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Another Cognitive Mapping column. This one, which discusses one of science fiction’s great objects of desire, appeared in Vector 214, November-December 2000:

There’d been water in it sometime, though. The ditch was covered with what looked like a nice green lawn. Only, as I approached, the lawn moved out of my way!”
  “Eh?” said Leroy.
  “Yeah. it was a relative of your biopods. I caught one – a little grass-like blade about as long as my finger, with two thin, stemmy legs.”
A Martian Odyssey (1934)
Stanley G. Weinbaum

They would never find remnants of Martian life; no one ever would. She knew that was true in every cell of her. All the so-called discoveries, all the Martians in her books — they were all part of a simple case of projection, nothing more. Humans wanted Martians, that was all there was to it. But there were not, and never had been, any canal builders; no lamppost creatures with heat-beam eyes, no brilliant lizards or grasshoppers, no manta ray intelligences, no angels and no devils; there were no four-armed races battling in blue jungles, no big-headed skinny thirsty folk, no sloe-eyed dusky beauties dying for Terran sperm, no wise little Bleekmen wandering stunned in the desert, no golden-eyed golden-skinned telepaths, no doppelganger race — not a funhouse mirror-image of any kind; there weren’t any ruined adobe palaces, no dried oasis castles, no mysterious cliff dwellings packed like a museum, no hologrammatic towers waiting to drive humans mad, no intricate canal systems with their locks all filled with sand, no, not a single canal; there were not even any mosses creeping down from the polar caps every summer, nor any rabbitlike animals living far underground; no plastic windmill-creatures, no lichen capable of casting dangerous electrical fields, no lichen of any kind; no algae in the hot springs, no microbes in the soil, no microbacteria in the regolith, no stromatolites, no nanobacteria in the deep bedrock … no primeval soup.
Exploring Fossil Canyon (1982)
Kim Stanley Robinson

In 1898, when H.G. Wells subverted the popular invasion story by turning the attacking fiends into literal aliens, it was almost inevitable that the invaders should be Martians – in fact, for a long time ‘alien’ and ‘Martian’ were practically synonymous. Mars was our neighbour, the red planet symbolically linked with war; through optical telescopes astronomers had detected areas of blue-green amid the red and in 1877 Giovanni Schiaparelli had identified canali which the popular imagination continues to translate as ‘canals’. Only two years before Wells’s story of invasion, the American astronomer Percival Lowell had published a book (Mars, 1896) which completed the image of Mars as a hospitable, survivable world, a world suitable for humanity, or for its own indigenous life.

The image of Mars imperfectly absorbed from the ideas of Schiaparelli and Lowell turned the planet initially into the setting for colourful, romantic adventures. George Griffiths’s A Honeymoon in Space (1901) was typical in that it portrayed Martian society as both decadent and extremely rationalist; it became common to present Mars as a much older world but one whose people had become weary, in need of the sort of gung-ho American enthusiasm brought to them by Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter. Starting with A Princess of Mars (magazine serialisation 1912, novel 1917), Burroughs’s series of 11 Barsoom novels featured exotic landscapes, beautiful princesses, evil opponents, an upright dependable hero and all the other trappings of swashbuckling adventure. It may have owed little to the Mars known to science, but in its rôle as a second Earth it wasn’t that far from what Lowell and his fellows had been looking for.

During the 1930s there developed a contrasting view to the Wellsian model of implacable, inexplicably hostile aliens, stories that presented Martians as loyal and friendly, and as a contrast to Barsoom these same stories were rather more conscious of how Mars did differ from Earth. Examples include Raymond Z. Gallun’s ‘Old Faithful’ (1934) and Stanley G. Weinbaum’s ‘A Martian Odyssey’. This latter shared many of the characteristics of the romantic vision of Mars: the planet, imagined by its first Earth visitors as a desert, is in fact bursting with colourful and exotic life. Life that is at the same time intelligent and funny (the ostrich-like Tweel), curious (the silicon creatures that inhabit pyramids of their own rock-like excreta), and threatening (the black, tentacled beast from whose clutches the narrator first rescues Tweel). This short story is actually quite important in the development of science fiction, exulting as it did in the sheer variety and mystery of possible alien life; it was one of the first stories that suggested alien life forms could be very very different from the human form, and that they might be mysterious or even incomprehensible to humankind. But beyond this playful odyssey through a wonderland of alien creatures, the story also paid careful attention to the nature of Mars as we knew it at the time. The lower gravity, thinner atmosphere, lack of water and lower temperature are all taken into account, anticipating the more realistic approach to scientific principles and understanding demanded by John W. Campbell’s Astounding.

