Princesses and bacteria: Mars and Earth, past and future

Princesses and bacteria: Mars and Earth, past and future

his mosaic image shows part of the left side of NASA's Curiosity rover and two blast marks from the descent stage's rocket engines. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech)
On Monday, President Obama paid homage to the Mars Science Laboratory mission team as “examples of American know-how and ingenuity.” Northwestern University professor Bill Savage takes it one step further and gives a lot of credit to Curiosity, the Mars rover itself. “Perhaps Curiosity takes us elsewhere in science fiction: Time travel,” he said at The Paper Machete. “Like the Hubble Telescope searching for distant images of the Big Bang, Curiosity is a time machine of sorts, looking into our past… And perhaps into our future.” Read an excerpt below or listen above:

Mars, the brightest object in the sky after the sun, the moon and Venus, has long fired our imaginations. Ancient civilizations observed the red wanderer (that’s what “planet” means in Ancient Greek, wanderer) and saw the God of War. Millennia later, Percival Lowell trained his telescope on Mars and saw canals as evidence of advanced civilizations. [Last] week, the NASA probe Curiosity… successfully landed on Mars to look for signs of life.

In our contemporary cultural imagination, space exploration is tied up with both politics and fiction. Politically, both presidential campaigns offered boilerplate praise to NASA, though Romney’s encomia seem a bit inconsistent with the Republican Party’s general rejection of any science, from evolution to climate change, not approved by the Bible or Exxon-Mobile.

So, let’s put politics aside for science fiction, if we can.

We can’t. Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles shows how we use other worlds to think about our own, and that means thinking about politics. His stories of the colonization of Mars and the exploration of its ancient civilizations spoke to the time of their composition, the late 1940s and early ‘50s, the Cold War, the allure and horror of the Bomb, the nuclear power.

In his 1963 novella “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” Roger Zelazny wrote about Mars because once we actually visited there which was due to happen any time now, then, during the early days of the Space Program (capital S, capital P) there’d be no more room for tales of dying civilizations. In it, a poet visits Mars to learn the Martians’ language, and of course, there’s a beautiful Martian babe a dancer. But the Martians’ interest in him is physical rather than poetic. While they very much appreciate his translation of Ecclesiastes and the observation that “nothing is new under the sun,” a moribund race sometimes just needs a quick injection of young spunk, and he’s kicked to the curb by his Martian honey after delivering the genetic goods. I think of her as kind of a red Kardashian.

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