Extremophiles on Mars
It’s no use telling him he’s wrong. He’ll wear that accusation like a badge of honour, polishing it daily and displaying it for everyone to see. He’s not going to be fooled by the likes of us.
He is Robert David Steele. Ex-CIA. On June 29th 2017, reputable news outlets in the United States reported that he had taken to the airwaves to proclaim to the nation, apparently in all seriousness, that kidnapped children are being shipped to Mars to work as slaves on a secret Martian colony.
And who are we?
We are the people who want to speak for Mars, our small, dry, red-dirt neighbour, which surely has had enough of nonsense like this.
The human race has been spying on Mars for a while. In 1610 Galileo was the first person to eyeball its tiny disk through a telescope, and in 1666 Giovanni Cassini looked through his own ’scope and saw that this was a world with a scarred, red landscape and a south pole.
For the next three centuries we peered intently at Mars from our earth-bound observatories, backyards and rooftops. We drew it, photographed it, measured and modelled it – all from a distance of, on average, 225 million km. Then, in 1965, we got to go there. Remotely, that is, in the form of the tiny, unmanned spacecraft, Mariner 4: on 14 July, 1965, Mariner 4 performed a fly-by of Mars and beamed back to us the first deep space close-ups of a planet not our own.
Our first planet-fall came in November 1971 with the Soviet Mars 2 Lander, which, to paraphrase the immortal words of Douglas Adams, didn’t so much land on the planet as crash on it. A week later, though, its sister ship, the imaginatively named Mars 3 Lander achieved what’s known as a soft landing, and managed to function from the ground for all of fifteen seconds, long enough to claim to be the first successful arrival on Mars from the inhabitants of planet Earth. Since then there have been dozens of fly-bys, swing-bys (like a fly-by but by a craft on its way somewhere else), orbiters and landers.
Many of our emissaries haven’t made it: about two thirds of the missions we’ve sent to Mars have failed. Space travel is difficult.
But there have been enough successes to keep us going back: NASA landed Viking 1 and Viking 2 on the surface in 1976 and those craft sent back our first colour close-ups of the red Martian dirt. Many other missions followed. Currently there are two small NASA rovers trundling across the Martian landscape: Opportunity arrived in January 2004, and Curiosity in August, 2012. More expeditions are planned: from the USA, Russia, China, United Arab Emirates, India and Europe.
Fair to say, then, that we’ve been studying Mars for a while. But we’ve been dreaming about it for much, much longer.
Our ancient ancestors were unnerved by this wanderer in the night sky. It was red, the colour of embers and of blood, it varied dramatically in brightness over time and it strayed about, taking an erratic path across the heavens. To these early peoples, the seasonal regularity of the night sky was a matter of life and death – they ordered their planting and harvesting by its patterns. But every couple of years, Mars performed a strange dance, coming to a halt in its march across the background stars, going into reverse for a few weeks, then stopping and moving forwards again. We know now that this is because of the way the Earth and Mars orbit the sun, but the ancients didn’t know this and to them such unpredictable behaviour was disturbing.
The Babylonians called this red wanderer Nergal, the god of fire, war and destruction. The Greeks called it Ares, god of war, and the Romans called it Mars, likewise, the god of war. In ancient India it had many names including Raktavarna, meaning the colour of blood, and in ancient Egypt, Mars was Horus the Red, god of the sky and war and hunting. In Chinese, Japanese and Korean cultures, it’s the fire star, and in Chinese lore the rising of the fire star was seen by the ancients as a portent of war, famine and death.
In terms of menace, Mars, you might say, has form.
But ancient star-gazers aren’t the only ones who have looked at the red planet and wondered. Writing in his book Cosmos in 1980, astronomer Carl Sagan suggested that ‘Mars has become a kind of mythic arena into which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears.’ Even if all we knew about Mars was its litany of ancient names, we would have good reason to agree. But in fact, the more we have discovered about this dusty neighbour of ours, the richer our imaginings have become.
With the advent of the telescope our understanding of Mars was transformed: no longer a deity, a portent, or an unpredictable sign in the heavens, it became a world.
