Monday, August 6, 2012

A Curious Thing

When I was born there was life on Mars. Well, not really – unless it was (is) of a hardy microbial kind, which, though not impossible, is unlikely. However, the general consensus back then was that the shifts in the light and darks patches fuzzily visible in earth telescopes were best explained by seasonal variations in vegetation. Vegetation implied animal life to eat the plants. Where there were animals, might there not be civilizations? Percival Lowell in the late 19th and early 20th centuries famously convinced himself he saw engineered canals on Mars. His observation was proof of intelligent life; unfortunately, it was just his own. The only line on his hand-drawn Martian maps that proved not to be imaginary was the Valles Marineris canyon. Seasonal color variations are now attributed to dust storms and frozen carbon dioxide (dry ice).

Martians abounded in popular culture, and I did nothing to try to escape them. The second full-length novel I ever read, children’s literature aside, was H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898) – the very first was Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which was lost right here on earth. Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912 began his John Carter series set on Mars; Disney’s fx-heavy movie version this past spring shows there still is life in that franchise, if not actually on the planet. I don’t remember when I read Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (the first in the series), but it was before Grade 7 sometime. I discovered Bradbury and Heinlein a few years later. Invaders From Mars (1953) was one of my favorite movies as a kid. As late as 1963 My Favorite Martian could be the name of a TV series – one which I watched whenever possible.

On my birthday in 1964, I watched the launch of Mariner 4 from Cape Kennedy, as Cape Canaveral was called between 1963 and 1973. The probe would make the first ever close fly-by of the planet. The craft neared Mars in July 1965. Given the lingering public perception of the plausibility of Martian life – though scientific opinion had grown skeptical by the 1960s – it is not surprising that millions of viewers were glued to their TVs on July 14 (7:18 PM EST) as the first images from Mariner 4 assembled line-by-line on our screens. To a young sci-fi fan such as me, the images were dismaying. Mariner 4 took close-up pics of only 1% of Mars’ surface, and, by luck, that swath happened to be a region atypically dense with craters. There were no forests and no remains of ruined cities. Mars looked like the moon. It’s hard to quash the spirits of young space cadets for long, however. “Terraforming” already was a familiar concept in sci-fi, as in Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky (1953) set on the Jovian moon Ganymede. If Mars wasn’t habitable, we could make it so; few of us were yet ready to give up on the red planet. Mars remained the next frontier with a surface area equal to that of all the terrestrial continents.

Nearly 50 years later, I still buy science fiction, though nowadays it is a minority (though not a tiny minority) of my recreational reading selections. Among recent novelists, Kim Stanley Robinson probably has the most detailed descriptions of Martian terraformation – to the point sometimes of overwhelming the underlying stories. Actual manned flight to Mars, however, remains “20 years away” which is exactly the same distance it supposedly has been my entire life. As least we are holding our own.

Mars is back in the news this week, of course, thanks to the successful deposit of Curiosity on the planet’s surface. The landing sequence looked like something designed by Rube Goldberg, but it worked – then again, so did most of Rube’s improbable machines. It is the most capable robot yet sent to Mars. It joins the much smaller Opportunity rover, which remains active. (The mission of the rover Spirit terminated last year.)

So, at last there are Martians. They are our own robot children.

P.S. Perhaps oddly, only one of my own short stories is set on Mars: .

Curiosity Landing Sequence (double-click for full-screen)

Purdue University Rube Goldberg Machine

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