Read an Excerpt
A Literary History
By Robert Crossley
Wesleyan University Press Copyright © 2011 Robert Crossley
All rights reserved.
THE MEANING OF MARS
O brown star burning in the east, elliptic orbits bring you close; as close as this no eye has seen since sixty thousand years ago. JOHN UPDIKE
... we are still those animals who survived the Ice Age, and looked up at the night sky in wonder, and told stories. And Mars has never ceased to be what it was to us from our very beginning — a great sign, a great symbol, a great power. KIM STANLEY ROBINSON
Myn herte is Marcien GEOFFREY CHAUCER
Leaving my house in Boston late on August 28, 2003, the semi-cloudy night of the closest transit of Earth and Mars in sixty millennia, I drove to the Whitin Observatory to look at Mars through Wellesley College's superb old Clark refracting telescope, the gold standard for late-Victorian viewing of the night sky. I was conscious of how antiquarian, how quixotic my little expedition must seem in the age of Hubble, when space-based lenses can offer images far crisper and clearer and more richly detailed than terrestrial instruments, and all one need do is turn on the television or boot up the computer to enjoy a wealth of such images, without the distortions of atmosphere or the backache that comes from long sessions at the telescope. I found myself thinking that a hundred years earlier, at the height of the prestige of big-science observatories and of public euphoria over the "canals" of Mars, a place like the Wellesley College Observatory would have been swamped with spectators. And so when I arrived that night, I was stunned to find that others — many others — besides me had forsaken the websites for a more old-fashioned view of Mars. Hundreds of people had gotten to Wellesley ahead of me and were patiently and quietly waiting in line for their turn at the telescope. As the queue snaked into the darkness outside the building, an occasional cheer went up from the crowd whenever Mars — surprisingly lemon-colored rather than red — emerged from an encroaching bank of clouds. It was close to midnight before I finally had my chance to gawk at the quivering image of the planet next door. After a mere thirty seconds pressed to the Clark eyepiece, I yielded to the person behind me, but I had had a taste of the enduring public fascination with Mars. I was glad to have been part of that expectant crowd, glad to have my anticipated solitary experience turn into an unexpectedly communal one.
Why has that eye-catching coal of light in the sky assumed so prominent a place in cultural mythologies and the literary imagination? What has it meant to people? How have its meanings changed over time? To what extent have scientific study and artistic invention collaborated in fashioning meanings for Mars? And what do stories about Mars, specifically those written since the invention of the telescope, have to tell us about ourselves as well as about the distant planet they attempt to portray?
Kim Stanley Robinson opens his great sequence of Martian novels of the 1990s with a suggestion that Mars has had a continuous hold on our species from the dawn of pre-civilized human curiosity. Because of its color, its ready visibility in the unpolluted atmosphere of pre-industrial centuries, its distinctive and puzzling movements in the sky, Mars was bound to attract the speculative eye. Early cultures identified the lights in the sky as deities. The red-hued star — not yet understood to be a world — the ancient Greeks called Ares and the Romans Mars. The Japanese named it Kasei and the Babylonians Nergal. "Its name in all ancient languages signifies inflamed," wrote the splashy nineteenth-century astronomer and scientific popularizer Camille Flammarion. When Mars is in opposition — an event that Chaldean astronomers accurately measured as once every 780 days — a straight line can be drawn from it through the Earth to the Sun. Oppositions bring Mars and Earth in their solar orbits relatively close together — close enough that Mars shines steadily and especially vividly among the twinkling stars. A Babylonian text suggests that when Mars is in opposition, people need to be wary: "When Nergal is dim, it is lucky, when bright, unlucky." All those cultures, struck by the brilliant color of fire and blood, associated that inflammation with strife and discord and used the name to designate their god of battles. In the Iliad, Ares is a "bloodthirsty marauder" (Book V, line 38) who smacks his "muscled thighs" in rage (XV.116) and swoops over fields of soldiers "like a dark whirlwind" (XX.55). As the red star seemed to wander through the sky, backwards and forwards reversing field, so Homer's Ares went unpredictably back and forth, sometimes supporting the Greeks and sometimes the Trojans, personifying the wild fluctuations and indiscriminate carnage of war. Zeus finds Ares appalling: "You're the most loathsome god on Olympus. / You actually like fighting and war" (V.949–50). The so-called "Homeric Hymns" to Ares, mythographic rhapsodies probably composed in the fifth century b.c.e., contain lines that seem to depict Mars's colorful, erratic course through the heavens:
Ares turns his fiery bright cycle
among the Seven-signed tracks
of the aether, where flaming chargers
bear him forever
over the third orbit!
