Mars in our dreams

A disproportionate number of our extraterrestrial fantasies have revolved around Mars, the Red Planet. If there is life out there, or ever was, we earthlings seem to have convinced ourselves that Mars is the obvious first choice to begin our investigation. So when NASA's rover Curiosity, which has been traversing that dusty landscape for months now, confirmed earlier in March that Mars was once capable of sustaining life well, it only fuelled the stories our movies and conspiracy theorists have been peddling for years. Little green men, as typified by Mars Attacks! (admittedly a farce, but no less sharp for it), is only the most common and least interesting myth developed about the fourth rock from the sun in our popular culture.

In the decades that we have been dreaming of Mars, or planets that bear a close resemblance to it (such as Vulcan in the Star Trek universe), we have discovered dying worlds populated by aliens (John Carter), advanced civilisations (Total Recall, Mission to Mars) and lands arid but terraformable (Mission to Mars, Red Planet). In these fantasies, Mars has been the exotic, mysterious other; exercising, perhaps, the same magnetic pull on our imaginations as the Orient once did for Western explorers. Disney's epic (failure) John Carter last year, for instance, saw 12-foot aliens and princesses in need of rescuing, as well as a faux-science explanation for the titular character's superhuman feats. Skills bestowed by differences in gravity come in handy during Carter's heroic exploits on Mars; for all practical purposes, his quest is an expression of his white man's burden (in Rudyard Kipling's words: "Send forth the best ye breed... To serve your captives' need").

In most stories, Mars guards its secrets well, unyielding in its hostility towards the frail human body. But it embodies, too, the wild, desperate hope of a species faced with extinction a species praying for escape onto a planet it has not yet had a chance to ruin. Like Asia in post-Renaissance British literature, Mars is rejuvenation. The Romantics often veered towards the Orient in their literary pursuits: Samuel T. Coleridge's famous "Kubla Khan" is perhaps too obvious an example, but William Blake's tiger is hardly an animal found roaming the English countryside. Percy B. Shelley's "Alastor" describes a journey into the depths of the lines separating Europe from Asia, uncovering "strange truths in undiscovered lands". Shelley's exploration of the recesses of the "ethereal" Caucasus mountains could just as well describe Columbia Hills or Olympus Mons.

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