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The Lure of Mars


Jeromy Henry

It's too bad we can't write realistic sf stories set in the hot deserts of Mars anymore.  We now know it's a cold and lifeless place.  Could liquid water exists somewhere, hidden away?  Maybe.  Could life?  Possibly.  But it won't be the tall green aliens Burroughs imagined even if it exists.  And we are pretty sure that a fading society, living on the edges of forgotten, glorious cities, probably doesn't exist either.

There's a peculiar draw to the vision of the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the many lesser-known authors that wrote works in a similar setting.  I think one reason his books have such an enduring appeal, besides the adventure, is the concept of an ancient past civilization and its slow fade into ruin.  It's not hard to find similar themes in other books from that time on to today.

Pick your favorite examples from myth, religion, and fantasy.  We have the Fall of Man and the Fall of Atlantis.  Greek myths speak of a Golden Age, then a Silver Age, then one of Bronze, and finally one of Iron.  Lord of the Rings shows a fantastical version of the West in decline.

Even sf stories use the theme of ancient and forgotten civilizations that preceded our own, though they give it an alien twist: Niven's aliens who built the Ringworld, James H. Schmitz's Old Galactics in A Tale of Two Clocks, and Andre Norton's Forerunners are just three examples off the top of my head.

But when scientific understanding advances and pokes holes in our plots, we can always do what Leigh Brackett did.  She took her hero, John Stark, and moved him from Mars to a distant planet.  She made it an icy place, but she could just have easily filled the globe with sand-filled canals.

Who's to say there isn't a planet like our old conception of Mars out there, full of dessicated cities on the shores of dried up seas?

2012-03-08 06:52:47
On this world we have whole plots and subplots set in the artic or antartic. Transplant'em to Mars and Voila! Story time! Actually I agree with the premise above. it's all about imagination--writers of the past were writing on the cutting edge of scientific "knowledge" as well as within the scope of what is known of human history and behavior, and they produced some darn good tales. No reason to mourn the intrusion of "reality" into those visions. In sf it has always been the "could, would, maybe" aspect of looking at what we know as opposed to what we do not know that has provided the subtext of pretty much everything writers come up with. And one never closes out the idea of "aternate realities"! Good editorial. thanks.

2012-03-06 15:56:44
I think when space exploration revealed the bleakness of other worlds, the general public lost interest. Sad really as Mars is a real place, with things to explore. Of course, if we could get some nifty evidence of a past civilization . . .

2012-03-03 02:17:40
As far as I am concerned there is Old Mars with the canals, deserts and dying cities and New Mars with Opportunity and the other rovers, and both are as real as ghe other.

2012-03-01 09:54:44
You can always teraform the planet until it's just about ready and then something terrible happens that makes it inhospitable but survivable and there's our story. Bottomdweller

2012-03-01 05:57:05
I've always preferred the planets that inhabit my imagination, to the more mundane scientific realities of atmospheric composition and tectonic instability! Ironspider

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