Romancing the Red Planet

First published in the Guardian.

Mars, bright and blood-red in the night sky, has tantalised the human imagination for centuries. It is the most Earth-like of the planets in the Solar System, and ever since the invention of the telescope, Earth-bound observers have made wild guesses about the features which can be glimpsed on its surface. Most famously, the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli recorded linear markings, which he called as canale, or channels, on his map of Mars in 1878. Canale was mistranslated into English as 'canals', provoking a wave of excited conjecture about intelligent Martian life. The most fervent believer in Martians was Percival Lowell, an eccentric amateur astronomer from a wealthy Boston family. Lowell built an observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona with the express purpose of observing Mars, produced elaborate maps of Martian canals, and in his 1895 book, Mars, spun fanciful theories about the civilisations which must have built them to transport water from the poles to still verdant equatorial regions. According to Lowell, the seasonal wave of darkening seen near the north polar cap marked the melting of ice and subsequent growth of vegetation as water percolated across the land.

Lowell's vision of a cool, dry, dying Mars cradling ancient civilisations inspired a clutch of turn-of-the-century SF writers, most famously H.G. Wells. The Martians in his 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, their intellects "vast and cool and unsympathetic", contemptuous of Victorian steam technology as they laid waste to London, were forerunners of the aggressive aliens of countless pulp novels and B movies. In 1917 Edgar Rice Burroughs published A Princess of Mars, the first of the eleven volume Barsoom saga, in which warrior races struggled in eternal war across dry ocean beds. Mars is smaller than Earth and its gravity weaker, so Burroughs's human heroes were capable of great feats of strength and derring-do, fighting off ravenous monsters and rescuing naked Princesses from the clutches of evil green Martians who (like the Martians of Tim Burton's movie Mars Attacks!) delighted in tormenting their enemies.

Not all fictional Martians were as belligerent as their planet's namesake, the Roman god of war. The Martians of German writer Kurd Lasswitz's Two Planets, published a year before The War of the Worlds, were technologically superior to humans, but brought universal peace once we could prove that we deserved it. C.S.Lewis's various Martian races in Out of the Silent Planet were our theological rather than technological superiors, an idea echoed in the blatant propaganda of the movie Red Planet Mars from the communist- baiting '50's, which suggested that discovery of Martians with a direct line to God could topple the Evil Empire of the Soviet government. In the 1950 movie Rocketship X-M the lesson was more salutary; human explorers discovered Martians reduced to savages by atomic war, but everyone dies before the lesson can be applied to Earth. And in the very silly movie Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, humans introduce bellicose Martians to the joys of Christmas.

The theme of an ancient dry Mars littered with relics of an ancient civilisation found its most romantic realisation in Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, published in 1950 and later turned into a faithful but wooden TV mini-series in 1980. Bradbury's Martians were an ethereal, poetic race which built crystal cities along slowly silting canals, dying out as soon as brash American astronauts arrived to pollute the dreaming red sands with their guns, raucous music, and hamburger stands. For The Martian Chronicles began the suburbanisation of Mars: "They brought fifteen thousand lumber feet of Oregon Pine to build Tenth City, and seventy-nine thousand feet of California Redwood and they hammered together a clean, neat little town by the edge of the stone canals. . . . It was as if, in many ways, a great earthquake had shaken loose the roots and cellars of an Iowa town, and then, in an instant, a whirlwind twister of Oz-like proportions had carried the entire town off to Mars to set it down without a bump. . . ."

In The Martian Chronicles and novels like Arthur C Clarke's The Sands of Mars, Judith Merril and Cyril Kornbluth's Outpost Mars, and Philip K. Dick's Martian Time-Slip, the Red Planet was seen as a place where, with a little water and a few pressure domes, it would be quite easy for ordinary folk to live. It might even be possible to venture out onto the surface with little more protection than a face mask, and to garden the red soil with your bare hands.

The first robot probes to Mars shattered this cosy vision. In the late 1960's, US Mariner fly-by probes snatched pictures of a dead globe battered with craters and distinctly lacking canals. Refinements in telescopes and spectroscopy showed that Mars was about as habitable as the Moon. The average surface temperature is far below the freezing point of water. The desiccated Martian atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide at a vanishingly low pressure. The shrinkage of the polar caps in summer is not due to melting of water ice but sublimation of carbon dioxide snow; the waves of darkening are not due to seasonal growth of vegetation but to storm-driven changes in deposition of surface dust. If humans were to survive on the surface, they would have to wear pressure suits or become cyborgs, as in Fred Pohl's grim Man Plus.

