Reflections on Mars

From John Carter and Barsoom to Red Mars - a magnificent adventure

Mars on my mind

I recently read Kim Stanley Robinson's “Red Mars” and “Green Mars” back to back. Then a friend demonstrated Google sky to me on his android phone. It is an application that “uses Android-powered devices' built-in compass, GPS, and clock to display an annotated Sky Map of the area it is facing. The map will adjust as the user moves the device.” I found it incredibly thrilling to use the phone to identify the objects in the night sky including the visible planets. For the first time I could be sure that this point of light was Mars, that one Venus and that one Jupiter.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

When I was a boy I read the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I had started with the Tarzan tales introduced to my by my dad who loved the Johnny Weissmuller films. These were the pre Amazon days when availability was limited to popular tastes and in rural Ireland that was not a particularly wide banquet. The books were difficult to get and I must have scoured every bookshop I came within hailing distance of. It was a constant quest.

John Carter of Mars

In the most unlikely bookshop I found a book written by Burroughs that was not about Tarzan. It was a curiosity and a wonder. It was the tale of one John Carter of Mars. It was my introduction at age 11 to science fiction. Tarzan had been great escapism but with Carter I could leave the planet altogether and dedicate my sword arm to the princess Dejah Thoris while exploring the Martian outback with the giant warrior Tars Tarkas. It took me several years to track down and read all of Carter's adventures but when I did I also found Burroughs other interplanetary series about Carson of Venus.

Lurid Covers

The versions I collected were published by the New English Library and had particularly lurid covers. Many of them included drawings of scantily clad Martian princesses. When I tried to share these books a couple of years later with a friend, his mother saw the covers and accused me of providing him with pornography. She confiscated the books and threatened to destroy them. Luckily my dad was someone I could turn to and he assured her that the books were harmless adventure stories. Somehow he calmed her down and explained that the covers were merely a marketing ploy. Her puritanical wrath sufficiently diminished, she returned the books to me via my dad with warnings that I was not to corrupt her son with any more filthy covers. My dad thought the whole thing was hilarious. He would have found it even more hilarious if he had known my friend was the proud owner of the only copy of playboy in the school and charged per view in the playground and at the back of Chemistry class. (The chemistry teacher was prone to snoring away the afternoons and the floor was open to various entertainments ranging from Bunsen burner fights to illicit experiments with whatever chemicals we had been allocated).

The books were long lost down the distant lanes of boyhood memory until I saw advertisements for “John Carter of Mars” the movie. I decided to see it for the sake of nostalgia and I took my daughter along. She is an avid reader and we discovered that the books are mostly available on project Guttenberg. I have been revisiting them myself with great glee. They were written in the early 1900's well before political correctness. Their only purpose was to entertain. Tarzan, John Carter and Carson of Venus were straightforward heroes for boys. They do not have complicated motives. They live to rescue damsels in distress and to be courageous and self sacrificing. There was no suggestion of the anti-heroes and complex motivations of more recent books, comics and films.

I enjoyed the film too, if only because it reminded me of the discovery those books represented and the ability I had when reading them as a schoolboy to totally immerse myself in the world beyond the bars of text. Would I have found Jules Verne, John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut, Ian M Banks, Charles Stross, Kim Stanley Robinson, or any of the great science fiction writers, whose work has enriched my imagination, without that polite introduction from Edgar Rice Burroughs?

Red Mars

For a more up-to-date and intellectual visit to Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson's “Red Mars” is a phenomenal book. His description of society and the problems we face is as lucid an analysis as any I have ever read. Most of the science is not very fictional making this a work of fiction based around the facts of science.

It is set in 2026 and centres on a collaborative colonization of Mars let by the USA and Russia. It documents how the first human colonists of another planet might survive and tame a hostile environment. What interests Robinson and what makes the book great, apart from the feeling you get that he has already been to Mars to research the book, is the understanding human nature and politics. The first wave of explorers are visionaries and idealists. They are scientists terra-forming a new world and dreaming of leaving all the old problems of Earth on Earth. They become real people to the reader and we feel for them as the story unfolds. Huge companies control the politics on Earth. They have financed the exploration and the colonization and they start demanding return on investment regardless of the cost to the long term viability of human colonization of Mars. Nationalistic and cultural groups are exported to the new world and the old arguments that have been so lucrative on earth are encouraged and fostered by vested interests. Much of the book is an exploration of how the original explorer scientists react. As a group some are naïve, some are manipulative, some are practical, some are conservative, some are radical, some are just interested in the science, some see an opportunity to establish a fairer society and all are achingly intelligent. They are realistic and sympathetic characters with fully evolved and well argued points of view.

The book is full of insights, extrapolations and theories. One of the most intriguing is when they tackle the problem of money in an environment where the intrinsic value of the individual's efforts are still invaluable.

Having read the book I felt I had walked on Mars in a survival suit and lived in a pressurised dome. I looked at real photographs from the surface of Mars and wondered if we will fulfill Robinson's predictions when we get there or will we have solved some of the problems that he correctly guesses we would take with us if not. Like all great science fiction this was not so much a book about Mars as a book about people and how bound up we are with our beliefs, our nature and our history. It is a clear headed warning about how we are turning society into a mind prison with our greed. Green Mars and Blue Mars continue the story and the exploration of morality, culture, environmentalism, science and human ingenuity.

Life on Mars

Mars is the next step in our exploration of space and we know so much more than Mr Burroughs when he wrote his first John Carter story in 1911. Like many people of the time he based his Mars (locally called Barsoom) on the beliefs that there were signs of life on Mars. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had spotted lines across Mars and Percival Lowell, founder of the Lowell Observatory in Arizona and key contributor to the discovery of Pluto, thought that they were canals that indicated a dying or dead civilisation. These canals turned out to be optical illusions but Burroughs was working with the leading edge knowledge of the day. Information that was not actually disproved until the Mariner missions arrived on the red planet in 1965 and 1972 to photograph and map Mars.

Jungian Archetypes

It is easy to smile at the romantic notions of Edgar Rice Burroughs and to deride his heroes as badly drawn Jungian archetypes. It is easy to get offended with his portrayal of American Indians as savages in the beginning of “A Princess of Mars” (the film skilfully and cleverly re-frames this) or his treatment of native Africans in Tarzan. To do that would be to miss the value he placed on love, courage and honourable behaviour. I am pretty sure if he were writing his books today he would have avoided those unfortunate stereotypes in an more enlightened world not informed by Victorian ideals of civilization and Empire.

The most magnificent adventure of all

The capital city in Kim Stanly Robinson's Mars books is called Burroughs in a kindly nod toward the creator of John Carter. Larry Niven and Michael Moorcock wrote stories about Mars and indicated that they, like me, had travelled with John Carter and Tars Tarkas, by including characters and references to Barsoom. When I read Burroughs' books in a more innocent age I saw only adventure and possibilities. When I read Kim Stanley Robinson's more realistic epic I find a different sense of adventure. When I look at photographs and film sent back from Mars through human invention and genius I wonder how many of the scientists involved in this most magnificent of adventures began their love affair with science and space exploration in the science fiction books of the last century.

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