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Visions of Mars: Essays on the Red Planet in Fiction and Science
edited by Howard V. Hendrix, George Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin
McFarland, 220 pages

Visions of Mars: Essays on the Red Planet in Fiction and Science
Howard V. Hendrix
Howard V. Hendrix has a BS in biology, and an MA and Ph.D. in English Literature. He has taught college-level English for over 20 years. His short fiction began appearing in 1986. He is the author of such novels Lightpaths, Standing Wave, and Better Angels.

Howard V. Hendrix Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Empty Cities of the Moon
SF Site Review: Lightpaths

George Slusser
George Slusser holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. He assumed the Curatorship of the Eaton Collection in 1980, and proceeded to acquire a number of significant collections, through purchase and gift. In 1979, Slusser inaugurated the annual Eaton Conference. To date, 26 conferences have been held, both at UCR, and at host institutions abroad (e.g. the University of London, the Sorbonne, and the University of Hong Kong). In 1990, Slusser was appointed Professor of Comparative Literature. He has authored and/or edited a number of books and articles, mostly on science fiction and problems of science and literature.

ISFDB Bibliography

Eric S. Rabkin
Dr. Eric S. Rabkin is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He earned his bachelor's degree at Cornell University and his Ph.D. at The University of Iowa. He is well known for his large, popular lecture courses on science fiction and fantasy and for his many teaching innovations. His research examines fantasy literature, science fiction, and graphic narrative, among other topics.

Eric S. Rabkin Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

I had, for a while, thought of opening this review with a meditation on Mars as the mirror for Earth. Then I realized, on the one hand, that practically every contributor to this slim volume uses exactly that metaphor, and on the other hand, that it is wrong. Mars is not a mirror for Earth, unless that mirror is wildly distorted. Mars is, more properly, the opposite or the other of Earth; that is, we turn it into the reverse of what we see around us. H.G. Wells, living in the greatest colonial power of his day, turned Mars into a power that colonized England; Edgar Rice Burroughs, living a relatively sedate and colourless life, turned Mars into a place of exotic adventure; Ray Bradbury, in Eisenhower's America of spreading suburbia and consumer goods, turned Mars into a place where suburbia was itself a threat; Kim Stanley Robinson, immersed in the knowledge of what humankind has done to this planet, turned Mars into a planet that humankind could transform for the better.

This is not the whole story, not by any means, our visions of Mars are subtle and complex, and have changed repeatedly over the years. It is, after all, not just a close neighbour but also the planet about which we have been able to learn most, there is a familiarity to Mars that cannot really be said about anywhere else in the solar system other than the moon. There is also something tantalizing about the place, and has been ever since Giovanni Schiaparelli first identified canali or channels on the surface of the planet in 1877. When Percival Lowell mistook canali for canale, canals, at a time when other astronomers were observing what they claimed was a greenish colour that changed with the seasons, then Mars became the true other for Earth, a place where there was life. Moreover, life that was not Earthborn, Earthbred, Earthbound.

It does not matter that other astronomers failed to find any sort of lines criss-crossing the Martian deserts, still less any hint of that greenish colour. It does not matter that as early as 1907 Alfred Russell Wallace was pointing out how inhospitable to life Mars must be. We had a locus for life beyond our world, and thus it remained despite all the scientific reports and Mars landers to the contrary. Curiously, the latest scientific thinking is coming back to the notion that there is life on Mars, though of a very different sort to how we used to imagine it. And we seize upon these unproven hints and suggestions as eagerly as we ever seized upon the canals of a dying world. We want, perhaps we even need, Mars to carry life, whatever form it might take. I suspect, sometimes, that we would welcome Wellsian conquerors more readily than a lump of rock that has been barren throughout all eternity.

All of this does reflect Earth, inevitably so since we only have this one planet as the basis for any comparisons we might wish to make, but Mars is not so much the mirror of our imaginations as the twin, the place that is maddeningly like yet infuriatingly unlike us. And it is as this other that Mars has most frequently been presented to us through the medium of fiction. It is a presentation that owes something to science, since it was only after Schiaparelli and Lovell first raised the suggestion of a living world that the planet a locus for fiction. But once its potential for fiction was established, most writers have paid precious little attention to the state of scientific knowledge about the place.

