The Martian, The Martian Chronicles, and the Mars Trilogy
July 4, 2017 marks twenty years since the Pathfinder lander touched down in Ares Vallis, on the surface of the planet Mars. The Pathfinder mission, along with numerous other unmanned Mars missions, have provided humanity with a wealth of information about the Red Planet that may someday help us travel there ourselves.
Unfortunately, we can’t just pop down to the local transport centre and book a weekend to Mars just yet. In the meantime, however, we can explore the wonders of Mars via fiction. There are some amazing works of Mars-based science fiction available, and so in this issue of the Tar Valon Times I would like to share with you three of my favourites.
1. The Martian (Andy Weir, 2011)
Ever since The Martian burst onto cinema screens in 2015, this book has become something of a household name. The Martian is a story of Mark Watney, a low-ranking astronaut on the third mission to Mars. While he and his crewmates are on the surface of Mars, a storm strikes, causing them to abort their mission and head back to Earth. Unfortunately, during the storm, Watney becomes separated from his crewmates, and they leave without him, believing him dead.
Watney must come up with a way to keep himself alive on a hostile planet long enough for NASA to send a rescue mission. It’s a constant, gripping, suspenseful struggle to endure in the face of equipment failure, Watney’s own mistakes, and the hostile landscape itself.
The Martian is frequently described as “MacGyver in Space”, owing to its accurate explanations of the science Watney employs in order to survive (such as creating water by burning rocket fuel, or calculating how many calories he needs to consume to survive). Despite this, the science is explained in such a way that makes it easy to grasp, even for the average layperson who hasn’t touched a chemistry textbook since high school.
Watney’s dry sense of humour is also one of the highlights of this novel, which has been praised for its realistic portrayal of astronauts and their personalities and motivations. Far from being “space cowboys”, these men and women are pragmatic, intelligent, relatable, and most importantly entirely believable.
Fun fact: Andy Weir originally wrote The Martian as a web serial, which allowed him to work out the science and the kinks in the story as he wrote it. After completing the story, and at the request of several readers, Weir compiled the serial into a novel, which he published for Amazon Kindle. His loyal fan base helped propel his debut novel into the bestseller lists, and the rest, as they say, is history.
If you’ve already seen the movie, you’ll be pleased to know that Ridley Scott, Matt Damon, and the entire production team did an amazing job of capturing Andy Weir’s story (and The Martian remains one of my favourite movies of all time). However, I do highly recommend reading the book, even if only to answer such questions as: - Why did Mark Watney need to drill a hole in his Rover and then jump on the roof? - Why couldn’t NASA expressly give him the order to commandeer the Ares IV MAV? - What would the Ares III crew have done if their supply probe had failed? (I don’t want to give anything away, but that conversation is pretty intense!)
At its heart, The Martian is a story about the best of humanity – what we, as a species, can achieve when we put aside the politics and drama to work together toward a common goal. This is a story that is both hopeful and inspirational, and that feels almost within our reach. If you haven’t yet, I highly recommend reading it.
2. The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury, 1950)
This next story is considered one of the “classics” of Mars science fiction. The Martian Chronicles was originally a collection of short stories, written in the late 1940s by Ray Bradbury (who is perhaps better known for his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451). In the 1950s, these short stories were compiled into a single novel, interspersed with short vignettes to tie them together into a single timeline.
The Martian Chronicles tells the story of the first few missions from Earth to Mars, and the initial interactions between the Earth astronauts and the telepathic Martian race.
This telepathic ability is explored in very interesting ways throughout the book, especially in the initial interactions between the humans and Martians. When they discover (through their telepathy) that humans are coming to Mars, the Martians react with apprehension, disbelief, deception, and fear. Through these very different encounters, Bradbury raises the question: if anybody can project images into each other’s minds, how can you distinguish between fantasy and reality?
As the story progresses, the Martian Chronicles goes on to explore deeper themes of colonisation, invasion, and war. As both races befall their own global crises, it is easy to draw parallels between this story and the invasions that have occurred throughout our own planet’s history.
Although written long before Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the Moon, The Martian Chronicles contains themes and ideas that are just as relevant today as they were when it was written. The Martian Chronicles tells a sad story, but one which has played a very important part in the development of Mars fiction (and science fiction in general). If you enjoy old-school science fiction such as War of the Worlds, then The Martian Chronicles would make a great addition to your collection.
3. The Mars Trilogy (Kim Stanley Robinson, 1993-1996)
This brings me to my current personal favourite work of Mars fiction. The Mars Trilogy (comprising Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars) is the story of the human colonisation of Mars. The story spans a period of about 200 years, beginning with the First Hundred (a group of one hundred men and women who make up the first colonisation wave in 2026), and following their experiences as Mars is gradually settled by people from a variety of Earth nations and cultures.
The Mars Trilogy, in my opinion, takes all the best aspects of The Martian and the Martian Chronicles, and creates something much larger than the sum of those parts. Just like The Martian, this story is grounded in real-world science, and explores how people with different backgrounds can ultimately come together to achieve something great and inspirational for humanity. And like The Martian Chronicles, the journey to that inspirational end-point is rocky and paved with conflict and fear.
As a trilogy, this series has the time to explore numerous ideas in far more depth than would have been possible in a single stand-alone novel. Such ideas include the practical and ethical issues of terraforming Mars (a point of significant contention between several members of the First Hundred, which later forms the basis for factions within the fledgling Martian government), the benefits and challenges of building a Martian space elevator (providing an economical way to transport materials and people between the Martian surface and space), and even the form a Martian government might take, if the inhabitants of Mars could only reach a satisfactory agreement.
In my opinion, the Mars Trilogy definitely improves with each book. Red Mars is largely focused on the journey to Mars and the initial years of settlement. This first book is peppered with petty squabbles between characters, politics, murder, terrorism, environmental sabotage, and a large and destructive rebellion. Conversely, Green Mars and Blue Mars gradually shift the focus from the characters’ differences to their similarities, and explores the progressive development of a unified Martian culture from the fractured melting-pot of nations represented by the early settlers. As the story unfolds, it begins to explore the question, “If we could make a fresh start and create a new, utopian culture, what would that culture look like, and how can we get from here to there?”
I think it’s also important to credit Kim Stanley Robinson’s use of language throughout his books. Robinson has almost created his own unique vocabulary for this story, creating new words to convey meaning where existing Earth-words fall short. A classic example of this is the term “areoforming”, used throughout the series to refer to the terraforming of Mars (terraforming Ares, rather than Terra). Additionally, Robinson frequently uses Japanese terms such as issei and nissei to refer to the generations of Martian settlers, terms which are first introduced by the character of Hiroko Ai, one of the First Hundred who becomes something of a Martian mythological figure over the course of the story. This subtle, yet clever, use of new and borrowed words is yet another element of this trilogy that made it such a delight to read.
With NASA, Mars One, and SpaceX all working toward the goal of sending humans to Mars within our lifetime, the Mars Trilogy is more relevant than ever. Whether you’re an astronomy buff, a chemistry nerd, or just a science fiction enthusiast like me, this story will expand your mind and introduce you to ideas that will stay with you long after you turn the final page.
Do you have a favourite work of fiction about Mars? Let us know in the comments!