Wednesday, July 23, 2003


The big show in the sky this summer is our near neighbor, the planet Mars. It is now very near---close enough for amateur astronomers with small telescopes to watch a giant sandstorm that began blowing across its surface in early July. To the naked eye it already is the brightest nighttime non-lunar object, and at the end of August Mars will be closer to the earth than it has ever been in human history.

That's a chief reason for all the Terran attention that's about to be focused on the Red Planet. NASA's recently dispatched spacecraft carrying the Opportunity surface rover will join its twin launched in June. Together with spacecraft from Japan and Europe, they are scheduled to converge on Mars in December and January. They will be looking chiefly for evidence of water and other life-supporting elements, and the European probe will search for actual signs of life. Together with the two U.S. satellites already there, there will be four spacecraft in orbit and three more on the surface conducting an unprecedented simultaneous scrutiny of another planet.

That the planet is Mars is especially resonant. Once scientists began to suspect that Mars had the greatest potential for harboring life of the heavenly bodies they could study, the concept of extraterrestrial beings virtually merged with the idea of Martians. So our speculations, our projections of hopes and fears on the figure of the alien, began in earnest with Mars.

By now much of the public is used to the idea of the space alien as a symbolic figure in story, often telling us about aspects of ourselves we might not see or want to see if we looked too directly. But before much of anyone was conscious of this function, the yearnings and terrors that Mars evoked were raw and real.

These proximities themselves had stirred emotions when the eccentric orbit of Mars brought it closer than usual. The eerie colors and shimmering appearance of Mars caused apocalyptic panic during its near approach in the summer of 1719. But it was a peculiar combination of science, emotion, history and literature that placed Mars at center stage in the late 19th century, and kept it there into the second half of the twentieth.

American astronomer Asaph Hall took advantage of advances in optical telescopes to discover the two moons of Mars during the close encounter of 1877, but it was the observations that year by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli that eventually caused a sensation when his work was translated a decade later. Or rather, mistranslated: he believed he saw channels of some kind on the Martian surface (which there certainly are: one canyon runs continuously for some 3,000 miles), but the Italian ""canali'' was rendered into English as ""canal,'' eventually leading to many fanciful illustrations of Martian civilizations and their irrigation techniques.

Europeans were busily exploring and colonizing distant lands at the time, encountering and usually conquering very different cultures. The explosion in geology and biology in the 19th century (including Darwinian evolution), as well as ascendant technological power, may also have contributed to enthusiastic speculations about life on Mars. Percival Lowell, an American who became a prime exponent of the canal theory, built the Lowell Observatory in part to prove that civilizations did or had existed on Mars. When Mars was close again in 1894, the astronomer M. Javelle of Nice reported ""strange lights'' on its surface which might be signals. This inspired eminent inventors, including Edison and Marconi, to try to devise a way to signal back.

By the 1890s, ""Mars mania'' had resulted in more than 50 popular novels about Mars and Martians. But there was also another popular fiction trend: the invasion story. Though World War I was some 40 years in the future, the idea that a highly mechanized war would soon engulf all of Europe was widely discussed as early as the 1870s. A torrent of frightening but not very good novels followed, beginning with one that dramatized a sudden invasion of England by Germany, but eventually extended to other European countries and America, with their respective enemies doing the invading.

These two subjects came together when H.G. Wells, already famous for using the latest and most dramatic scientific speculations in novels of literary quality and great public interest, took a walk with his brother. Among the topics they talked about was Tasmania, an island south of Australia, where British colonial occupation had essentially extinguished the indigenous culture. Frank Wells wondered how the English would react to being invaded by a technologically superior race.

Using Daniel Defoe's Journal of A Plague Year as a narrative model, H.G. Wells combined his brother's insight and the two popular genres of Mars and invasion novels in The War of the Worlds, first serialized during 1897. A lifelong advocate of world peace (he contributed to the United Nations Declaration of Universal Rights), Wells various fictions anticipated tank warfare, the London Blitz and the atomic bomb by decades. The War of the Worlds dramatized the effects of total destruction by overwhelming firepower unleashed on civilian homes, neighborhoods and cities, a phenomenon as yet unknown in western Europe. By depicting Martians as biologically weak beings who depended on their much stronger and more powerful machines, he suggested the direction of the human future.

Arguments abound on Wells' intentions, but the link to behavior on Earth is explicit. "The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants in the space of fifty years,'' one of his narrators observes. "Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?'' (That Mars is the god of war is another built-in resonance.)

There are other references to the genocide of indigenous populations, including American Indians. The novel's end (the Martians are wiped out not by war machines but by common Earth bacteria) is itself a reversal of the fate of American Indian cultures decimated by infectious diseases to which they had no resistance, transmitted by European invaders.

A variation on the invader versus the indigenous occurs in Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, (1950) a series of stories about earthlings who colonize the ""final frontier,'' and despoil it with the same unconscious abandon as it destroyed previous new worlds, killing off the last Mayan-like indigenous Martians in the process.The only redemption is the conscious awareness of some settlers that they are the new Martians, capable of combining the best of Earth with the best of the Martian civilization they pushed beyond the brink of extinction.

