Sunday, May 1, 2011

Imagining Mars

A Literary History

A scholarly work with 30 pages of footnotes, this book wades through many obscure volumes before arriving at ones that modern readers will be familiar with. Yet it’s a necessary journey in order to provide context to those later works.

Especially helpful is the correlation between fiction and scientific knowledge of the day, as well as portraits of two influential astronomers, Camille Flammarion and Percival Lowell, whose writings incorporated as much fancy as fact.

Their work stimulated the first outpourings of fiction about Mars late in the 19th century. So potent was Lowell's romantic notion of a heroic but dying Martian civilization that it remained a modern myth, even after it had been discredited scientifically.

The space age put to rest such “obsolete fantasies,” especially with the Mariner flybys in the 1960s and the Viking landings in the 1970s. Fiction about Mars became energized by a new realism, with terraforming a major theme.

Dozens upon dozens of novels are investigated in the book, with the following authors given the most prominence: H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Frederick Turner, and Kim Stanley Robinson. Below are a few scattered observations and quotes.

The War of the Worlds

Wells's portrayal of Martians as inimical non-humanoids was meant as a rebuke to the Victorian attitude of cultural superiority. "...for the first time, the inhabitants of Mars are depicted not as kindlier and nobler versions of ourselves but as monsters..."

John Carter

ERB’s John Carter books belong to a group of “masculinist fantasies” that became popular early in the 20th century. They portrayed Mars as a frontier outpost and Martians as savages needing to be pacified. Such books reflected the racist and imperialist attitudes of the day.

The Martian Chronicles

This 1950 novel represents "the last flowering of a romantic vision of Mars," yet remains "one of the half-dozen or so fictions about Mars that are central to the imaginative tradition." Bradbury is quoted as saying, "Mars is a mirror, not a crystal."

Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein's "send-up of American sexual Puritanism and fundamentalism" is "full of his customary libertarian doctrines and cartoon characters masquerading as personalities."

Frederick Turner

An author I was not familiar with. His 1978 novel, A Double Shadow, and 1988 epic poem, Genesis, are discussed in some detail. Genesis is “the most original treatment of Mars produced in the 1980s."

Final Thoughts

In any survey such as this it’s inevitable that some books will be left out. In my case I regret the absence of Desolation Road by Ian McDonald, especially since one of his short stories, “The Old Cosmonaut and the Construction Worker Dream of Mars,” is mentioned as a possible new direction in Martian fiction, able to mesh the literary heritage of a canaled Mars, which seems embedded in our imagination, with the reality of a harsh and lifeless planet.

The book includes eight colour plates. As the subtitle indicates, this is a literary history, so only a few films are mentioned.

Certainly, a huge undertaking with many valuable insights.