Essay: A world of wonders
November 26, 1999
Web posted at: 9:08 a.m. EST (1408 GMT)
By L.D. Meagher
Special to CNN Interactive
"In our time, we have sifted the sands of Mars, we have established a presence there, we have fulfilled a century of dreams!"
-- Carl Sagan
(CNN) -- The landscape of Mars may be the most exhaustively described piece of real estate that no one has ever seen. Long before Mariner and Viking and Pathfinder sent back snapshots of the surface, the red planet was familiar territory.
A century ago, H.G. Wells launched a Martian armada toward Earth from a parched, cold world. By a decade ago, the traffic was flowing in the other direction, as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone and company battled to control the destiny of Mars.
In between, artists, authors and filmmakers have been drawn again and again to the "fourth rock from the sun." Often, they have depicted the denizens of that world rather than the world itself. That thread links "Invaders from Mars" (1953) to "Mars Attacks!" (1996). We see the Martians, not their planet.
'The War of the Worlds,' 1898|
Author: H.G. Wells
Indeed, Hollywood seems to avoid the realm of the War God. In "Abbott and Costello Go to Mars," they actually go to New Orleans, then end up on Venus. Perhaps the most vivid example of Mars Avoidance Syndrome is "Capricorn One" (1977), in which a Mars mission turns out to be a complete fake.
From fancy to fact
Occasionally, the cameras do make it to Mars. The results can be laughable, like the rose-colored scenery of "The Angry Red Planet" (1959). The television adaptation of "The Martian Chronicles" offered a relatively prosaic backdrop for the story. Rock Hudson might as easily have been marching through the streets of Laredo.
When Ray Bradbury was writing the stories that made up the book "The Martian Chronicles" (1951), the supposed discovery of "canals" on the planet's surface had been long discredited. Yet he wrote of canals and the desperate dying race that built them. Other science fiction writers from the "Golden Age" also held onto anachronistic visions of the Martian landscape -- rivers, oceans, towering ancient cities -- well after the true nature of Mars was understood.
'The Martian Chronicles,' 1951|
Author: Ray Bradbury
And why not? Isn't it more interesting for Valentine Michael Smith to be raised by a communal Martian society in Robert A. Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" (1962) than to be abandoned as a baby on a dead and desolate world? His life on Mars is an homage to, and reverse retelling of, the Edgar Rice Burroughs tales about John Carter, Warlord of Barsoom.
More recently, science fiction authors have returned to Mars with a different agenda. No longer content to spin fantastic tales of imagination, they imagine fantastic tales deeply rooted in reality. Kim Stanley Robinson provides exhaustive (some might say exhausting) details about the Martian surface in his colorful trilogy, "Red Mars" (1993), "Green Mars" (1994), and "Blue Mars" (1995), even as he remakes the landscape to mirror Earth. Ben Bova does likewise in "Mars" (1992), with a dash of Cold War redux.
Mars exerts an inexorable pull on the human imagination. It hangs there in the night sky, glowing like the ember of a primordial fire. It is almost close enough to touch. Even a simple telescope provides an arresting view of the planet, a view that gives rise to speculations about what happens there, and what might have happened. It is certainly not the first imaginary landscape to captivate human thought.
Before H.G. Wells stirred public fancy with "The War of the Worlds" in 1898, western literature boasted a wide array of "unreal estate". From Plato's doomed Atlantis in "The Republic" to Sir Thomas More's "Utopia" 18 centuries later, we have reveled in tales of unknown places. Jonathan Swift skewered both the notion of the adventurer and his all-too-trusting audience in "Gulliver's Travels" (1726) with tales of Brobdingnag and Lilliput. Dean Swift probably hadn't counted on his satire being taken at face value, but it was. Even in 18th century England, little was known about the far corners of the Earth. Readers were more than willing to believe stories about distant places and strange people.
By Victorian times, there were far fewer blank spaces on the maps of the world. So Jules Verne found spectacular new landscapes on the moon and under the sea. Wells was deeply immersed in this tradition, and in the news of his day. Speculations about Mars were creating a sensation. Astronomer Percival Lowell was promulgating his notion that a dying race of Martians was desperately trying to save itself by building canals linking their cities to the polar ice caps. "The War of the Worlds" begins with an admission. "Its physical condition is still largely a mystery," Wells acknowledges as he launches into his brief description of the Martian environment.
An open-ended dreamscape
We love a good mystery. It is an open invitation to give our imaginations and ingenuity free rein. And Mars is a mystery on a planetary scale. We may not know why the sky is red or where the water that once coursed through its arid valleys disappeared to, but that only inspires us to try to figure it out.
The Soujourner rover on the surface of Mars
Each robot explorer that visits Mars teaches us more about the true nature of our neighboring planet. And each seems to whet our appetite for knowledge.
The breathtaking panoramas sent back by the Viking probe made the Pathfinder mission all but inevitable. When Sojourner rolled out among the Martian rocks, people all over the world were glued to their televisions, drinking in each new vista its cameras captured. The more we know about Mars, the more we want to know.
Perhaps one day, the Martian landscape will be as familiar to us as the rolling fields of Iowa. That does not mean we will cease our imaginings. Do we not still dream about Iowa, and wonder what would happen if a farmer built a baseball diamond in one of his fields? So it is with Mars. Every question we answer about the planet seems to raise a dozen more. So long as there are questions, artists and authors and filmmakers will find fertile red soil for their imaginations.
L.D. Meagher, a veteran of more than 30 years in broadcasting, is a Senior Writer at CNN Headline News and book reviewer for CNN.com
Mars Polar Lander: Official Web site
Deep Space 2
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Mars Meteorite home page
The Nine Planets: Mars
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