In Wells' description of the invasion's effects on ordinary people, he evokes empathy for the victims of merciless technology. Yet the portrait is complex, for it is one of those ordinary people-identified only as the Artilleryman---who sounds an ominous and inevitable note when he speaks rapturously of humans acquiring the Martians' death-dealing machines: ""Fancy having one of them lovely things, with its Heat-Ray wide and free!'' Yet Wells complicates the matter further by making the Martians a real threat to destroy humanity, evoking the power of self-preservation.

Except for a few writers like Bradbury, empathy even as an element was seemingly lost in the ensuing decades, as Martians and other space creatures became the potent symbol of the invading alien, the dangerous stranger, a symbolic stand-in for Germans and Japanese in World War II America, the Chinese hordes during the Korean conflict, and the Soviets with their atomic-tipped missiles throughout the Cold War. Pearl Harbor made ""the bolt from the blue'' real to Americans. But the power of the symbolic alien, like the nature of the fear itself, depended on the alien enemy being inaccessible and with unknown power, defined by images of inhuman strangeness and evil.

How powerful this symbol could be was aptly demonstrated by the panic that swept over America during Orson Welles' famous radio dramatization of ""The War of the Worlds'' in 1938, with the Martian invasion transposed from England to recognizable American places, as the real world again teetered on the edge of global war. The classic film version, also centered in the U.S (and this time featuring at atomic bomb that fails to stop the Martians), still had the power to scare audiences in 1953.

For most of the twentieth century scientists concerned with their credibility tended to downplay the possibility of life on other worlds, particularly in the delicate early years of the space program. Believing in "little green men from Mars" became synonymous with hallucination and unemployable madness. But with the popularity of Star Trek and Carl Sagan's Cosmos series on PBS, the idea of extraterrestial life started to become more accepted and appealing. Gene Roddenberry brought empathy back into the idea of aliens, while Sagan revived wonder as a respectable aspect of science.

But "the little green men from Mars" also became a cliché of mockery as well as somewhat nervous laughter. By 1996, when numerous probes had failed to turn up evidence of Martians, the Mars invasion flicks of the 1950s were repeated as parody in Mars Attacks! Thanks to Star Trek, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and the movies and TV shows that followed them, fictional extraterrestrials now had more distant homes. So in the 1996 hit movie Independence Day, an unacknowledged remake of "The War of the Worlds," the space invaders' planet of origin was never named, but clearly it was much farther away than Mars. With alien invasion a kind of cliché, ""Independence Day'' thrilled and amused more than it frightened, at least until Sept. 11. Such is the powerful ambiguity of this story that it now assumes another relevance after the American invasion of Iraq.

Mars made its first movie appearance in several decades in two films released in 2000. Though their disappointing box office may mirror how tame Mars now seems, they are interesting updates of its place in our imaginations. "Mission to Mars" and "Red Planet" both involved earthlings traveling to Mars, still a believable premise since it is most likely that if humans do travel to other planets, the first destination will be Mars. But these films also involved plausible Martians by today's standards in their inevitable projections of human hopes and fears.

In "Red Planet," the Martians are insect-like life forms that remained dormant until earthlings seeded Mars with algae to begin creating a new home for humanity, since earthlings finally realized they were choking the life out of their own planet. "Mission to Mars" combined speculation that life on Earth might have been delivered by Martian meteorites with a creative nod to a the late 20th century version of Martian canals: the supposed "face" on the Martian surface caught by orbiting cameras. In this story an ancient Martian civilization left the solar system after seeding the earth with human life, and creating a huge monument of a face to greet Terran visitors. One member of the Mars-faring expedition accepts transport to the new Martian home, rapturously reuniting the riven race.

All these fictional forays wrap their tales of two planets in stories of human relationships, and spotlight individual aspirations to explore the unknown, to find the final meaning embedded in the universe. This, too, is part of what Mars reflects back to us. The stars have long symbolized the eternal mysteries, and our yearnings to explore what evokes our awe. Mars is tantalizing as the attainable planet, an unknown yet achingly recognizable other world. Yet we also value our uniqueness and what we know we have, which is each other.

Such tales also suggest we should value our own planet more than we do. By repulsing the overpowering Martians not through the heroics of a relatively helpless humanity but by a feature of the Earth that can injure humans but also protects them, Wells' war is won by one of the worlds because it is the home that bred the victors. Our world is the interrelated web of life.

In this era when fewer of us see a starry sky each night, we look to stories, mental images, and perhaps the photographs and TV pictures from Mars that show us another place to stand, to view what we do from the outside, as a prelude to getting inside the hearts of others and knowing ourselves. As we look at Mars this summer, facing us in closer proximity than it has for some 70,000 years, we can imagine what Martians would see looking back at us. And as those machines from Earth report back from Mars, we may learn things that will again change how we see ourselves and our world ... and maybe even help to save it.

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