Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Dying Planet

Book Title, in Full Glory: Dying Planet: Mars in Science and the Imagination (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005)

Author: Robert Markley, English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Interests: “Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Literature; Media and Cultural Studies; Literary Theory; Gender Studies; the Relations between Literature and Science; and Science Fiction.” Much of Markley’s other work is Anglocentric. Other books: The Far East and the English Imagination, 1600-1730 (Cambridge University Press, 2005); Fallen Languages: Crises of Representation in Newtonian England, 1660-1740 (Cornell University Press, 1993); Two-Edg'd Weapons: Style and Ideology in the Comedies of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve (Oxford University Press, 1988) (yeesh!).

Argument, in 150 words or so:Markley argues that because so much about Mars has yet to be proven, ideas about the red planet, both in scientific and literary manifestations, have instead centered around humanity’s anxieties about ecology, use of resources, and the end purpose of the human race. Mars and Martians have represented utopian (Mars as a place where beings have learned to cooperate to share scarce resources) or dystopian (Martians as “the skull beneath the skin” [206], or the specter of full-scale war during times of scarcity) imaginings of an alternate future for the human race and planet Earth. Of course, says Markley, these fictions fluctuated depending on the historical and social events of the zeitgeist. Meanwhile, science’s continuing fascination with the possibility of life on Mars is a good example, says Markley, of the way in which scientists’ objectives and goals are shaped by their cultural locations.

Engages with: Critics of science fiction (Suvin, Franklin, Hayles); Latour; Derrida; Carl Sagan (more as a primary source, though).

1. "A Situation in Many Respects Similar to Our Own": Mars and the Limits of Analogy: Eighteenth and nineteenth century speculations about Mars. These ideas focused on questions of habitability - can the inhabitants of Mars perform agriculture? Western criteria for what counts as "intelligent life" are established: "'intelligence' is defined implicitly and explicitly in terms of resource extraction, agricultural production, and energy consumption" (32). Examined: Daniel Defoe; Johannes Kepler; other early astronomers; ends with Schiaperelli's introduction of the idea of the "canali".

2. Lowell and the Canal Controversy: Mars at the Limits of Vision: Percival Lowell, a rich-man astronomer operating in the US in the late nineteenth century, bought himself a site in New Mexico from which he believed he could see Mars like no one else. He believed that Mars was crisscrossed by canals, which, when combined with the theory of Martian polar ice caps, spoke to him of intelligent life on the planet which had banded together in a desperate struggle for survival. Lowell was highly contested by other astronomers of the time, including Alfred Russel Wallace, but the public loved his theory, in part, Markley says, because people were trying to figure out what exactly Darwin meant to them - and to process information about disastrous famines in India and China (see Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts). Some people saw the canals as evidence of need for socialism and more equitable resource distribution, but Lowell believed that the canals were proof that Martians had gotten over the pesky drive to help the downtrodden and let their elite take over matters in order to save the planet.

3. "Different Beyond the Most Bizarre Imaginings of Nightmare": Mars in Science Fiction, 1880-1913: Martian science fiction in this time was "a favored site for thought experiments about sociocultural evolution" (115). H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds was a dark vision, but there are also feminist utopias (Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant, Unveiling a Parallel: A Romance, 1891) and utopian socialism (Politics and Life on Mars, anonymous, 1883; Alexander Bogdanov, Red Star, 1905, and Engineer Menni, 1913).

4. Lichens on Mars: Planetary Science and the Limits of Knowledge: The end of the canal theory comes, courtesy of photography, but, as Markley says, there are still significant portions of the public who believe in life on Mars despite the disproving of Lowell's pet idea. Also, "a good deal of the scientific literature...of the period discloses a nostalgia for the possibility of intelligent life on Mars and a hunger for hard data that might answer questions about the planet once and for all" (151).

5. Mars at the Limits of Imagination: The Dying Planet from Burroughs to Dick: The bulk of the chapter examines Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series, and its complicated Mars, "a heroic version of the vanishing American frontier, but one interlaced with strains of chivalric medievalism, technological romance, social Darwinism, Lowellian planetology, and sword-and-sorcery adventure" (183). Also examines Mars in pulp fiction. Makes links between Depression-era Dust Bowl scarcity and nightmare images of Martian desertification. Ends with Philip K. Dick's political criticism of 1950s technological triumphalism, then a section on Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, a bestseller highly critical of human ecological practices.

