This has to be the image of the week: NASA’s Curiosity Rover photographed around sixty seconds before it touched down on the surface of Mars. This extraordinary picture was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and clearly shows the one-ton robot dangling from its parachute on final descent.
A new NASA mission to Mars was always going to thrill me, but this one really upped the ante. Biggest rover ever? A parachute that deploys at over twice the speed of sound? A rocket-powered skycrane that lowers an entire science laboratory on cables down to the surface? How crazy were the guys who came up with that idea? Not too crazy, it seems, if the runaway success of the landing is anything to go by. Indeed, Adam Steltzner of JPL assures us that the white-knuckle concept was ‘the least crazy of the methods you could use to land a rover the size of Curiosity on Mars.’
The whole thing’s a dream come true. So, while watching my Twitter feed so as not to miss each new thumbnail image of the Martian surface as it comes in over the ether, I’ve started thinking about a few of the other Martian dreams I’ve enjoyed.
The grand-daddy of all Martian fiction is undoubtedly the Barsoom series of novels written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The first volume – A Princess of Mars – was published in 1917 and tells the story of John Carter’s first trip to the red planet. His adventures with the warlike Tharks and his romance with the smouldering Dejah Thoris deliver pulp fiction thrills of the highest order. Sure, it’s dated. And yes, its reputation’s been shaken by the poor performance of the recent Disney movie adaptation. And realistic it ain’t. But it is a whole heap of fun and I guarantee you that, if you read it, you’ll find the fantastic world of Barsoom invading your dreams.
Even more dreamlike are Ray Bradbury’s classic Martian tales, known collectively as The Martian Chronicles. Written through the 1940s, these loosely connected short stories meander through a future history in which men in rocketships gradually colonise Mars. On Bradbury’s version of Mars, nothing is certain. The Martians themselves don’t so much live on their planet as haunt it. The Earth settlers grapple with hallucinatory episodes and telepathic attacks, and are frequently brought to the brink of sanity as they question their right to be on Mars at all, or face the devastating truth that the planet they’ve left behind has been destroyed by nuclear war. The tone throughout – as with so much of Bradbury’s fiction – is wistful, unsettling and often indescribably beautiful.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy – Red Mars, Blue Mars and Green Mars – was published in the mid-90s, and I reckon it’s the definitive series of novels about the terraforming and colonisation of Mars. As dreams go, this tale of the imagination is as lucid they come. Robinson’s huge ambition is matched only by his tremendous skill in wrangling a huge cast of complex characters as they struggle to establish the first human colony on another world. If you like hard science, smart politics and rich philosophy, this one’s for you. And the level of detail (particularly in the soaring descriptions of epic journeys by rover, dirigible and on foot across the Martian landscape) is so phenomenal I’m convinced Robinson, as part of his research, must have walked on the damn planet himself.
I could recommend more Martian fiction – in fact, the hard part is knowing when to stop. The War of the Worlds by H G Wells, while not actually set on Mars, is the classic story of Martian invasion and the blueprint for all alien invasion stories since. Philip K Dick’s Martian Time-Slip takes the author’s favourite themes of paranoia and unreliable realities and plays them out against the backdrop of a Martian colony. Stephen Baxter’s Voyage tells the story of a mission-that-might-have-been as he imagines an alternative history in which Kennedy dodged Oswald’s bullet and, instead of building the Space Shuttle, NASA sent an Apollo-derived spacecraft to Mars.
Even then I’m just scratching the surface. The thing is, wonderful as all these fictions are, suddenly the real world’s become just as exciting. And by ‘world’ I don’t mean this one. I mean the other one. The red planet. Mars – the world of dreams.