In 1877 the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli peered at the planet through his telescope and recorded, among the areas of light and dark that he saw, a series of lines – seemingly quite straight lines – traversing the Martian surface. He thought that perhaps the landscape had been etched by geology or weather into grooves or channels, so it must have seemed quite sensible to him to name them as such. In Italian, canali.
What happened next should come as no surprise. We are an imaginative species, after all. The canali were (mis)translated into English as ‘canals’ and it was a short step from there to the peopling of the Martian landscape with an ancient, dying race that had engineered planet-spanning canals to draw water from the poles to the lowlands in a desperate attempt to survive on the arid surface.
Subsequently, both science and science fiction fired the public imagination about life on Mars. With the Suez Canal opening just eight years before Schiaparelli’s ‘discovery’ it must have been tempting to believe that humanity wasn’t alone in building such engineering marvels. Meanwhile, an American astronomer, Percival Lowell, championed the Martian canals in three books: Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906) and Mars as an Abode of Life (1908). Soon stories about Mars and its ancient civilisation were multiplying across the literary landscape faster than alien pods in a B movie.
In this way a language misstep – a serendipitous one, to be sure – inspired one of the richest veins of writing in the science fiction canon. Ironically, the canali were themselves a fiction, an optical illusion created by the poor resolution of the telescopes of the time. Look at the Martian surface today and you won’t see them.
But there was a seventy year gap between Lowell seeing ‘evidence’ of a canal-based civilisation and Mariner 4 disappointing everyone with the barren emptiness of the actual Martian surface. That’s plenty of time for us to imagine an inhabited world within hailing distance, astronomically speaking, of our own.
Those who have no patience with science fiction will tell you that it’s populated by square-jawed men armed with ray guns, scantily clad maidens armed with a good set of vocal chords and green tentacled aliens armed with slime who terrorise the aforementioned maidens before succumbing to the ray guns of those rugged heroes. Certainly Martian SF has had its fair share of these stories. Edgar Rice Burroughs – he of Tarzan fame – turned out a lengthy run of them in the first half of last century, with titles such as A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars, The Warlord of Mars, Thuvia: Maid of Mars – you get the idea. There were many more in this vein from Mr Burroughs.
But alongside these pulp adventure stories came a multitude of other Martian tales: invasion narratives (Martians invading Earth, Terrans invading Mars), exploration stories, utopias, romances, war stories, quest narratives, even theological fables.
Despite the commonly held notion that SF is only pulp, it’s worth looking a little more deeply into some of these entries in the Martian literary canon. Consider, for example, the most (in)famous fictional response to the ‘Is There Life on Mars?’ question: HG Wells’s masterpiece, The War of the Worlds. Serialised in magazines on both sides of the Atlantic in 1897, just two years after Lowell’s Mars championed the canals, the story was published as a novel in 1898, and amplified in the public imagination by the 1938 radio play narrated and directed by Orson Welles.
That wonderful, chilling opening sets the scene for an imaginative exploration of ideas that were capturing the imaginations, and stoking the fears, of people in the US and the UK at the end of the nineteenth century:
“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. … Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”
The War of the Worlds is an invitation to take an imaginative leap into a world in which colonisation and empire is something done to ‘us’ – specifically British and US readers – rather than something ‘we’ do to other people. It’s also an exploration of an end-stage of evolution in which intellects have triumphed over bodies, and of social Darwinism in which survival of the fittest has grim consequences for those who are ‘not fit’ (until the end, that is, when biology takes its revenge). Written in the midst of the second industrial revolution – also known as the technological revolution – when electricity and communications technology (phone and telegraph) were becoming embedded in everyday life, it’s an examination of the power of superior technology to subjugate those who don’t have it. And of course, it’s a ripping yarn.
This novel is by no means alone in the Martian canon in taking ideas of the moment and weaving them into story. In 1893, as women struggled for suffrage, Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant wrote Unveiling a Parallel: A Romance, a tale in which Mars is a feminist utopia. In Joseph Fraser’s Melbourne and Mars: My Mysterious Life on Two Planets (1889), Mars is a technological utopia, and in Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star and Mark Wicks’s To Mars via the Moon, both written in the period of turmoil between the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 – the planet is a socialist utopia.
