OK it isn’t hot, it’s pretty damn chilly most of the time. The planet Mars has however consistently captured our imagination and has always been a compelling setting for all sorts of fiction, from comics and novels to big-budget movies.
The Martian, Andy Weir’s bestselling novel is being made into a movie right now; the story is an intelligent take on how an astronaut could survive for a year and a half on the planet whilst he awaits rescue. It’s less sci-fi and more survival really – but the realism connects us to the near future in an entirely plausible way. We hardly have to suspend our disbelief at all.
Red Rising is another new book series which uses Mars for its setting although this very much more in the fantasy genre. Think gravity boots, laser whips and space lizards. It’s certainly caught the imagination of the Young Adult fans who love a bit of friends/foes/factions. Whatever. It’s a fun and immersive read, relentlessly ramping up the action. And it’s being turned into a movie too.
So why is it Mars hotter than ever, in fiction terms?
Mars feels within reach.
There has been a general escalation in scientific interest in the planet over the last decade. Images from Curiosity, NASA’s perky little rover have been all over the net, and NASA have confirmed they intend to put feet on the dusty red ground by 2035. I mean I’m not saying I’d be on that mission. I get vertigo from escalators but hey, someone I know might be. Or their kid. Or someone on twitter’s kid. Astronauts tweet and vlog from space all the time so we’ll feel like we’re along for the ride. We’re all going to Mars baby!
Mars feels familiar.
We pop over to Mars all the time, or rather our probes and landers do. Since the late 70s we’ve sent all sorts to take some snaps and do some sums. Currently an astonishing THIRTEEN spacecraft are littering the surface of the Red Planet. Some crash-landed and others pottered around for a bit. Curiosity is still pottering about. And this doesn’t include the bajillion bits of shite we’ve sprinkled around in the process, you know, stuff like springs, nuts, bolts, parachutes and splintery bits of heatshield.
Part of me feels a bit disgusted that we fling all this crap out onto other planets like we own the bloody universe. Despite everything being sterile and radiated into a cocked hat by the journey through space, it’s still pollution.
The other part of me stares in wonder at the pictures of a Martian sunset, not so different from our own, or what appears to be a picture of a dick drawn by Curiosity’s wheels and it’s hard not to feel like it’s a desert in Mexico, with the heli-tour depot just out of the picture.
Mars is so near.
There’s no need to think about light years and all that difficult science when it comes to Mars. It only takes a normal year or so to get there (apparently), less if the orbits are lined up… and a year isn’t an impossible length of time, after all we wait that long for the new season of a favourite TV show.
It’s easier to imagine travelling to another planet when we don’t need to factor in being cryogenically frozen. It’s a more appealing prospect to plan a journey when our great grandchildren won’t in fact be dead by the time we return to Earth. Mars just feels doable.
Mars is like, totally red.
How planets look affects how we interpret them in our fiction.
Think about the Moon. It’s closer. We’ve even been there. We’re not exactly hurrying to go back. Well maybe you are. I’m not.
Because it has zero atmosphere it’s a fairly black and white kind of place. It’s spooky, desolate and lonesome – this has come through in lots of movies; from the Mini Monolith in 2001: A Space Oddessey, to Sam Rockwell going insane in the brilliant Moon. You want to freak the crap out of someone with something dark? Well maybe use the Moon as a setting.
Mars is a jewel by comparison – albeit a dusty one. We are fortunate to have seen dozens of photos from the surface now, many pin sharp. Mars, with a terrain saturated with iron oxide appears to be more colourful. The thin atmosphere on the planet snags the weak sun making it a brighter place to set our stories. Light is suggestive of life or the possibility of life; whether we are talking about sustaining our life or some odd weird alien life.
Mars is still weird.
Having kicked a few rocks about on the Moon, we’re fairly certain there is bugger all life up there. It’s like there’s a tipping point with exploration where after a certain point the facts outweigh our imagination. With Mars we know more than we did but the planet is still tantalisingly mysterious. Perhaps there is a giant human face under the dunes holding the secret to life on earth. Maybe algae eating insects are lurking; or perhaps there is a colony beneath the surface adhering to archaic and brutal hierarchies.
We won’t know til we get there and see for ourselves. Until then there’s everything to play for.