For much of the 20th century, “science fiction” and “literary” weren’t terms often mentioned in the same sentence. Perhaps it was the sexy (and often trashy) covers of the pulp magazines that made many forget the often-interesting stories inside. Or perhaps it was the rash of B (or even C) movies like Robot Holocaust (and others made famous by Mystery Science Theatre) that made people think science fiction was just for kids and not something to be taken seriously. Or perhaps it was television series like Buck Rodgers that kept academia from embracing the science fiction genre as a legitimate literary form.
In recent years, however, many of these stereotypes may have started to dissolve, and Imagining Mars: A Literary History by Robert Crossley will certainly shatter any of the remaining ones that have plagued science fiction since Hugo Gernsback coined the term in the ‘20s.
While Imagining Mars primarily focuses on novels written between 1877 and the present, Crossley begins a little earlier and includes a few other genres. He addresses the cosmic aspects of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Crossley also details Huygens’ Cosmotheoros and concludes “What Milton hesitated to say, Huygens trumpets without reservation: Once Copernicus’s description of the solar system is accepted, not simply geocentricism but anthropocentrism must be called into question.” Welcome to the world of academic science fiction.
If you are any type of science fiction fan (or graduated from an American middle or high school, for that matter), most likely some of titles and authors will ring familiar: Princess of Mars, The Martian Chronicles, The War of the Worlds, Robinson Crusoe along with Arthur C. Clarke, Jules Verne, and Robert Heinlein. However, what Crossley has to say about many of these texts (and their authors) may be less familiar. He is particularly critical of The Martian Chronicles, stating it:
... (I)s an unlikely icon. The writing is often over the top, although some readers always have been willing to defend as poetic such purpled excesses as a description of ‘the rich inky soil, a soil so black and shiny it almost crawled and stirred in your fist, a rank soil from which might sprout gigantic beanstalks from which, with bone-shaking concussion, might drop screaming giants.’… A loosely amalgamated set of stories rather than a coherent narrative, the Chronicles, taken as a whole, is full of inconsistencies and internal contradictions. To say that the characters in the various tales are walking allegorical abstractions is simply to avoid saying that they have no personality or particularizing features of mind or feeling.
Crossley’s comments concerning Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land also seem disapproving as he relates “With its disconcertingly Mormon-like religious figures, the gruff and self-satisfied lawyer Jubal Harshaw, who defends the Martian’s legal status, and the bevy of accommodating and shapely women, Stranger in a Strange Land is a jeu d’esprit for Heinlein, full of his customary libertarian doctrines and cartoon characters masquerading as personalities.”
A better choice, according to Crossley, is D.G. Crompton’s Farewell, Earth’s Bliss, of which Crossley states “The most powerful of the dystopian Martian novels of the 1950s and 1960s is…Farewell, Earth’s Bliss. First published in 1966, this novel… imagines Mars as a dumping ground for Earth’s political, sexual, and criminal undesirables, who are given a one-way ticket to the planet.”
Literary texts, as the title of the book suggests, are the main focus, but an entire chapter is dedicated to “Percival Lowell’s Mars” because, as Crossley states “no figure is more central to the cultural and literary history of Mars in the twentieth century than Percival Lowell”. Crossley also includes an array of images including the cover of an Amazing Stories magazine and a 1901 advertisement for Pears Soap that claims that “the first message from Mars” is “send us up some Pears’ Soap.”
History is another important component of the text. Certainly, one might expect to find references to Galileo’s telescope or Schiaparelli’s “canals”. However, Crossley also includes little gems such as a quote from a 1941 New York Times editorial that states “Definitely the men on Mars are out. It is only one more coincidence that the warring monsters of H.G. Wells’s brilliant imagination should be finally discredited just when they seem to have come to life on earth in gas masks, parachute uniforms and armored tanks” and concludes “we had met the Martians, and they were us”.
This is, of course, clearly the message of the book. The biographical sketches of scientists and writers, the plot summaries, and the critiques are skillfully woven together to give a greater understanding of why writers and readers are fascinated with Mars. Early on, Crossley states the “central premises of this book are that to understand Mars is to understand ourselves and that to understand Mars requires the perspectives of imaginative artists as well as of scientists, both on the occasions when they have been correct and insightful and when they have been as wrong and wrongheaded as can be.”
Even The Martian Chronicles contributes to this idea: “Bradbury’s stories provide a fascinating glimpse, from the perspective of a fantastically unrealistic Mars, of the desires, anxieties, nightmares, and spiritual aspirations and limitations of the people of the United States at the beginning of the era that brought in atomic weapons, economic prosperity, the Cold War, and the civil rights movement.”
Not everyone will agree with Crossley’s assessment of some perennial science fiction favorites, but the connections Crossley makes between the scientific discoveries, wars, cultural movements, and technological advancements that actually took place on Planet Earth, and what science fiction writers say about Mars in their novels, is not only fascinating but perhaps provides a new way of reading some old favorites.