Marsbound (A Marsbound Novel)
Ace Hardcover, 2008
304 pp., $24.95
Reviewed by Joseph Bottum
One More Trip to the Red Planet
It all started with Schiaparelli, I suppose—Giovanni Schiaparelli, the Italian astronomer who aimed his telescope at Mars in 1877 and saw craters and canyons and dust storms, all the albedo features, linking up in lines that looked, from 36 million miles away, just like, you know, canals.
From there it passed into the hands of that fine American eccentric, Percival Lowell, from the Boston brahmin family of Lowells that seemed, in every generation, to rear up both a staid set of Harvard University presidents and a lunatic set of brilliant goofballs. In a series of books he wrote after the 1894 establishment of his Lowell Observatory in Arizona, Percival explained how the Martians had built the huge canals to access the ice caps at the poles, one of the final sources of water for an advanced civilization on a planet slowly dying.
Now, there's a picture: a failing people on a dehydrating world, alien and yet so near, an extraterrestrial vehicle for almost any allegory or message a writer could want. And for the next forty years or so, the world of popular fiction responded to the new maps of Mars with an almost indecent joy. In the 1897 War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells didn't bother with the canals, but he kept the notion of a desiccated Mars, whose vicious denizens decide to invade Earth in order to seize its oceans. Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1912 A Princess of Mars features Mars as a desert crisscrossed with giant irrigation canals. For his 1938 allegory Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis decided that the canals were deep watery canyons that made life possible on an otherwise completely dried-out Mars.
As it happens, the actual science in support of Martian canals—and thus Martian water, and thus Martian life—was going south fairly quickly. Spectroscopic analysis of the sunlight reflecting off the planet was finding no water vapor in the atmosphere, and better telescopes were resolving the visible lines into unconnected craters. By the time the Mariner space probe reached the planet in 1965, no one still believed it would find the Mars of Percival Lowell's moist imagination. It's surprising, really, to see the canals making an appearance even as late as 1949, with Robert A. Heinlein's Red Planet, and 1950, with Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles.
By that point, however, the accuracy of the science hardly mattered. Well, maybe it mattered a little. Heinlein always prided himself, perhaps over-prided himself, on the science in his science fiction, and he let the canals fade from view in such later Martian adventures as Stranger in a Strange Land in 1961 and Podkayne of Mars in 1963. Bradbury seemed, instead, almost to welcome the Mariner probe's final disproof of the canals—as though his science fiction were thereby released into purer realms of art. In 1967, he defiantly returned to the Martian canals in his story "The Lost City of Mars."
It's a reasonable bet that science fiction stories about Mars outnumber the stories about any other planet—or even about the Moon. Schiaparelli may have started it all, with Lowell's help in firing the public imagination, but the science-fiction writers quickly built up a large set of conventions about the planet that survived the canals that gave them birth. The Martians are tall and thin, you see, and saintly, in their alien way—or, if not exactly saintly, then poetic in the approved Bradburian, autumnal-light way—and they possess strange mental powers that make a mockery of Earth's technological obsessions.
The essential quality of Mars' dryness remains, for instance, in Philip K. Dick's two 1964 novels about the planet, Martian Time-Slip and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. The dying-people theme resurfaces in the young Roger Zelazny's 1963 "A Rose for Ecclesiastes," one of the most perfect bits of science fiction ever written and a story that shows the Martian conventions were strong enough to stand up to some inversions. In Zelazny's story, for instance, the Martians need human men for breeding, instead of the voluptuous human women pictured as being carried off by phallic-shaped aliens on the covers of the old pulp magazines. For that matter, in the Zelazny version, Earth has the religious inspiration Mars requires, whereas such stories typically feature prophetic aliens bleating a pseudo-Zen message of peace to a violent humanity trembling on the edge of nuclear destruction.
Even the strongest literary conventions, however, don't last forever. In Dan Simmons' much-praised recasting of the Iliad in his 2003 book Ilium, for instance, Mars is no more than some convenient nearby real estate on which to set part of the story. Kim Stanley Robinson's even more widely praised Mars Trilogy—Red Mars in 1992, Green Mars in 1993, and Blue Mars in 1996—treats the planet little better. These are superbly imagined accounts of the politics and science of colonizing another planet, and yet, there's almost an arbitrary quality about the planet Robinson chooses. The Mars Trilogy is astonishingly realistic, which is why the books won every science-fiction prize going when they first appeared, but they seem to lack any sense of the imaginative tradition that developed in the decades after Schiaparelli peered into his telescope. Where are the tall, thin, poetic aliens, dying as their planet dries? Where are their golden eyes and mystical powers? Where are their beautiful princesses? Where are their lost canals?