 1999, bringing the decade to a close, the novel The Martian Race by Gregory Benford was released.
The most popular Martian-related literary tale next to the classical War of the Worlds did not reach its readers until 2011. This of course is Andy Weir’s widely acclaimed The Martian which, unlike The War of the Worlds, actually takes place on Mars itself. It was adapted for the silver screen and released to theaters in 2015. This obviously helped in popularizing the novel itself.
It was also in 2011 that the poetry collection Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith was first published. The work features creative pieces that include imagery of numerous objects seen throughout the cosmos. Smith was likely inspired by the life of her father, a scientist involved with the development of the Hubble Space Telescope. Even more recently, Martian anthologies such as Old Mars which was edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois have been published.
Even music writers have shown a great fascination with the Red Planet. For instance, English composer Gustav Holst wrote the classical suite “The Planets” between 1914 and 1916. Mars is given tribute in its own section entitled, “Mars—Bringer of War.” In hearing it, it can easily remind the listener of various John Williams soundtracks such as that of Star Wars. Nearly a century after Holst’s composition, in 2012, the singer, voice actor, and songwriter will.i.am had his piece “Reach for the Stars” broadcast from Earth to Mars and back again.
We are entering a new age of Martian exploration in both science and science fiction. Our efforts are being directed at colonizing the sandy celestial body. As humanity strives to reach out toward the Red Planet, more imaginations will be sparked, more pens put to work. Someday soon, writers may find themselves living on a red planet, writing even more far-fetched fantasies than those of their forebears.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Sometimes I want to be awestruck. It’s a feeling that I seek out. And so, usually late at night, I’ll open my laptop and type into a YouTube search bar: “s-c-a-l-e o-f t-h-e u-n-i-v-e-r-s-e.” I load a video at random; they all perform the same basic gesture: zooming out to incomprehensibility.
Then come the numbers. Twenty-five trillion miles to reach the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. At least one hundred billion stars and one hundred billion planets in our Milky Way galaxy alone. More than two trillion galaxies in the Observable Universe, and that’s just what we can see. Physical reality extends and expands far beyond our speed-of-light-limited view.
From our earthbound perspective we refer to all of this cosmic immensity with a modestly geocentric name: “outer space.” To me, this seems like a compartmentalization of epic proportions. On the one hand, there is the world as we know it, the ground-level of human life and everything it entails: the whole arc of history, the transformation of our natural environment, nervous first dates over coffee. On the other hand, there is the remaining 99.999 percent of material reality that exists beyond the stratosphere, always there but rarely acknowledged.
Strictly speaking, “outer space” refers to the vast expanses between celestial objects, the near-perfect vacuum of space once thought to be filled with aether, the fifth element. In practice, though, we imagine outer space in much the same way that we do the ocean, so that far-flung material bodies (dusty asteroids, murky trenches) are implied within the whole. Outer space is a metonym for the great “out there.”
But I can’t swim in outer space. It’s out of sight and out of mind. Even the best images—heroically gathered from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Voyager space probes, and the Mars rovers—bespeak something uncanny, something unearthly. When I consider the bare fact of two trillion galaxies (as when Whitman “heard the learn’d astronomer”), I experience a jarring dissonance between what I know and what I feel to be true.
Is it really all out there? If so, can it be written?
In his recent collection of short meditative essays, Winter, Karl Ove Knausgaard takes up the problem of outer space in a piece called “The Local”:
The first time I saw photographs of a planet taken at ground level, I was shaken. The photos were from Mars, they showed a plain of sand and rock extending towards a mountain that towered up in the distance, the light pale grey as it is on certain autumn mornings. What was so astounding about it? I suddenly realised that it was a place, as concrete and physically real as the frost-covered garden where I have just been standing, gazing at the sky. I understood that it was local. That the spirit of place, what the Romans called genui loci, existed there too. And perhaps that is how we should imagine the universe, not as something alien and abstract, all those dizzying numbers and vast distances, but as something nearby and familiar. The wind whipping up a snowdrift beneath an outcrop somewhere in the Pleiades, the air full of swirling snowflakes which in the faint gleam of the moon resemble veils, and the sound of the wind forcing its way through the gulch, wailing, almost whining. A door banging in a house on a desert-like plain near Achernar, a circular lake in a forest on the outskirts of Castor. It is a pleasing thought.
Knausgaard is rightly lauded for his psychological realism, his ability to represent the affective nature of lived experience. As Toril Moi writes of his six-part autobiographical novel, which is both praised and criticized for its sheer abundance of the human real, “My Struggle is one man’s attempt to tell us how it is to be here, now.”
