Mars: The final frontier


The Beagle has landed. These words, to be uttered on Christmas Day, may not quite have the gravitas of Neil Armstrong's deathless words, but we should not underestimate this British endeavour or the strong pull of the Red Planet upon the earthly imagination

Home Marte

By Kevin Jackson


21 December 2003

Half a lifetime ago, just about every inhabitant of our planet within hailing distance of a television or radio heard Neil Armstrong intone the first words ever spoken from another celestial body: "The Eagle has landed." This coming Christmas Day, all being well, we can expect to hear those deathless words echoed in slightly more prosaic form: "The Beagle has landed." Beagle 2, the British probe, will be touching down on the parched, orange-red surface of Mars and gearing up to send us back pictures.

Younger readers might be inclined to treat this news with an indifference that verges on boredom, but for those of us who were young in the early space age of the 1950s and 1960s, the thought of a vehicle from Earth landing on Mars is still, in some ways, the stuff of dreams: while the data Beagle 2 will send back to us will be like, well, a live transmission from heaven.

Nowadays, everyone over the age of five is aware that Mars is pretty much your basic spherical lump of space rock; if there has ever been any life there much above the level of lichen, everyone but dreamers will be amazed. Even non-specialists have the key facts at their fingertips - that it's damned cold (average temperature -63C) and has an atmosphere of carbon dioxide that would kill us in seconds, and that its two dinky little moons, Phobos and Deimos, were not made by little green men.

As a vacation spot, Mars makes the Gobi Desert or Antarctica look like Mauritius, and yet some of us find it hard to shed entirely a childish sense of wonder about this undesirable chunk of real estate. For the better part of a century, the planet Mars - the Red Planet, fourth stone from the sun - was far and away the most mysterious and potent sight in the night sky; the most paradoxically exotic of all astronomical names; the most promising and threatening of all unexplored territories in the Final Frontier.

The power of this Martian myth - which flourished in its purest version from the late Victorian period until, roughly, the Apollo Moon landing of 1969 - derived from a strange cocktail of fact and fancy. The fact: Mars, as our closest and most Earth-like neighbour, roughly our size to boot, looked like the one other place in our solar system that might, just conceivably, have sustained life. (Venus and Mercury: way too hot. Jupiter: way too big. Saturn and the others: way too cold.)

The fancy: that life was already well established there, that it was intelligent, and that it probably didn't have our best interests at heart. H G Wells is among the main culprits in elaborating this myth, and his invading Martians from The War of the Worlds - "intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic", as he beautifully characterised them - spawned a thousand, thousand epigones across several decades of science fiction. Most were heedless of the fact that Wells, a socialist as well as a scientist, had political allegory in mind: for Martian war machines in Kent, read Europeans arriving in Africa, armed with the Gatling gun. Wells also had it in mind that Mars, in Roman mythology, was the god of war. Check your copy of The Planets suite by Gustav Holst.

HG's near-namesake Orson Welles breathed new life into anti-Martian prejudice with his notorious radio broadcast which persuaded thousands of jittery Americans that Martian war machines were already ripping the eastern seaboard to shreds; while a decade or so later, in the mid-1950s, a lavish Americanised movie of The War of the Worlds, produced by George Pal, kept Martian paranoia on the boil well into the McCarthy period.

Indeed, until Steven Spielberg taught everyone over speaking age to refer to alien beings as "extra-terrestrials", the standard, all-purpose pop word for a space creature was a "martian": hence the dreadful American sitcom My Favorite Martian, the no less dreadful rock'n'roll hit "The Martian Hop", guiltily enjoyable sci-fi movie extravaganzas such as William Cameron Menzies's Invaders from Mars, and innumerable daft B-movies with titles such as I Was a Teenage Martian or I Married a Martian. There was even one deliriously mad flick - Red Planet Mars - which, picking up on the accidental political connotations of "red" in the 1950s, postulated that the Martians were obviously godless commies. Nor did Edgar Rice Burroughs, best known as the creator of Tarzan, add very much depth to the picture with his many volumes of action adventures set on Mars.

You have to look to more sober material to grasp the richness and extent of this Martian mythos, and to spot the debt they owe to some form of reality. If HG Wells's murderous Martian imperialists represent the vicious side, the pacific, lyrical pole is represented by Ray Bradbury's sequence of tales The Martian Chronicles in which Mars is depict-ed as the cradle of intelligent life, and of a highly advanced civilisation, but one that had perished countless generations ago.

As most of his readers recognised, Bradbury's fiction was partly inspired by the one curiosity that every schoolchild once knew about Mars: that 19th-century astronomers had peered at its surface through high-powered telescopes and seen regular patterns there - patterns which, with the aid of a little wishful thinking, were interpreted as canals. (This habit of treating the surface of Mars as a kind of Rorschach test has persisted among the credulous: remember the so-called "Face on Mars", a satellite picture of shadows falling across a rock formation which, if you were imaginative or drunk enough, looked a bit like eyes, nose and a mouth?)

Speculations on this phenomenon fell into two main schools: the Bradburyists, so to speak, who thought that the "canals" had been made thousands of years ago by a now extinct race of Martian agriculturalists, and the Wellsians, who thought that they indicated lively activity in the solar neighbourhood. It was seriously proposed that we should try to signal to the Martians by building a giant diagram of a right-angled triangle. The plan went the way of Gladstone's proposal to send out a fleet in search of Atlantis.

Belief in the Martian canals waned as astronomical science progressed: only the very romantic could persist in the conviction that they were anything other than random, wind-carved patterns, and, according to the latest surveys from the lunatic fringe, most believers in UFOs have renounced all theories of the Martian origins for flying saucers.

More recent Hollywood movies about Mars have either stuck to reasonably sober reality, or been forced to swerve around popular scientific awareness by chucking in some gratuitous ghosts or vampires. Every awakening to reality risks a sense of loss, but there are gains, too. In the case of Mars, the doubtful thrills of fantasy are yielding to the more substantial pleasures of well-grounded speculation.

The best films made about Mars in the past decade have been intelligent science documentaries, notably some brilliant Horizon films for the BBC, including one on the risks that will be faced by the crews of the first manned flights to Mars: loss of muscle mass during the six-month journey, radiation, psychological disorientation. Conspicuously absent from the list: attacks by giant green things wielding ray guns. It is time for even the most wistful of baby boomers to put the Mars legend to sleep for good. On the other hand, if we wake up on Christmas Day to see a giant tentacle snaking towards Beagle 2...


Data: 21 December 2003

Autore: By Kevin Jackson

Fonte: The Independent (U.K)



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