As sign, symbol, and power Mars has an impressive pedigree in the history of our imaginations. In a long invocation to Mars at the opening of the Troy Book, John Lydgate's fifteenth-century account of the destruction of the ancient city, the god is addressed conventionally as the sovereign and patron of chivalry who "hast of manhood the magnificence." But the poet seems to have one eye on the symbolic tradition and one also on the luminous object in the heavens:
O myghty Mars, that wyth thy sterne lyght
In armys has the power & the myyt,
And named art from est til occident
The myghty lorde, the god armypotent,
That, wyth schynyng of thy stremes rede,
By influence dost the brydel lede
Of chevalry, as sovereyn and patrown.
In the Middle Ages, however, Mars was invoked more often as an astrological predictor of temperament than as an astronomical phenomenon. When the Wife of Bath proclaims that her "herte is Marcien," she makes it clear that she doesn't buy the notion that men are from Mars and women from Venus; Chaucer's often-married and seldom-intimidated storyteller is confident of her a?liation with both lust and battle. During the English Renaissance, on the eve of the invention of the telescope, the planet began to figure in poetry and on stage as more than just a representation of the classical god of war or a marker of choleric personality. Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part Iwas first performed about a dozen years before Kepler calculated the elliptical orbit of Mars and solved the ancient puzzle of its apparent reversal of direction in the night sky. In the play, the Dauphin of France, using the mysterious retrograde motions of Mars as a metaphor for the shifting fortunes of the French and English armies, observes the state of the astronomical question in the early 1590s: "Mars his true moving, even as in the heavens / So in the earth, to this day is not known" (Act I, scene ii, lines 1–2). And in All's Well That Ends Well, Helena teases the cowardly soldier Parolles, who has boasted of his birth under the astrological sign of Mars, that the event must have occurred when the planet's movement was retrograde: "You go so much backward when you fight" (I.i.200).
Of course, it is possible to exaggerate the fascination of Mars for early human observers. The Moon, after all, is so much closer, so much more distinct to the naked eye, so much more immediately imaginable as a world. More than half a century ago, in a great achievement of reading and research, Marjorie Hope Nicolson wrote a history of our lunar fascinations and fantasies, Voyages to the Moon(1948).From the "old Moon" of classical myth to the "new Moon" of the age of Galileo, from flights to the Moon powered by wild swans to the rocketship journeys of Jules Verne and Buck Rogers, Nicolson mapped two millennia of Moon stories and the conveyances that romancers concocted to put men on the Moon. In bringing her literary history up to her own present, Nicolson chose to end her book with a discussion of C. S. Lewis's 1938 Out of the Silent Planet — an interplanetary romance not about the Moon, but about Mars. "Perhaps the cosmic voyage will perish in our own time under the weight of its increasing technology," she considered at her conclusion. "Perhaps it will take on new vitality and beauty, as it has in one of Mr. Lewis' novels. Certainly it has proved a theme, as I warned you, that the world has not willingly let die, whether in poetry and fantasy, in satire or seriousness, in the pulps or in the comics." Voyages to the Moonis the definitive history of Moon fantasies. Since its publication in 1948, valuable books have been written about Mars and its place in cultural history — books by thoughtful and often learned writers such as Patrick Moore, Mark Washburn, Eric Burgess, John Noble Wilford, Jay Barbree and Martin Caidin, Michael Hanlon, and Oliver Morton. The most ambitious and learned study of the relationships between literary and scientific understandings of Mars is Robert Markley's Dying Planet(2005), which pursues the various ways in which Mars has been used to adumbrate the fate of the Earth.? But the history of imagined Mars does not yet have its Nicolson. The range of Martian literature has not been fully grasped. This book is an effort towards a comprehensive literary history of Mars in the English-speaking world, with some attention to the most famous works in other languages.
