Since Mars is older than our earth, with scarcely a quarter of the superficial area and remoter from the sun, it necessarily follows that it is not only more distant from time’s beginning but nearer its end,” explains H.G. Wells, at the beginning of The War of the Worlds.
Early science fiction makes much of Mars’s age, of its supposed greater proximity to its ending than our own. Its fabled canals become the waterways and irrigation systems of a dead or dying people, elaborate civilisations that the books in question talk about with a sort of yearning regret — because they are dying, because they are unreachable, because they were never real, because it’s the turn of the century and everything anyway feels like the end of the world. Occasionally, in the midst of all the fantasy adventure of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars books, we’re reminded that the world is ending — in A Princess of Mars the atmosphere is kept breathable via machinery that fails, after its (earthly) human hero John Carter kills the operator in self-defense. With only days left to live, the red Martians prepare themselves for doom, and only Carter’s fortunate intervention may (since the book ends inconclusively, though all is made clear in the sequels) save them.
C.S. Lewis has another well-populated society in his Out of the Silent Planet, in which the canals of Mars are really only giant rifts in the surface of the planet that open into lower, warmer valleys with plenty of water and vegetation and three sentient races of aliens living in harmony. Yet we learn towards the end of the book that the surface of the planet was once populated, that there was a golden age of beautiful, winged beings living on those vast red expanses. This is Fallen Mars much as Earth, for Lewis, is fallen, but it’s also post-apocalyptic Mars.
And then there are Leigh Brackett’s Mars stories, which are gorgeous in their own right but gain extra weight by unashamedly placing themselves in this tradition — decadence and doom and adventure — and I think they might just be my favourite.
Mars was my first dying Earth. My first encounter with that particular sub-genre of science fiction (surely having a revival at the moment, though I’m not sure anyone has explicitly connected this wave to those earlier ones), but also my first encounter with the larger concept. I sometimes worry about my own tendency to respond to our actual dying planet with doom and nostalgia, and I wonder how much my tastes in genre fiction have to do with that. Later science fiction, working with more information, treats Mars as a real place, subject to actual science, and I find myself not caring very much. Is there something a bit exploitative (and a lot colonialist) about treating real places as places to project your own desires and emotions? Yes.
I sometimes worry about my own tendency to respond to our actual dying planet with doom and nostalgia, and I wonder how much my tastes in genre fiction have to do with that. Later science fiction, working with more information, treats Mars as a real place, subject to actual science, and I find myself not caring very much.
And watching The Martian, the movie based on Andy Weir’s novel, I find myself again not caring very much. Matt Damon’s Watney is stranded on Mars due to a tragic error — the only man on the planet, his chances of survival are low to non-existent. Yet there’s no real facing or waiting for the end here — only potatoes and problem-solving and a brilliant, upbeat soundtrack. Perhaps the book, which I haven’t read, is more interior, but there’s no indication that this is ever the sort of story that The Martian wants to be. Which is fair enough, and it’s not as if we’re short on narratives of characters waiting for the end.
It may possibly mean that the only great recent Mars story that is also a powerful story of loss and hopelessness is an xkcd strip about the poor little Mars rover Spirit, stranded on a desolate planet and unable to contact home.