Going to Mars, Word by Word

an image of Mars from space

The Power of Words

Do you remember when you first started to read?

Children know that books hold secrets long before they can read. Their curiosity and fascination drives them to turn pages of a book looking for the key to understanding. They beg to be read to. Finally they are old enough to learn to read. But first they must know their alphabet by sight and sound. There are only 26 letters but there are at least 44 sounds those letters, or combinations of letters, make. Finally, they learn to string the sounds together. Faces scrunch up with effort as they laboriously sound out letters on the page.

“rrrrr – ah–”
“No, that is a u. It’s sound here is ‘uh.’”
“rrrr – uhhhh – ennn. rrr—uhhhh—nnnn.”

Suddenly their face light up and they shout, “Run!” After the first word, the second, third, and fourth come more quickly. They turn the pages eagerly, finding new words and ideas on every page. They read nonfiction and fiction. Some progress to reading science fiction.

The Power of Ideas

The field of speculative fiction, or science fiction and fantasy if you prefer, has been referred to as the fiction of ideas. But science fiction is more than ideas. It’s words strung across a page that evoke images of worlds not-yet-seen, people who are the same-yet-different, people who are vastly different, and words that inspire ideas. Ideas that spur some us to take action, to become an inventor, an explorer, an astronaut, or an astronomer. And some of those inventors, explorers, astronauts and astronomers turn their attention to Mars.

Melding Words and Ideas into Hope

We’ll never know what inspired the first man to look up at the night sky and notice a pinkish-red star. It’s color and cycle of appearing and disappearing from our skies, filled viewers with curiosity.

The first recorded observations of Mars we know of were written by ancient Egyptians. In 400 BC the Babylonians called the planet Mars, “Nergal,” the Star of Death. The Greeks named it Ares after their god of war. Its moons are Phobos (fear) and Deimos (terror). Perhaps it was the color that inspired men to associate the planet with such things.

In the 16th century Copernicus proposed a heliocentric model for the solar system where the planets circled the sun. Kepler revised that, giving Mars an elliptical orbit. The telescope, invented in the early 1600s allowed men to take a closer look at this pinkish-red celestial mystery. Men like Galileo, Cassini, and Hershell peered at the red planet, each adding his observations to those of others. When Giovanni Schiaparelli made a map of Mars and called the lines ‘grooves’ (canali in Italian), the grooves became known as canals and lit the rockets of man’s imagination.

Although not the first book published using Mars, The Two Planets by German Kurd Lasswitz (1888) is thought by some to be the first significant work on Mars. In 1898, a mere ten years later, came H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars came out in 1912. The Northwest Smith series of stories, were written by C.L. Moore in the mid-1930s. By 1938 C.S. Lewis contributed Out of the Silent Planet to the growing number of books about Mars.

In 1941 Isaac Asimov wrote Heredity about twins separated at birth, raised on different planets, and having to work together on Mars. Robert A. Heinlein repeatedly used Mars from the late 1940s onward. The Fifties saw stories and novels about Mars published by Arthur Clark, Ray Bradbury, Lester del Ray, and John Wyndham among others. Larry Niven, Roger Zelazny, and Phillip K. Dick joined the field during the Sixties.

Then Mariner 4, a US spacecraft, became the first to arrive at Mars in July 1965. It snapped about 20 pictures on its flyby. According to some, those pictures spelled the death of the mystique and mythology of Mars. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

Among many others, Jerry Pournelle and Gordon Dickson published stories about Mars in the Seventies. The 1980’s saw works by Stanislaw Lem, Greg Bear, and S.M. Stirling. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series was published in the Nineties along with books by Ben Bova, Stephen Baxter, and scores of others. In 2000 Geoffrey A. Landis’ award winning Mars Crossing was published.

In addition to all these printed words are films and television shows about Mars. There is no way this blog can cover all of the Mars fiction written. Literally millions of words have been written about the red planet. And now that Curiosity has landed and Mars is being studied and written about again, one might expect another upsurge in novels set on Mars will be coming. Yet there are some who bemoan the fact that Science Fiction has lost it’s way.

In his August 17th post on Cracked.com, Robert Brockway says there are 4 Things Science Fiction Needs To Bring Back: the optimism, the sense of exploring for the future of mankind, some good old fashioned mind f***ery, and the sense of fun.

So in the spirit of exploration (pun intended) and in celebration of the landing of Curiosity, I am beginning a new series of posts. I’m collecting fiction, old and new, written about Mars. I’ll read the stories and report on them here. I’ll be looking for the sense of wonder, the sense of fun, the optimism for the future of mankind, and the good old fashioned – storytelling (fooled ya, didn’t I?).

I have a copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars trilogy collected in one book. Interestingly enough it has an introduction written by Bruce Coville that fits as if he wrote it for this post. In his introduction Bruce says,

“How can I tell you how much I loved these books?
Would it be enough to say that there was a period in my life when the thing I wanted more than anything else in the world was to be John Carter? I used to go to bed at night hoping to wake up on Mars. . . .”

Could you wish your words had any more impact on a young person than that? Words have power. Spoken words. Written words. Your words. My words.

What better use than to write stories, collections of words, meant to power the imagination and optimism, to inspire men to send rockets and rovers millions of miles through space, to power hope for the future?

Won’t you join me in my exploration of the fascinating red planet in fiction? First: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, I hope you’re ready.

Next stop – Barsoom!

If you’ve read a Mars book, please leave a comment with the title of the book and what your thoughts are about it. I love it when you share your thoughts with me!

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