Over the course of many centuries, and especially in the four centuries since Galileo began using his optic glass, scientists inadvertently have contributed to the romance of Mars as, by trial and often seductive error, they slowly unveiled its mysteries. At various moments in that history, astronomers incorrectly invested Mars with oceans and lakes, canals and cities, a breathable atmosphere, vast forests, and balmy temperatures. The stripping away of error and the building of a truer picture of Mars has been a great achievement of twentieth-century planetary science, as terrestrial observation was augmented with the coming of space flight by photographic flybys and mechanical surveys and experiments on the Martian surface. Throughout the early years of the space age, imaginative writers have responded vigorously to the state of the scientific question about Mars, although the literary mind sometimes has taken decades to catch up to and apply the latest revisions in scientific understanding.
Astronomer and perceptual psychologist William Sheehan identifies three distinct stages in the history of planetary study: the era of naked-eye observation, which lasted until the early seventeenth century; the era of the terrestrial telescope, which began in 1609 with the employment of the first rudimentary tubes and lenses; and the space era, in which cameras and telescopes operating outside the envelope of Earth's atmosphere could send back more precise and detailed images than were possible even with large, high-powered, Earthbound instruments.? The history of ideas about Mars is a fairly simple one for the first of those three eras; the myth-making imagination worked variations on the meaning of redness: passion, courage, anger, manliness, war. In the second era, the images of Mars became far richer, more complex, more nuanced, more contradictory, and more exciting; and, we now know, they were also full of wishful thinking and erroneous supposition. Observing Mars in the second era, as one historian of science put it, was "a matter of fathoming riddles."? In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the best telescopes operating under the most ideal conditions could produce images no better defined than naked-eye glimpses of our own moon. Even as telescopes dramatically improved in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Mars refused to disclose itself fully and unambiguously to the observing eye. Mars in the mind's eye began to assume a definiteness, a density of texture and detail, that had only the slenderest foundation in astronomical fact. Blurry telescopic images left a great deal to the imagination, and literary depictions of Mars filled in the lacunae with visions of tragedy and romance, of once and future splendors on an old planet, its inhabitants variously conceived as wise, frail, ruthless, or beneficent.
For many readers, this second era, which lasted more than halfway into the twentieth century, was a golden age of fiction about Mars, but that fiction was more fantastic than scientific. In the past six decades, at the outset of the third era in which space-based telescopes and extraterrestrial vehicles carrying cameras and scientific instruments have largely displaced Earth-bound telescopes, we have begun to see a new Mars, at once less charming and more scientifically verifiable than the Mars that intrigued and frustrated astronomers who could see just enough of the planet's features to be tantalized. Paradoxically, the red planet as we now know it is both an ancient and a virgin world, titanic in the scale of its mountains and chasms but barren of living beings or artifacts. The new Mars, initially so forbidding and so empty that it seemed to leave writers nothing to imagine, has now begun to generate a fresh literary fascination with the planet, a fascination both romantic and scientific. A new respect has arisen for the ecology of Mars as a wilderness planet, and a technically conscious interest in the prospects, methods, risks, and ethical dilemmas of metamorphosing that wilderness into a future human habitat is available to the imagination. But the romance is also evident in the evocative primary-colors titles of Robinson's master works that suggest a planet coming alive over the course of near-future history: Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars.
Much of the recent literature of Mars, though prophetic in intent, is not fictional in form. An engineer baldly announces his commitment to the feasibility and necessity of exploration and colonization in his title: The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must. Another book, The Mars One Crew Manual, despite an irritating marketing strategy ("Congratulations! You have been selected as one of eleven crew members ..."), is no put-on but an exhaustive inventory of the equipment, schedules, activities, and supports, complete with detailed diagrams, that will be required for a staffed mission to Mars. The Greening of Mars, offering a stage-by-stage preview of the process and the results of terraforming Mars, has inspired both those planning twenty-first-century voyages to Mars and those who have imagined such trips in fiction. An astronomer's account of the Martian meteorite found in Antarctica in 1996 opens up the implications for discovering evidence of past or present organic life on Mars. A self-educated and self-important scientist's outlandish writings about the gigantic, carved "face" he claims to see in photographic images of the Martian surface have been the toast of radio talk shows. For those with a taste for the technical and the encyclopedic, a fifteen-hundred-page volume titled, simply, Mars, and assembled in 1992 by a team of four scientific editors and 114 collaborating authors with six gigantic maps furnished by the U.S. Geological Survey, represents the definitive twentieth-century synthesis of the extraordinarily productive second and third eras of investigation.
Excerpted from Imagining Mars by Robert Crossley. Copyright © 2011 Robert Crossley. Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
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