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Why the red planet captures our imagination in movies and books

Why the red planet captures our imagination in movies and books

Consider the odds of your having been born: from the earliest stirrings of protohominid life — the ones writer Arthur C. Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick imagined in “2001: A Space Odyssey” — to the present, across untold generations.

The odds against your being you are massive, while the odds for your being you are infinitesimal. It is one of the great wonders of the universe that here you are, alive on Earth, breathing the air.

So it is with the stars, the planets — with everything in the universe: The odds are always with nothingness and annihilation, and always against existence. It is remarkable and supremely unlikely that our planet survived the intense violence of the early solar system, though not without its dings: After all, one prominent theory holds, it was a collision with a body about the size of Mars that knocked the chunk of real estate called the Moon into our sky.

Miraculously, Earth did survive, allowing life — and eventually, our kind — to evolve. And for as long as humans have been around, we have been fascinated by Mars, and more than a little fearful of it, too.

Much of our popular literature and films about Mars, such as “War of the Worlds,” “Invaders from Mars,” and “Mars Attacks!,” has supposed that there is life on the red planet — but life that is markedly hostile to ours and out to get us.

Martian fantasies

The widespread presupposition that there is life on Mars is fairly recent. It can be traced to the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who mapped the planet in 1877 and bestowed on its regions aspirational names such as Elysium, Eden and Utopia.

Schiaparelli believed that he could detect oceans on the planet’s surface, as well as canals that, he supposed, were made by beings with knowledge of engineering. Percival Lowell, an Arizona-based astronomer, did Schiaparelli better around 1895, believing that he could make out an elaborate irrigation system that required an advanced civilization to build.

Popular culture soon caught up to that science, especially through the pen of Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose John Carter novels imagined that a time portal connected Earth and “Barsoom,” or Mars, allowing easy movement between the two. When Carter traveled there in the second volume, “The Gods of Mars” (1914), he encountered this watery scene: “To my left the sea extended as far as the eye could reach, before me only a vague, dim line indicated its further shore, while at my right a mighty river, broad, placid and majestic, flowed between the scarlet banks to empty into the quiet sea before me.”

Burroughs’s Mars was very much like our Earth, with all its struggles for power and wealth, and Burroughs had a good explanation for why the planet had no evident water on the surface: Its inhabitants had diverted it to underground waterways, to protect it from evaporation and hide it from one another.

Most of Barsoom, he wrote, was instead covered by moss that grew in the dead sea bottoms that stretched across the planet. A few hidden valleys harbored forests and marshes, as well as warring kingdoms once rich in agricultural and mineral treasures that are foolish enough to do each other in — and kill their planet in the bargain.

A home away from home

As recently as the 1960s, it was assumed that Mars had life. Only with the arrival of NASA’s Mariner 4 mission in 1965 did we finally come to think of Mars as a definitively dead planet, the flybys showing a surface battered by meteoritic cratering and without the slightest hint of living things. Far from Eden, Mars was a kind of cold hell, gasping its last even as Earth was taking its first gulps of oxygenated breath.

That’s the Mars that Mark Watney finds in Andy Weir’s brilliant 2011 “The Martian.” Apart from the plants he grows — he’s an accomplished botanist — he’s the sole life form on the red planet, having been lost in a howling sandstorm and abandoned by his fellow explorers. Eminently resourceful, he manages to keep himself alive, but not without plenty of close scrapes.

The odds are emphatically against him, he knows: “If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate,” he says. “If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab (the Mars Lander Habitat) breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.”

Even with such risks, talk is increasingly turning to the colonization of Mars, now a very real prospect that was once the province of fiction. Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1990s “Mars Trilogy,” made up of the novels “Red Mars,” “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars,” posits that soon — in 2026, to be exact — we’ll begin that colonization, bringing Mars back to life through terraforming and creating an oxygenated atmosphere.

The trilogy is also refreshingly utopian, unlike the usual gloomy stance of much Mars-set fiction, in that Robinson imagines how by remaking the planet, we’ll become better, more equitable people, welcoming strangers into our midst and founding a true Eden on high.

For his part, Elon Musk, the inventor and entrepreneur, has announced preliminary plans to fund a colony of at least 80,000 settlers, which puts us squarely into the territory of Ray Bradbury, the science fiction writer whose 1950 novel “The Martian Chronicles” envisions a sort of suburban Earth transposed to Mars.

The only problem is that Martians are already there, and when humans land on the red planet in the then-distant year of 1999, it doesn’t take long for the Martians to hunt them down. The Earthlings have their revenge as Bradbury imagines a pandemic that wipes out the Martians, leaving the planet to a new breed of colonists who just may, Bradbury hints, have been a distant cousin to the vanished Martians.

Musk’s colonists will be flying on one-way tickets, unlike Weir’s Mark Watney. And even if they were to have round-trip fare, whether they would have a planet worth coming home to is another matter. Bradbury’s book ends with the folks back home nuking themselves into oblivion as surely as Burroughs’ Barsoomians did.

His is far from the only novel to imagine a ruined home planet, a trope that’s becoming ever more common as, indeed, we befoul the one nest we now have. As science fiction vehicles such as “Elysium” and “Blade Runner” have instructed us, Earth is a place we’ll be lucky to leave.

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