The Mars that was

On the legacy of Ray Bradbury

Martin Griffiths 24 June 2012

Canal dreams: not alien-made after all

His passing takes humanity one step further away from the kind of planet that stirred the imaginations of countless scientists

The party moved out into the moonlight, silently. They made their way to the outer rim of the dreaming dead city in the light of the racing twin moons. Their shadows, under them, were double shadows. They did not breathe, or seemed not to, perhaps, for several minutes. They were waiting for something to stir in the dead city, some gray form to rise, some ancient ancestral shape to come galloping across the vacant sea bottom on an ancient, armored steed of impossible lineage, of unbelievable derivation…

This excerpt from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is hauntingly wonderful, yearning for a Mars that seemed so real yet so illusory. Written in 1951 at a time when the Martian canal hypothesis was still a controversial issue in the public mind, Bradbury managed to catch the romance and heroism of a bygone age whilst heralding secrets yet to be revealed.

Mars draws, demands attention. Of all the planets of our solar system not one has the stature of Mars in science, myth or fantasy. Mars is a magic name, heavy with allusions, aspirations and grand dreams unfulfilled. Carl Sagan once posed the rhetorical question, “Why so many eager speculations and ardent fantasies about Martians, rather than Saturnians or Plutonians?” Why does Mars have this affect on humanity? In our imaginations, we have trod the Martian landscape many times, have experienced the desolation of the dry surface; looked across the mighty ramparts of the Valles Marineris or climbed the slopes of Olympus Mons; drank fresh cold water from the polar ice-caps and discovered all kinds of Martian biota.

Mars is a place that inspires; it stirs the emotions and kindles the mind. It is a new frontier where man or woman can find a new beginning, a new adventure away from the cares of an old and corrupt world. That is the appeal of Mars: a planet of dreams where we can be reborn and renewed, dreams that art, culture, literature and science have fired in our imaginations, a fire that refuses to die whilst tantalizing glimpses of hope continue to stoke the embers.

There is no writer that captures this sense of Mars and all its human aspects than Ray Bradbury. His passing, in June of this year at a time when his vision of Mars has not yet faded, takes humanity one step further away from the kind of planet that stirred the imaginations of countless rocket scientists, engineers and technologists that paved the way for landings on the red planet. Yet in its place are many stories of the real Mars – the one that in our scientific age is still a place of hopes and aspirations.

In 1964, after the fast fly-by of Mariner 4, there could be little doubt that Mars did not resemble the romantic world so beloved of science fiction writers. Those who longed for a lost world of canals, seas and cities had their interest rekindled in the findings of Mariner 9. Since then, Pathfinder, the rovers Spirit and Opportunity and the spacecraft Mars Express have revealed a world synonymous with Bradbury’s imagination. Mars does indeed have old, dry riverbeds and lakes and even ancient sea basins. Water exists in sub-surface aquifers and in some places in open, iced-over pools standing stark against the desert. If these were remnants of a past great age, could there also have been life, cities, culture and technology? Have all these things crumbled into the Martian dust, only to be recalled by the ghosts of those that lived there?

"Who wants to see the Future?” Gomez asked. “A man can face the past, but to think - the pillars crumbled, you say? And the sea empty, and the canals dry, and the maidens dead, and the flowers withered?" The Martian was silent, but then he looked ahead and said "But there they are. I see them. Isn't that enough for me? They wait for me now, no matter what you say."

Exploration since the 1960s have almost destroyed Bradbury’s red world. Investigation shows no trace of the Mars that Bradbury brought to life. Nevertheless, this negative image has not dimmed the many wonderful stories about humans on Mars. Tales such as Arthur C Clarke’s The Sands of Mars covered the problems of spaceflight, terraforming, problem solving and exploration of the red planet. Successors such as Ben Bova and Kim Stanley Robinson have continued the “hard” SF approach to Martian exploration and human colonization in such works as Moving Mars and the trilogy Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars. The realism and outstanding imagination contained within these books give the reader a foretaste of a world to come.

If their dreams transpire, we need to remind ourselves that we have a duty to our planetary neighbour. We need to be wiser and more appreciative of our impact, not only in a scientific and industrial sense but also in a wider philosophical, and even spiritual sense. Mars is not yet a place for humans. Still, the first Martian explorers will carry the dreams and hopes of many on Earth. Such dreams are the culmination of our long cultural relationship with the red planet, and whatever we find there will become incorporated into a new mythology of Mars. Those who tread the red soil for the first time must do so with a sense of propriety, a comprehension of the almost hallowed ground that Mars has become in the public consciousness.

It wouldn’t be right, the first night on Mars, to make a noise, to introduce a strange, silly bright thing like a stove. It would be a kind of imported blasphemy. There’d be time for that later; to throw empty condensed milk cans into the proud Martian canals; time for copies of the New York Times to blow and caper and rustle across the lone grey Martian sea-bottoms; time for banana-peels and picnic remains in the delicate, fluted ruins of the old Martian towns. Plenty of time for that…

We have the technology to live the dream. Do we have the spirit? Our science, culture, literature and desires impel us to the red planet. The science, the myths, the legends, the stories of adventure and cultural leanings will only find repose when Mars is ours.

Bradbury’s Martian legacy is poignant. At the end of The Martian Chronicles, his weary colonist takes his excitable children to see the Martians they have heard so much about in their history lessons. After many hours of travel they park by one of the canals, still flowing with water after all those centuries. They get out of the car and look excitedly to where their father points downward:

The Martians were there - in the canal - reflected in the water... The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water...