In May 2008, the Eaton Science Fiction Conference was devoted to Mars, both within science fiction and within science, and this volume consists mostly of the papers delivered at that conference, along with transcriptions of two of the panel discussions held there. The science papers -- "Mars of Science, Mars of Dreams" by Joseph D. Miller, "Mars as Cultural Mirror" by Robert Crossley and "Beyond Goldilocks and Matthew Arnold" by Howard V. Hendrix -- mostly cover the territory I've already sketched here: how the early astronomers got it wrong, the mid-century barrenness of Mars confirmed by the first landers, and how more recent discoveries, particularly of organisms on Earth that live in extreme conditions, have again aroused the notion that there might be life on Mars. This basic story, which we are told several times, is interesting enough, but significantly all the science we learn is presented in the context of the fiction. Curiously enough, practically none of the papers about the fiction, which form the overwhelming majority of the book, present it in the context of the science. This was, after all, a science fiction conference, so such a bias is hardly surprising, at the same time it does suggest that Mars is at least as much a place of imagination as it is of knowledge.

In outline, the 14 papers that deal with the fiction of Mars cover an impressive amount of territory. It is extraordinarily encouraging to see so many papers, for instance, that focus on non-anglophone sf. Two look at Russian science fiction. "Dibs on the Red Star" by Ekaterina Yudina looks at Red Star by Aleksandr Bogdanov (1908) and Aelita by Aleksei Tolstoy (1923), and in particular considers the contrasting views of communism they present. This is followed by "The Martians Among Us" by George Slusser which looks at the influence of H.G. Wells on the work of the Strugatskys. Alongside these, there are three essays that deal with French science fiction, including "Where is Verne's Mars?" by Terry Harpold which ponders why Jules Verne did not set a story on Mars. Given that very few of his stories actually took his adventurers off the planet, and his career began well before Mars became a locus for fiction with the supposed discovery of canals, I confess that this does not seem anywhere like as great a mystery to me as it evidently does to Harpold. The other essays on Francophone sf are "Rosny's Mars" by George Slusser (again, two of the co-editors, Slusser and Hendrix, both appear twice in this volume) which looks at one of the most interesting if generally overlooked exponents of early French sf, the pseudonymous J.H. Rosny aîné; and "Spawn of "Micromégas" by Bradford Lyau which is a fairly basic survey of a French sf line from the 1950s.

I'm not sure how deep or thorough any of these actually are (the Harpold and Lyau both strike me as being fairly superficial), but they are worth reading for rarity value alone, since non-anglophone sf is still somewhat unusual in academic discussions of the genre. Other than that, there are one or two surprises. Wells is, perhaps inevitably, mentioned time and time again throughout the collection, but the only essay devoted to him covers not, as might be expected, The War of the Worlds, but Star Begotten (1937). This paper, "The (In)Significance of Mars in the 1930s" by John W, Huntington, is one of the better and more interesting essays here, but gives an odd sense of being truncated. Huntington begins by saying how Out of the Silent Planet (1938) by C.S. Lewis is often seen as a response to the materialism of Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930), and he wants to add the Wells novel into the mix. But having stated this case, he then returns to Lewis only very briefly and hurriedly right at the end of the essay.

There are other papers here that have a similar abbreviated feel. "Savagery on Mars" by Diane Newell and Victoria Lamont has the subtitle: "Representations of the Primitive in Brackett and Burroughs," but the essay that follows is almost entirely devoted to Leigh Brackett and Edgar Rice Burroughs gets little more than a passing mention. In fact most of the essays are short; excluding notes and bibliographies, most of them come in at around five to six pages, barely enough to get any real meat into the argument. That length is roughly what you might expect for a 20-minute conference paper, and it seems that, other than a little tidying up for publication, the contributors have not been invited to revisit and expand their arguments, even though that would be the normal practice. As a consequence, subjects are touched upon, arguments are outlined, but, with a couple of honourable exceptions, we do not get the fully researched and backed-up engagement with the topic that we might desire.

And when so many of the papers deal with familiar subjects -- there are two papers on Ray Bradbury, two on Kim Stanley Robinson (including one by Robinson himself), plus papers on Robert A. Heinlein and Philip K. Dick -- we really do need a little more than this volume provides. Though they might be mentioned briefly by various of the contributors, there is no analysis of the role of Mars in the work of, say, Stanley Weinbaum, Arthur C. Clarke, Mary Turzillo, Liz Williams, Paul McAuley or any of a host of others who, for whatever reason, attract less academic attention. Yet, short as the book is, and 17 essays are crammed into little more than 160 pages, the two panel transcriptions that wind up the book feel like little more than padding. It might have been entertaining to attend the events, but on the page they really tell us little. Like so much of this book, it somehow feels like a wasted opportunity.

Copyright © 2011 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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