6. The Missions to Mars: Mariner, Viking, and the Reinvention of a World: The Mariner missions, which were flown in the 1960s but didn't successfully land on the planet until 1976, and the Viking missions, which were flown in 1975, reveal very little hope of life on Mars, but do provide interesting material for geologists to analyze. The bureaucratic establishment reacts by ceasing funding to Martian exploration (public support is not there, without the possibility of discovering life). Some scientists continue to try to prove the existence of possible past life on Mars, in some distant past or in some radically diminished form (terran "extremophiles", or forms of life which thrive on extremely little subsistence, are used as possible evidence of lurking Martian microbes). Major theoretical problems exist: how do you use Earthly chemistry to test for Martian life forms?

7. Transforming Mars, Transforming "Man": Science Fiction in the Space Age: Nostalgia for non-dead Mars proliferates. "Mars assumes a paradoxical significance in science fiction between 1960 and 2000: it is both a dead world that resists human efforts to understand, colonize, or transform it and the site of humankind's next giant leap in its technoscientific, and even spiritual, evolution" (270). Included: Philip Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968); Robert Heinlein's brawny, masculinist Stranger in a Strange Land (1961); Luduk Pesek's pessimistic juvenile fiction, The Earth is Near (1975); Paul Verhoven's terraform fantasy "Total Recall" (1989).

8. Mars at the Turn of a New Century: Scientific questions about Mars remain open. The search for life continues to drive experimental strategy. The question of water and its possible past (or present, in the form of subareological seas) existence on the planet takes primacy. Also covered: the Pathfinder mission (1997) and the Mars Global Survivor (1996) and Mars Odyssey (1998). The Mars Direct group, which wants to get to Mars ASAP and begin possible terraforming or colonization efforts, operates under a "new frontier" ideology which sees Mars as a great outlet for humanity strained to the breaking point by capitalistic needs for expansion.

9. Falling into Theory: Terraformation and Eco-Economics in Kim Stanley Robinson's Martian Trilogy: KSR's books are examined as a complex middle point between exploitative utopian terraformation last-frontier ideology and dystopic visions of humanity's destruction of Mars. Markley sees the novels as heavily promoting the concept of eco-economics, or the theory that ecological impacts should be figured into cost-benefit analyses when planning development, and using Mars as a platform for developing this idea.

Reviews (significant flaws, strengths?): A Jstor search turns up no reviews. Hopefully this doesn't mean that this book got unfairly passed over. Highly ambitious in its correlation of scientific advances and the literary imagination. Provocative ideas about public desire to engage with issues of ecological scarcity, resource depletion, and environmental destruction - either by using Mars as a cautionary tale, or by employing the planet as an escape valve or imagined new front for resource exploitation, a la the Mars Direct project. Effectively historically grounded - through the lens of Mars-thought, Markley follows the evolution of human ideas about the end purpose of the human race from post-Darwinian anxiety through the nuclear age through the era of supposedly enhanced environmental awareness.

New words (linked defs from OED, password needed): Areology (the study of Mars); areography (guess what?); exobiology (occuring or working outside the atmosphere); maieutic ("relating to or designating the Socratic process, or other similar method, of assisting a person to become fully conscious of ideas previously latent in the mind"); regolith ("the unconsolidated solid material covering the bedrock of a planet"); spectrograph ("An instrument used for photographing a spectrum. More widely, any apparatus for producing a visual record of a spectrum (optical or otherwise)" -significant in this book because astronomers of the late 19th century, like Lowell, used the spectrograph to make assertions about the constitution of Mars' atmosphere); suborn ("to bribe, induce, or procure (a person) by underhand or unlawful means to commit a misdeed"); terraform (to make something more like Earth).

Facty bonbons: Firstly, people in the 1960s used to use the word “grok” to mean “get” or “understand,” because that was what supposedly superior Martians in the 1959 book Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert K. Heinlein, did instead of speaking. “To grok was to experience, believe, and know simultaneously” (275). Secondly, the Pathfinder expedition, landed in 1997, had a little foot-tall mechanical robot that it sent out to gather data about Mars’ surface. Name of the rover? Sojourner Truth (311). Thirdly, author Alexander Bogdanov died in 1928 after exchanging all of his blood with that of a student suffering from malaria and tuberculosis (to prove that blood transfusion works) (136).

Books to follow up on:

Primary: Philip K. Dick - Martian Time-Slip, Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch; Luduk Pesek - The Earth is Near (juvenile fiction from the 1970s); the works of Kim Stanley Robinson; Donald A. Wollheim – The Secret of the Martian Moons (juvenile fiction from the 1960s, cited p 218); genre of early 20th-c sci fi produced texts called "edisonades", which focused on human technological advancement and superiority, a la Thomas Alva (see Suvin, below).

Secondary: H. Bruce Franklin – Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century; Katherine Hayles – How We Became Posthuman; Kim Stanley Robinson, ed. - Future Primitive: The New Ecotopias; Darko Suvin – Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On The Poetics and History of a Literary Genre.

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