By 1971, when Mariner 9 arrived in orbit to find a vast dust storm obscuring the planet from its cameras, the public had lost interest. The Mariners and the less successful Russian Mars probes greatly increased our knowledge of Mars, but killed off the idea of Mars as a place to live as surely as they killed off dreams of Barsoom or ancient crystal cities by stone canals. In 'Rocket Man', Elton John sang "Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids". NASA's plans to launch manned expeditions to Mars were scrapped; SF writers turned to other themes.

But all this changed in 1976, when the two Viking landers transmitted the first pictures from the Martian surface, and the orbiters relayed back 55,000 high resolution images. The landers looked for life and did not find it, but the pictures from the orbiters did confirm hints from Mariner 9's limited survey. Mars turned out not to be an uninteresting desert after all, but a place of superlatives. Every geological feature on Mars is a magnitude bigger than its equivalent on Earth. Mars has the biggest volcanoes, the largest impact basin, the biggest canyons and the longest channels of any planet or moon in the Solar System. And it has dried up water channels and huge flood basins. There may no longer be liquid water on the surface of Mars, but there may have once been rivers and even oceans.

The dream of ancient Martian artifacts was a long time dying; they turned up as giant atmosphere regenerating plants in Paul Verhoeven's 1990 movie adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story, Total Recall (now slated to be sequelised as a TV series). And a few people claimed to be able to see, in Viking photographs of the Cydonia region, evidence of a ruined Martian city centred around a gigantic carving of a human face, although recent close-ups taken by the Mars Global Surveyor probe show that the 'Face on Mars' is as much an optical illusion as Lowell's canals. And yet while the Mariner and Viking surveys demolished one dream of Mars, the first detailed maps of the Martian surface stimulated the imagination of a new generation of scientists and science fiction writers.

The 1990's have seen a resurgence in SF novels about Mars. Some, like Ben Bova's Mars or Allen Steele's Labyrinth of Night, are set on the Mars mapped by Viking but include discoveries of alien artifacts that stubbornly hark back to older SF dreams. Stephen Baxter's Voyage is a dream of what might have been if NASA had not faltered after the Mariner pictures; Terry Bisson's Voyage to the Red Planet is a sharp satire about a commercially funded expedition to make the first movie on Mars.

Other novels examine the scientifically plausible idea that if Mars once had shallow seas and a denser, warmer atmosphere, then these might be regenerated by massive feats of planetary engineering, or terraforming. After Viking, Mars is no longer seen as a battered desert world, but a dry, planet-sized beach whose long-lost seas could be regenerated. Enthusiasts believe that a terraformed Mars might be a place to start afresh, to build an entirely new civilisation which will not incorporate the tragedies and horrors of human history. If terraforming is possible, it is possible to think of a Martian Utopia.

This seductive vision is at the heart of Greg Bear's Moving Mars, my own Red Dust (in which the Chinese get to terraform Mars instead of the usual American crew), and in Kim Stanley Robinson's epic trilogy, Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, which runs to over 1500 crowded pages. In this ambitious and densely imagined work, with a large cast of long-lived characters, Robinson seamlessly traces a future history from the first steps on the Martian surface, through the race to exploit the Red Planet, to the war for independence from Earth and the formulation of a Martian Constitution. He familiarises us with the vast scale and wonders of the planet, the immensity of the task of terraforming, and the practicalities not only of colonisation but of realising a new way of making civilisation work. And he also acknowledges the history of human dreams about Mars -- the wells which feed water to the surface are named after authors of Martian novels. It is the culmination of the scientific and imaginative investigation of post-Viking Mars.

We are poised at the beginning of a new wave of Martian exploration. Mars Pathfinder and its brave little robot, Sojourner, and the Mars Global Surveyor, which has just begun to take the first of many thousands of highly detailed close-up photographs of the Martian surface, are the first in a series of sophisticated probes which will be sent to Mars at every available launch window for the next eight years. Two, one British, one American, are to look for signs of life, the Holy Grail of Martian exploration. We cannot guess what they will discover; nor can we guess what dreams will be inspired by those discoveries. We do know that they will be stranger and more wonderful than we can imagine.

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