Sunday, February 6, 2011

Mars, Martians, and Setting

Warning: This post may be slightly edited over the course of Wednesday; I have a multitude of Wednesday classes and so am posting this now for the benefit of those doing a presentation on Thursday

Mars, Life, Civilization, Ruins, Desert. In essence, these terms are all synonymous with Science Fiction depictions of Mars. I personally am fascinated by the setting and background that Science Fiction writers incorporate into their stories and thus focus on the depictions of the Red Planet rather than on the actions taken upon it. Regardless, for stories concerning Mars, its appearance and setting are critical for the plot. With a clearly visible (from both Earth-based observatories and various robotic expeditions) rocky surface, the planet is both easy to describe for SciFi authors and scarily similar to various Earth locations. Moving into the realm of fiction, another trope is that Mars is the home of alien life or the ruins they left behind after extinction.

"The Ruins of a Martian 'Port'" as claimed by non-scientific sources

Mars has quite a pedigree when it comes to Science Fiction. Arguably most famously, it was the home planet of the extraterrestrials in H. G. Wells War of the Worlds. More broadly, the assumption of technologically or magically advanced Martians living in a more Earth-like climate is a hallmark of earlier Science Fiction works (see C. S. Lewis' Space Trilogy, etc...). More often than not, the Earth was under attack by the planet's denizens, thus forming the oft-repeated scenario of "Mars Attacks!"

Unlike War of the Worlds though, modern interpretations (clearly affected by more recent NASA expeditions to the planet) see Mars as the site of alien ruins surrounded by desert rather than the home of a thriving civilization. In the video game Mass Effect, Mars is where humans discover ruins from an ancient alien empire. These "Protheans" had established a Martian outpost to observe humanity and once they disappeared from the galaxy, their technology allowed humans spread beyond the Solar System. In a parallel manner, Total Recall centers around the discovery (and the subsequent battles over the activation) of an ancient alien artifact that could terraform Mars into a habitable Eden. As a result, Total Recall is something of a bridge between the two stereotypes in that Mars was once a paradise, but fell into desertified ruin. In both cases, despite the vastly superior technology of the respective alien race, all that remains on Mars are ruins and artifacts. Regardless, the existence of life on Mars (either past or present) is never deeply questioned and appears to be assumed in most Science Fiction works.

Do we find him or simply ruins?

A Rose for Ecclesiastes provides a classic example of just such a series of beliefs. In that story, the protagonist is brought to the Red Planet to help interact with and learn from the native Martians. These Martians are faced with the immanent collapse of their civilization due to male sterility. While Gallinger's actions are somewhat independent of the setting, his musings are not. Many times he discusses the state of disrepair of the (believed last) Martian city known as Tirellian, thus providing convenient and potent imagery of a civilization falling to ruin. Moving beyond the idea of Martian ruins, the only thing Gallinger describes besides the Martians and their civilization is the unimaginably expansive desert with its biting red sand. The desert also serves as a sort of metaphor for the Martian collapse as a sufficiently capable alien race would be able to at least partially tame the desert (as humans have for centuries). Additionally, there is a certain mythos surrounding great riches lost in a literal or metaphorical sea (ex: Iram of the Pillars, lost in a sea of sand; the city of Atlantis) that allows Roger Zelazny to draw a parallel between the fading Martian civilization and tragic loss of these historical human cities. In both cases though, the planet's surface is harsh and often serves either as plot context or a symbol of the collapse of the assumed alien civilization discussed previously.

In conclusion, Mars is fascinating as a setpiece because despite the variety inherent in Science Fiction, the planet is always portrayed in one of two polar-opposite manners. Either the planet is a lush Eden (or at least sufficiently Earth-like to support technologically advanced life) populated by Martians or it is a barren red desert populated by alien ruins. Nevertheless, the fact that Mars is the subject of a pair of popular Science Fiction tropes has failed to dissuade human fascination with the planet and I expect that Mars will remain a critical element if Science Fiction for the foreseeable future.


Alexandra Hay said...

Thank you for posting early--it is greatly appreciated!

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