by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 20, 2019
Growing up, I wanted to go to Mars. I assume the original seed of that desire came from watching science fiction movies as a little kid in the 1950s before I learned to read. When I could read, I loved reading about humans colonizing Mars. Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein was the first SF novel I can remember reading about humans living on Mars. After that, I discovered Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs. But the allure of Mars came way before reading science fiction. I believe I saw a copy of The Exploration of Mars by Willy Ley, Wernher von Braun, and illustrated by Chesley Bonestell before I started reading science fiction. I began searching nonfiction books about space travel when I was in the fourth grade, right after Alan Shepard’s first ride into space.
Knowing what Mars is like now, I don’t want to travel there anymore. I’m old and hate the cold, and Mars is a very frigid place. Although my agoraphobic ways would make me perfectly suitable for living in a tiny Martian habitat, and its low gravity would probably ease the pains in my back. And I love the idea of being stranded alone on Mars like the old film Robinson Crusoe on Mars or the book and film The Martian by Andy Weir.
The unfortunate reality is there’s not much on Mars beside radiation, rocks, and robots. I suppose visiting the landing site of Viking 1 might make a great tourist destination, but there’s not a whole lot on Mars to see unless you’re a geologist. Of course, sometimes the appeal of getting away from this planet makes the utopian nowhere of Ares seem very attractive.
Why does science fiction make us want to leave Earth? Where did it make you want to go as a kid? Were they real places like Ganymede or Mars, or imaginary ones like Tatooine or Arrakis? Did you want to travel on interplanetary rockets or interstellar spaceships? Or maybe the past or future was your destination and you needed a time machine? Or was science fiction always just a cheap alternative to opium?
The book that describes my childhood mindset best is the 1958 Have Space Suit–Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. As a kid, I read it straight, but I’m sure it was a pastiche on science fiction. The story is about Clifford “Kip” Russell who is dying to go to the Moon. He hates that other people can, either because they are in the military, are top scientists, or just filthy rich. As a senior in high school, Kip determines that’s he’s going to get to the Moon one way or another. He hopes to win an all-expenses-paid trip but instead gets kidnapped by a flying saucer. Not only does Kip get to the Moon, but Pluto, a planet orbiting Vega and another planet somewhere in the lesser Magellanic cloud.
I believe Heinlein wrote this book because he knew kids dreamed of leaving Earth. At the time, only a very small number of Baby Boomer had this psychological weirdo affliction. Decades later, millions do. What does that say about us? Is the desire to go into space really that different of hoping to get to heaven?
I look back over my life and see I wasted a lot of time on these fantasies. Some people really do go into space, but there’s a reality to how they live that allows that. I was never realistic enough to become an astronaut. As I got older I transferred my personal hopes to humanity in general. I thought it would be great if anybody went to Mars.
The other day I reread “The Million-Year Picnic” by Ray Bradbury. It’s the final story in The Martian Chronicles. In this lovely tale, a man and his wife, with their three sons escape to Mars as civilization collapses on Earth. They hope another family with four daughters will also make it in their rocket. The dad keeps telling his boys he will show them Martians, and in the end, he shows the kids their reflection in a Martian canal. I love this story. It was nostalgic when it was first published in Planet Stories in 1946, and it now encapsulates all my nostalgia for the science fiction I read as a kid. However, the reality is something quite different. If travelers from Earth could look into a Martian canal they would see the real Martians.
I’m not even sure we need to send people to Mars anymore. Aren’t robots our true descendants who will colonize space?
Or do you still want to go?