‘Rather than stifling Mars fiction, however, Mars reality transformed it’


Green Mars, Don Dixon

From The Times Literary Supplement:

When Earth was thought to lie at the centre of the universe, the planets were seen as wandering stars – Gods perhaps, or their distant abodes. Once Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler redrew the solar system, however, Earth became the paradigm for planetary interpretation. Now it became possible to ask whether Mars and other wanderers might have mountains and oceans, and whether they might support life, even civilizations. Indeed, as Earth was the model, intelligence was more or less the expectation for alien life. A verse in Milton’s Paradise Lost captures this new perspective well, “Witness this new-made World . . . with stars numerous, and every star perhaps a world of destined habitation”.

Scientific mapping of Mars began around 1840. By 1877, Nathaniel Green, a British astronomer, had produced a lovely set of maps compiled from the observations of many colleagues. Green’s painterly embrace of diffuse lines and pastel shades – darker in the northern hemisphere and lighter in the south, with white caps at the poles – communicates clearly the limits of nineteenth-century observation. Within a year, however, Green’s masterpiece had been eclipsed by a new map from the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli. Where Green had artfully conveyed uncertainty, Schiaparelli drew a sharply detailed landscape dissected by broad “canali”, or channels.

Historical map of Mars, Giovanni Schiaparelli, 1888

Schiaparelli’s map provides the jumping-off point for an extraordinary fin-de-siècle debate about Mars, dominated by the amateur American astronomer Percival Lowell. In 1895, Lowell published a map of Mars in which Schiaparelli’s “canali” were rendered as straight lines with round structures at their intersections – canals, not channels, constructed by a parched civilization dependent for survival on melt water from polar glaciers. The remarkable if transitory public interest that ensued is beautifully documented in K. Maria D. Lane’s Geographies of Mars. Lowell’s more lasting influence on the literary imagination is chronicled in Robert Crossley’s equally enjoyable Imagining Mars. Refracted through different lenses, Lane’s and Crossley’s accounts are individually both illuminating and limiting. Together, however, they paint a vivid picture of Mars observation and the ways it has influenced and been influenced by contemporary culture and politics.

By the early twentieth century, the romance of the Wild West had succumbed to ranches and railroads, but literary Mars was in its ascendancy. Science, however, would eventually catch up with fiction, and as increasing knowledge showed Mars to be cold, dry and airless, intelligent Martians were consigned to the cultural hinterland of camp. Rather than stifling Mars fiction, however, Mars reality transformed it. In the new literature that emerged with the Space Age, intelligent beings continued to flourish on Mars, but now they were human – explorers and colonists of a world with infinite possibility. Robert Crossley singles out Robinson’s great trilogy of Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars as the quintessential example of modern Mars literature, not to mention the finest contribution to the genre since H. G. Wells. In the prologue to Red Mars Robinson declares, “We are all the consciousness that Mars has ever had”. But in the pages that follow, Mars transforms its colonists even as they terraform its once forbidding surface, a bracingly different take on the environmental determinism espoused by Lowell.

“Back to the Red Planet”, Andrew H. Knoll, The Times Literary Supplement