Friday, December 19, 2008

Visions of Mars: a conversation with Carl Sagan

Several blogs note that literary giant John Updike
has written an essay titled “Visions of Mars” for
the December 2008 issue of National Geographic magazine. A short but interesting tour of the human imagination, Updike’s essay visits the Mars of Giovanni Schiaparelli, Percival Lowell, H. G. Wells, C. S. Lewis, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, Garrett P. Serviss, and Carl Sagan, who, apparently, imagined the possibility that "polar bear-sized creatures" roamed
the surface of the Red Planet.

Since I’m a big fan of Carl Sagan and still watch his award-winning 1980 television series Cosmos from time to time, I dug up this neat passage from the book Conversations with Carl Sagan (2006):
“Then, when I was ten -- I was at P.S. 101 in Brooklyn at the time -- I came upon the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels about John Carter and his travels on Lowell’s Mars. It was a world of ruined cities, planet-girdling canals, immense pumping stations -- a feudal technological society. The people there were red, green, black, yellow, or white and some of them had removable heads, but basically there were human. I didn’t realize then the chauvinism of making people on another planet like us; I simply devoured what seemed to me the riches of another planet’s biology. Carter fell in love with a princess of the Kingdom of Helium, Dejah Thoris. It was very exciting, and I loved those books. They were full of new ideas. On Burroughs’s Mars, there were two primary colors more than on Earth, and I would close my eyes and try to imagine them. I tried to imagine my way to Mars, the way Carter did: I would go into a vacant lot, spread my arms, and wish to be on Mars.”

Thirty-one years later, Sagan has taped up on the wall outside his Cornell office a map of Mars as Burroughs portrayed it, with Xs marking the spots where Carter landed. Recently, in his office, he showed a visitor, on a globe of Mars made from Mariner 9 photographs, exactly where Carter would have come down.

“Many an evening I spent in vacant lots, arms outstretched, thinking myself to that twinkling red place, but nothing happened. I tried all different kinds of wishing. Suddenly, it dawned on me that this was fiction; maybe there was some better way to get to Mars.“
Thanks to the blog Variety SF for steering me to science fiction author Paul McAuley’s comments about Updike's essay. Respectfully,
I was happy to see that the piece in National Geographic was not written by Kim Stanley Robinson, or, for that matter, Ray Bradbury, Ben Bova, Robert Zubrin, Donna Shirley, or Steve Squyres. An outsider like John Updike probably has a greater chance of encouraging non-genre readers and those who are not members of the scientific community to develop a vision of Mars. After all, if we are to send a human to the Red Planet, we'll need the support of the Harry Angstrom's of the world.

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