This approach, perhaps best exemplified by Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars (1951), still didn’t end the more romantic vision of Mars. In fact, the red planet started to acquire a religious or spiritual symbolism. In Out of the Silent Planet (1938) by C.S. Lewis it was a platform for a Christian passion play; in Ray Bradbury’s collection of stories, The Martian Chronicles (1946-50), it provided a haunted landscape for tales of loss and memory; in Roger Zelazny’s ‘A Rose for Ecclesiastes’ (1963) it provides the spirituality necessary for a poet’s cultural rebirth; in Ian Watson’s The Martian Inca (1976) its dust wrought visions and miracles.

In fact, in stories from Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road (1988) to Terry Bisson’s Voyage to the Red Planet (1990) to Paul J. McAuley’s Red Dust (1993) Mars has continued to provide a primarily romantic, non-realistic backdrop closer to fable than fact. But, in one of the rare instances of scientific discovery feeding directly into science fiction, the detailed information about the Martian surface and atmosphere provided by the Mariner and Voyager missions, and the studies which concluded in 1985 that enough water might exist to sustain prolonged missions, have prompted a rebirth of more realistic, factually-based fictions about Mars. These have tended to focus on the establishment of a colony (as in Ben Bova’s description of the first manned mission to the planet, Mars (1992)) or on the politics of the relationship between an established Martian colony and distant Earth (as in Greg Bear’s Moving Mars (1993)). However the work which has done most to re-establish Mars as an important landscape for science fiction writers to explore has been Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy, Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1996).

This is a huge work which encompasses the first 200 years of the Martian colony, from the landing of the First Hundred to a time when colonists can breathe without assistance and sail across Martian seas. At first glance, the Martian trilogy is firmly in the mould of the factually-based hard sf approach to Mars fiction. It describes in minute detail the measures taken to terraform the planet, records with extraordinary even-handedness the political arguments between the Reds who wish to preserve the Martian wilderness and the Greens who want to transform the planet, and explains each new scientific development from particle physics to longevity treatment in a manner to suggest that we are getting insights into scientific research 200 years before it happens. Indeed, at times the scientific extrapolation can be breathtaking in its daring. It conforms to the pattern also in using as a trigger for most of the drama in the three books the worsening relations between Mars and Earth resulting in violence and armed conflict.

But what makes Robinson’s Martian trilogy such a resonant work is that it re-works and updates the romance of Mars (Robinson follows what has become a familiar science fictional tradition of naming his Martian settlements after sf writers who romanticised the planet, from Lasswitz and Burroughs to Bradbury and Clarke). What we witness across three volumes and getting on for 2,000 pages is the slow but inexorable transformation of Mars from the bleak, unwelcoming desert that NASA has shown us into the exotic landscape of canals and forests and seas that has been the dream of science fiction for the last century. By the closing pages of Blue Mars, when much of Earth has been flooded by a series of natural disasters and half of Mars is under the waters of a new sea, the two planets are almost literal twins, Mars has become a second Earth where romantic adventures can indeed be played out – and the scientists, the explorers, the rational hard thinkers of rational hard sf have already set forth for the next terraforming challenges among the asteroids and the outer planets and on to neighbouring stars.

This homage to the sf writers who have already explored Mars in their imaginations is also present in Robinson’s ‘Exploring Fossil Canyon’, one of the early stories which set the scene for his trilogy. Here, in what is effectively a hymn to the sterility of Mars, he recounts all the forms of life that these writers have imagined on our neighbour. Although Robinson is saying, very firmly, that such creatures do not and cannot exist in the real Mars, the long list of impossible creatures emphasises how much we want our neighbour to be inhabited. We do not want to be all alone in the night, and we look to Mars first of all for the fellow creatures we want to meet out there. Whether they are Wells’s invaders or Weinbaum’s comical allies does not matter, what matters is that they should exist. So when NASA declared that it had found signs of life in a Martian asteroid discovered in the Antarctic it was as if a dream had come true: our loneliness was at an end, and life was (or at least had been) there on the very place we had always looked to find it: Mars. Already, this new excitement at the idea of Mars bearing life is beginning to seep into the literature, notably in stories such as ‘A Cold, Dry Cradle’ (1997) by Gregory Benford and Elisabeth Malartre. Whether or not Mars does prove to contain life, it always will in our imaginations; we can never get away from the need for that intelligence watching us from space.