In outer space, though, there is no “here” and “now,” not for us anyway. The universe cannot be imagined as “nearby” or “familiar” because it is neither. In “The Local,” Knausgaard gives us romantic descriptions of faraway sights and sounds (“swirling snowflakes,” “a circular lake in a forest”): mere setting, in other words, which is the lowest element in the holy trinity of narrative structure: character, plot, and setting.
Because outer space precludes character (we cannot exist there) and plot (as far as we know, nothing worth telling ever happens), literary realism suffocates in the vacuum as quickly as any person would. David Shields argued in Reality Hunger that much of what we crave in the experience of reading is an encounter with reality. “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art,” Shields writes in the book’s opening sentence. If by reality we mean all that exists, then there’s plenty to be smuggled from the cosmos, or, for that matter, from the damp corners of a glacier cave, the parched pavement of an Australian desert, or the worn interior of my left shoe.
But this isn’t what we mean—what most artists mean—when framing “reality,” a term that Nabokov once suggested means nothing without quotation marks. To represent reality, to engage in what the ancient Greeks called mimesis, always involves some degree of exclusion, and, without the spark of consciousness, both the pebble and the quasar occupy the fast track to irrelevance. There are subjects worthy of representation and subjects unworthy, ranging on a wide scale with the human and the nonhuman as its poles, so that a person is vastly more interesting than a house which is vastly more interesting than a mountain. Raw nature is unnarratable, open to all our parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives…) but closed for storytelling. Among other things, outer space is a grand reminder that realism is a humanism: if we’re not around, what’s there to represent?
For these reasons, realist narrative, with its close ties to literary fiction, cannot survive in outer space. What, then, is possible on a “desert-like plain near Achernar?” Knausgaard flirts with the obvious answer when he conjures up a “door banging in a house” on an distant planet. With that sole detail (how could there be a house?), he, if only for a moment, slips into the realm of science fiction, the genre of “what-if?” With its strong claim to outer space, science fiction enjoys by far the most real estate of any literary genre.
To set a story in outer space means to frame that narrative in the future (if not a long time ago in a galaxy far away…) because, as things currently stand, we, as human beings, are simply not there, barring a few brave astronauts on the ISS. Then, as the writer of outer space painfully knows, an explanation must be given as to how a puny human character is able to survive beyond his ecological home and traverse the light years between the raging stars. And thus the tropes and technologies of science fiction pour into the story and render it generic: spaceships, FTL drives, and wormholes; terraformed planets and Big Dumb Objects (BDOs); alien interventions and monsters-in-the-Jefferies-tube.
Setting aside surreal fantasy or magical realism, it is impossible to narrativize outer space without reference to (1) the future and (2) technology, and the foregrounded presence of either concept will always signal “sci-fi” to contemporary readers. The association of outer space with science fiction stretches back to the space-bound works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires, which were described as “scientific romances” rather than science fiction proper, involved the use of exciting technologies to reach the plains of Antarctica, the depths of the ocean, the center of the earth, or, indeed, the orbit of the moon. Written in the late 1860s, From Earth to the Moon and its sequel Around the Moon tell the story of three men who are projected by a massive cannon on a daring lunar voyage. These novels are somewhat dated today, but they proved influential for decades to come, inspiring the popular silent film A Trip to the Moon (1902) and providing a model for Wells to react against when he—in 1901—published The First Men in the Moon. Wells’s moon voyage (like much of his early bibliography) is filled with remarkable ideas, from anti-gravity propulsion to insectoid aliens, and it remains an intellectually stimulating read even after more than a century of Wells’s sci-fi progeny.
Verne, for his part, was critical of Wells’s intermixing of the scientifically plausible with the speculatively fantastic, making his position clear:
I do not see the possibility of comparison between his work and mine. we do not proceed in the same manner. It occurs to me that his stories do not repose on a very scientific basis. No, there is no rapport between his work and mine. I make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannon-ball discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to Mars [sic] in an air-ship, which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. Ca, c’est tres joli, but show me this metal. Let him produce it.
Of course, it was precisely Wells’s spirit of invention that made him the principle founder of modern science fiction and brought the vast expanses of outer space under the genre’s wing. As science fiction scholar James Gunn puts it, “Verne was writing an ‘if-this-goes-on’ kind of story and Wells, a ‘what-if’ kind.” It was Wells who introduced the term “outer space” into the popular lexicon, and it was he who first defined the cosmos as a properly science fictional space, a space of what-if.