In the early years of the Cold War, Ray Bradbury’s classic collection of interlinked stories The Martian Chronicles sends Americans to Mars to found and colonise a new world because their homeworld has become riven with conflict and is eventually destroyed by nuclear war. But the culture clash between settlers and indigenous Martians comes at a horrifying cost to both sides. These are not stories of American triumphalism: indeed, in one of the central stories of the collection, Mars is a deeply nostalgic, ‘Mom and apple pie’ version of small town USA which looks like heaven to the colonists, but which rapidly descends into hell.
Most of the Mars narratives written in the first half of the twentieth century posit the existence of Martians – sometimes we meet them, often they are long dead, as in Heinlein’s 1951 collection, The Green Hills of Earth. There they are remembered with nostalgia for the beauty of the spires they built along the Grand Canal with its “ice blue plain of water, unmoved by tide, untouched by breeze and reflecting serenely the sharp bright stars of the Martian sky, and beyond the water the lacy buttresses and flying towers of an architecture too delicate for our rumbling heavy planet.”
Then came the 1960s and Mariner 4. We learned definitively that we were not going to find intelligent life on Mars, not even long dead intelligent life. But story is nothing if not adaptable. Martian narratives simply changed tack with the winds of scientific discovery and turned to explore the ‘What if…’ of space travel, human colonisation and the challenges of terraforming a hostile world.
Mars became, variously, a refuge from a dying earth, a frontier world for adventurers, a stepping stone to the rest of the solar system and even to the stars. Struggles were fought between frontiersmen (they were mainly men) and sclerotic bureaucracies back on Earth, and between scientists in search of knowledge and corporations in search of wealth; Mars was envisaged as a militarised society, an entirely female society, a prison planet, even a retirement world for wealthy Terrans.
Some of these stories are flights of fancy, but some set out genuinely to explore whether we could live there. And if so, could we thrive? Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is perhaps the most famous to take seriously the science and politics of these questions. In such stories Mars becomes a laboratory for a thought experiment: what if we went there? What would happen to a human society in an environment so hostile, so isolated, so very far from home?
It is out of respect for these stories that I take exception to Robert David Steele and reports of his claims that kidnapped children are being sent to Mars. Kidnapped children are not being sent to Mars. No one is being sent to Mars, yet. In fact Mars is astonishingly hostile to human life: it has no liquid water, and only a very weak magnetic field, which means that decidedly unhealthy doses of cosmic radiation fall on the planet’s surface on a daily basis. And, as recently as July 2017, we’ve learned that the chemical composition of the Martian surface is highly toxic to life in almost any form. These conditions suggest that the Martian surface is a place for extremophiles only, that is, for organisms that thrive in conditions of extreme toxicity. So perhaps the Robert David Steeles of this world would feel right at home there, after all.
To be sure, not all the stories that have been written about Mars have been drawn from the best of the human imagination. In their defence however, it’s possible perhaps to say this: these are stories that, for more than a century, have looked up at the red planet and asked ‘What if…?.’ What if there was a feminist utopia there? What if humans tried to terraform the planet? What if we used it as a launching pad to the outer solar system and into deep space? These stories display imaginations at work in the service of curiosity about our world and other worlds and about that strangest of creatures, the human being.
Mr Steele on the other hand, appears not to be in the least curious – not curious enough to find out how hostile Mars is to human life, not curious enough to find out that it would take less than a year to get there, not the twenty years he seems to have suggested. He doesn’t seem to care about any of that because what he appears to want to do is to use Mars to accuse people – presumably ‘the enemy elite’ – of grotesqueries. At one level this is laughable, but at another it’s not, because this is an imagination at work in the service not of curiosity but of revenge. And given the raw power of the human imagination, that is not an encouraging development.
NASA did respond to these claims, saying simply, ‘There are no humans on Mars.’ And that’s true, there aren’t, yet. But when we go there, in person, and we will, we’ll be drawn by our inquisitiveness and our wonder and our sense of adventure and challenge. We’ll go there for that most human of reasons, abiding curiosity about the nature of our cosmos and our place within it.