Imagining Mars: A Literary History

Imagining Mars: A Literary History. Robert Crossley. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011. 396 pp., $40.00 (hardcover).

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Reviewed by Ryder W. Miller

[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 49:3 (#356) in March 2012.]

Caught up in some of the Utopian Dreaming about space I could not help believing like others that we could some day make a new start of it on Mars. Tangent to such thoughts was the recognition that maybe we were not really ready to go to Mars, that we would bring along with us many of the social and military problems we have on Earth. C.S. Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary next year, warned of this possibility in 1938, even before the dawn of the space age.

At the end of the recent century hopeful human eyes were watching Mars, dreaming that we could send people there soon. We were hoping for a Mars Race similar to The Moon Race of the 1960s — a race which saw the challenge realized within a decade. Explorers still dream of going to Mars, but the recent Mars Craze has actually become literary, generating its own literary criticism, with books that explore the books that were written about The Red Planet. Such recent books as Visions of Mars and Imagining Mars explore The Red Planet’s literary legacy. I collected my Mars books in the hopes of writing such a book myself one day, actually I have a whole bookshelf filled with science fiction books about Mars and have read my 50 or so, but I must admit that even though I have found faults with this new crop of literary Mars book criticism, I have been beaten.

Imagining Mars: A Literary History by Massachusetts English professor Robert Crossley is very impressive in many ways. One is not likely to find many who have such a depth of knowledge about all the books the have been written about our neighbor in space. Here one will find one hundred pages of exploration of the predecessors of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds where the story begins for most readers. Crossley describes dozens of books one cannot find even in second-hand book stores, such titles being relegated to antiquarian booksellers, libraries, or sometimes the Internet. He also chronicles the interactions between novelists and scientists. Mars for the longest time was the place we dreamed that we could find other living things like ourselves (i.e., alien bipeds).

Crossley makes a dozen or so reference to C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet in this tale of the chronicle of literary treatises, fantasies, discoveries, and promulgations. But there were different roads and crossroads taken. He enlightens:

The old nineteenth-century ideal of using narratives about Mars to stimulate interest in astronomical research and to teach readers the state of the scientific question ceased to have much bearing on the literary imagination. The Mars of fiction became a predominantly mythic place, and with few exceptions remained so until the 1980s. (171)

Crossley does have his favorites and appears to have a bias towards terraforming the planet. He also brings a level of sophistication to his analysis so that he can appreciate the “masterwork” of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy: Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. Crossley does seem to make light of the achievements of defenders including Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (Jeffrey Spender, who seeks to stop the damagers, is a “terrorist”), Brian Aldiss and Roger Penrose’s White Mars is too “didactic”, Ben Bova’s series, with a character who “defends the lichens”, is a button pusher, etc. Instead, he favors Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars with its planetary engineers, and Robinson’s terraforming and aeroforming epic. One may take Robinson to task for having the preservationists lose in his trilogy. Though not mentioned for my essays on the subject at The Mars Society, he does mention some “ecogoths” who think we should not damage or alter Mars at all. Such an argument does seek to stall the potential damage that terraforming would cause native extraterrestrial life that we may someday find there. We might be very surprised by what we can learn from it: for example, lichens have a lesson to tell because they survive due to symbiosis rather than warfare and competition. With such a broad canvas to explore, most space fantasy aficionados are going to find some references to things that they have read, but many of the books have become rare (for instance, a personal favorite, Ludek Pesek’s The Earth is Near).

The tradition continues, with Crossley pointing out that the field is open to fantasists continuing the history here by reacting to Ian McDonald’s award-winning story “The Old Cosmonaut and the Construction Worker Dream of Mars”, with its “cosmo-commuting” workers writing that “his Mars is primarily a verbal construct, a world inhabited by the human imagination before — and whether — it is ever inhabited in the flesh. As it has always been so far” (309).

As I’ve said, C.S. Lewis explored this fantastic territory 75 years ago in Out of the Silent Planet. His was also a wonderful creation with some of the oddest creatures you would find on the fantastical worlds out there. Though didactic, not everybody is going to be turned off because of the dogma; instead, they may revel in the fascinating creation and like how the argument is drawn and won. Like Crossley, they are likely to have found some fun in the reading, and it would not be surprising if it is turned to again in 2013. Maybe it is better that we are not there yet. Lewis’s warning may not have applied to microscopic life, but it does appear to have been heeded by Planetary Protection Officers who protect the Earth from forward and backward contamination. In the meantime we have plenty of fascinating books that we can read until we have gotten our planetary act together and we can create an improvement somewhere else.

Imagining Mars: A Literary History. Robert Crossley. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011. 396 pp., $40.00 (hardcover).

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