Verne and Wells, then, set the rules of the game: science fiction would be the wrench that opens up new arenas of space and time. Following Edwin Hubble’s revolutionary discovery of a profusion of “island universes” (what astronomers now call galaxies) in 1924, the next serious writer of outer space was Olaf Stapledon. Star Maker (1937) explicitly grapples with a universe that is incalculably large and incomprehensibly old. Stapledon understood the de-centering significance of Darwin, Hubble, and the deep time of modern geology, and so he wrote a narrative that spans billions of years, with an everyman narrator who becomes capable (through an act of sheer imagination) of traversing time and space in a disembodied form. During his long voyage out and back home again, the traveler encounters a number of alien intelligences, astronomical phenomena, and even the universe’s creator, the eponymous Starmaker. In full view, the novel—revered by many illustrious writers of the day, including Virginia Woolf and Jorge Luis Borges—is a strange achievement, predictably thin on plot and characterization but bursting with ideas in typical high-concept fashion. With his other great novel, Last and First Men, written in 1930, Stapledon exerted massive influence on the development of twentieth-century genre fictions, cited glowingly by authors like H.P Lovecraft, C.S. Lewis, Arthur C. Clarke, and James Blish, among others.
After Stapledon came years of pulp-fiction, the Roswell incident, the space opera of sci-fi’s Golden Age, The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and all the rest. Over the long and tumultuous century, writers of outer space dreamt up inspired places, scenarios, and species, and, in equal measure, recycled and re-recycled clichés, old and new. Looking backwards, I imagine each story, each discrete rendering of “what-if-the-stars-were-such,” as contributing to the sci-fi-ification of outer space. What we end up with is a massive swath of physical reality defined in the popular imagination by an artistic genre.
Outer space, in the end, becomes a giant projective surface for the dreams of tomorrow, more idea than place. I’m often reminded of George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnsen’s Metaphors We Live By, in which the authors argue that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” Lakoff and Johnsen describe the centrality of spatial metaphors, particularly the up/down metaphor: happy is up (“I’m feeling up” or “My spirits are high”) and sad is down (“I’m feeling down” or “My spirits sank”); conscious is up (“Wake up”) and unconscious is down (“He fell asleep”); more is up (“My income is up”) and less is down (“Profits are down”). There is an exception to the up-is-good-and-down-is-bad rule, however: unknown is up (“It’s up in the air”) and known is down (“The matter is settled”). Go up far enough, and you reach the greatest unknown—how far it all goes, we can only speculate. At some level, I suspect that outer space represents the unsayable, the unconscious, the undiscovered country of death, and so we don’t talk or think about it very much. For now, the bells and whistles of science fiction are the only way for the resistant cosmos to be narratively represented and emotionally encountered.
There’s finally, of course, the question of literary respectability: realist fiction is up, genre-fiction is down. In a short essay entitled “Margaret Atwood and the Hierarchy of Contempt,” Peter Watts, author of Blindsight, calls Atwood to task for her aversion to the science-fiction label: “Here is a woman so terrified of sf-cooties that she’ll happily redefine the entire genre for no other reason than to exclude herself from it.” Watts continues, “Atwood claims to write something entirely different: speculative fiction, she calls it, the difference being that it is based on rigorously-researched science, extrapolating real technological and social trends into the future (as opposed to that escapist nonsense about fictitious things like chemicals and rockets, presumably).” For Watts, “the literary credscape […] hold the realist novel to be the benchmark against which all else is judged.” Since Atwood strives for high art, she strives for realism, and science fiction must be discarded.
The whole exercise is silly. Within science-fiction (including those stories set in outer space), there is plenty of room for realism, if by realism we simply mean those moments of keen observation, getting at deep truths, reflecting the human condition, inspiring a head-nod and an internal murmur of “Yes, this speaks to me.” Of course it’s there in science fiction. My favorite sci-fi writers, including Watts, Atwood, Le Guin, Banks, and so many others, all use fantastic lies to tell the truth.
But, in any space-fi novel, it’s always yesterday or tomorrow because characters are a necessity. Without character, there is no plot, no representation beyond “the faint gleam of the moon.” This is why writing outer space as it actually exists now is unimaginable: no one is there. We can certainly wonder what-if, but we cannot represent what is.
Awestruck again, I’ll close my laptop. Falling asleep, I’ll picture the countless light years as an endless highway. All the empty systems are abandoned towns, and the stars are street lamps left on for eons. There is the promise of human presence, painted by more than a century of science fiction, but we’re not there yet. If we ever arrive, what stories will we tell?