Robert Crossley, Imagining Mars

Robert Crossley, Imagining Mars: A Literary History (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011). xvii + 353 pp. £34.95. ISBN 978-0-8195-6927-1.

Robert Crossley begins his literary history of Mars with a trip to the Clark telescope at Wellesley College during the opposition of 2003. At a time when our neighbouring planet was closer to Earth than it had been for sixty millennia, hundreds of people turned out to gaze at it through Wellesley’s Victorian optical telescope. This is a measure of the continuing fascination with a planet which astronomers have been studying since the dawn of history. Successive improvements in the telescope, followed by the surface photographs and dust samples obtained in the 1970s, have decisively – if often erroneously – affected the popular understanding of Mars.

Crossley’s model in Imagining Mars is Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s classic study of 1948, Voyages to the Moon. Yet there are major differences between the fictions of Mars and imaginary moon voyages. Nicolson writes most memorably about sixteenth- to eighteenth-century literature, while for Crossley the modern cultural history of Mars does not begin until 1877. His brief chapter taking us from Galileo to the late nineteenth century (‘Dreamworlds of the Telescope’) is succeeded by no less than twelve chapters on post-1877 scientific romances, utopias, and works of science fiction, concluding with an extended appreciation of Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic Mars trilogy (1992-6). Mars fiction, unlike the moon voyage, is still very much a going concern even without the innumerable films, comics, computer and video games, and rock lyrics which mostly lie outside Crossley’s purview.

What happened in 1877 was the announcement by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli of his discovery of a network of markings on the Martian surface which he called canali [channels]. Not many scientists felt able to confirm his observations, and Schiaparelli scrupulously refrained from interpreting what he had seen. Nevertheless, the canali, invariably mistranslated as ‘canals’, were seized upon by the popular press and assumed to be artificial in origin. Speculation about the canals and the canal-diggers abounded. Were they perhaps trying to send messages to us? Numerous psychic mediums claimed that they were, but the same suggestion appeared in a brief news item in Nature (1894). Later the radio pioneers Marconi and Tesla thought they might have picked up messages from Mars. What was the nature of the Martian (or, as some early writers called it, Marsian, Marsite, or Martialist) intelligence? Might they be preparing to invade the Earth?

H. G. Wells, who was thoroughly acquainted with the latest astronomical observations, produced the archetypal Martian invasion narrative in The War of the Worlds (1898). Not only were his Martians terrifyingly alien but he portrayed them as the occupants of a dying planet, forced to migrate sunwards in search of a new home. The War of the Worlds may be the most influential text in the literature Crossley surveys, yet the great majority of Mars novels are accounts of human, not Martian migration. They depend on vivid reconstructions of the planet’s topography and ecology, about which Wells had been satisfyingly vague.

The founding father of modern Martian romance was not, therefore, Wells so much as the great astronomical eccentric Percival Lowell, who set up an observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona in 1894 and produced a stream of popular books purporting to map and explain the Martian canals. A member of the Bostonian literary dynasty (his sister was the imagist poet Amy Lowell), he had no formal astronomical training and first became known as a specialist in Oriental art. Unlike Schiaparelli, he was happy to speculate freely about the supposed network of waterways and the civilisation that had built it to irrigate their desert terrain. The canals themselves, he argued, must be too narrow to be seen from Earth, so that what showed up in the telescope were the strips of blue-green vegetation surrounding them – much like the Nile Valley if hypothetically seen from space. (Crossley does not draw the tempting conclusion that Lowellian Mars was a form of Orientalist fantasy.) Attempts to photograph the canali were largely unsuccessful, so Lowell had to explain that, confronted with the shimmering images seen through the telescope, the human eye (at least, his eye) was more reliable than the camera.

Lowell died, largely discredited, in 1916, but throughout the twentieth century novelists continued to use Lowellian Mars as a setting. Sometimes this is carefully disguised (as in C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet), but elsewhere, as in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles with their deserted waterways and ruined cities, it is quite blatant. By 1941 astronomers at Mount Wilson had concluded that Mars had too little oxygen and too little water to support life, but many science-fiction writers carried on regardless. Speaking of Martian Time-Slip and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by the much-admired Philip K. Dick, Crossley restricts himself to the comment that ‘Dick’s Mars is a collection of shopworn delusions’ (p. 227).

Other authors, including Asimov, Clarke and the early John Wyndham, anticipated what Crossley calls the late twentieth century’s ‘post-Romantic novel about Mars’. Everything changed, however, once the Mariner and Viking missions began to photograph the planet’s surface. Mariner 4 shocked astronomers in 1965 with its pictures of a flat, barren and nearly featureless world, but this was overturned by Mariner 9 in 1971 which showed that Mars contained the highest mountains in the solar system. Crossley’s history is at its liveliest as he outlines the new Mars literature, including not only science fiction novels but Frederick Turner’s epic poem Genesis, that emerged from this era. Typically these works show Mars being opened up to human settlement by ‘terraforming’, a word invented by Jack Williamson as early as 1942. What Crossley calls ‘a poetry of rock and dust and redness’ (p. 269) slowly gives place to an artificial landscape as hospitable, at least, as those of Bradbury or C. S. Lewis. The process is epitomised in the titles of Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy (plausibly described as ‘the War and Peace of science fiction’ by one early reviewer): Red Mars, Green Mars and finally Blue Mars, in which the planet is dotted with lakes and waterways made by tapping long-buried aquifers and bringing the water to the surface. Even today, Lowellian Mars is not quite dead.

Crossley tells this story with the grace, skill and wide-ranging scholarship familiar from his earlier works, including a biography of Olaf Stapledon and a series of essays on such science-fiction themes as the ‘visionary telescope’ and the imaginary library. One may, of course, quarrel with his selection of the most recent Mars novels – Stephen Baxter’s 1996 novel Voyage is a notable absentee – and with some of his more forthright literary judgements. But the fact that he does offer firm critical judgements is one of the many merits of Imagining Mars. Barring new discoveries this is the definitive literary history of a planet that has long been prospected by the human imagination, whatever the possibilities of actual settlement there.

Patrick Parrinder, University of Reading