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The Spirit of Mars

the power to dream is what makes being human so much fun
by John Carter McKnight
Scottsdale - August 26, 2002
For nearly a century Mars has been the blue screen onto which we project, in scientific speculation as well as literature, two powerful concepts: the West and the Other. Looking at the sequence of imagined Marses (see the previous edition of this column, "Barsoom's Legacy"), we the evolution of American hopes and fears. In turn, these projections continue to shape the meaning of Mars for us.

Any attempt to advocate Mars exploration and settlement must be grounded in an understanding of the nuances of those memes of West and Other in our culture today. Central to Americans as motherhood and apple pie, they define the boundaries of the possible.

We find these memes expressed in both the Mars novel and the Western. The two have a common heritage in the pulp magazines of the early decades of the last century. Indeed, one of the great pulp writers, Edgar Rice Burroughs, published in both genres. His first novel, A Princess of Mars, literally began in the Wild West of Arizona before shifting to Mars.

This linkage still continues, down to the latest entries in each genre. Few might think to combine Paul McAuley's biotech Mars novel The Meaning of Life with Dreamworks' animated Western, Spirit, Stallion of the Cimmaron. Yet together the two works absolutely nail the zeitgeist, highlighting current views of the meaning of the West and the Other, with clear implications for Mars exploration.

Spirit perfectly illustrates both the evolution of the sentiments expressed in the Western and the likely popular attitude towards any life on Mars. The story of a young stallion's encounters with the American army and its Native American enemies, a generation ago the movie's hero would have been the dashing colonel trying to break Spirit to the saddle and productive use.

A decade ago its hero would have been the American Indian boy, so gentle with his own horse, Rain. But in our own time it is the indigenous lifeform that's the hero: Spirit escapes from technological man, is set free by "green man," and builds his own wilderness paradise away from humanity entirely. The humans see the wisdom of this, leaving Spirit and his kind to themselves in the forbidding redrock canyons of the frontier.

Substitute Martian microorganisms for Spirit, unreconstructed old-guard engineers for the colonel and "Greens4Mars" for the young Indian boy, and you have the future history of the next decade. The "wild and free" ending is undeniably the one that sells now, a fact best taken into account by mission planners.

In The Meaning of Life, a Chinese expedition has found Martian microbes - and kept the discovery as the proprietary basis for new biotechnology. An industrial accident threatens the survival of ocean life as the hybrid spreads unchecked. A NASA expedition is mounted to recover specimens in hopes of developing a countering agent.

Meanwhile, across the American Desert a technophilic counterculture is growing in opposition to the machinations of the biotech giants and their wholly-owned governments. Armed with the leaked Martian discoveries, they begin to mount a challenge to the global monoculture in the name of freedom.

The real element of fantastical speculation (aside from the notion of a NASA human Mars mission) is in McAuley's creation of an opposition to globalization from within what Dinesh D'Souza (in The Virtue of Prosperity) calls the "Party of Yeah" - educated, technophilic, humanistic tolerant optimists, rather than the medievalists of the far right and left.

In Robert Zubrin's Mars novel, First Landing, the opposition to Mars efforts is fueled by the same pervasive fear of the Other, but comes from a more expected source, the "Party of Nah." "Nah" is the Seattle movement, that united front of the backward-looking on the right and left, literally Luddites, the smashers of machines.

Driven by fears of alien contamination, these activists call for stranding the crew on Mars. McAuley posits elements within his crew working with a technophile underground for freedom and biological preservation. His heroes support exploration along Antarctic lines, but stand against commercial use and political manipulation.

This view currently has a solid core of support within the space community, with Kim Stanley Robinson as perhaps its most articulate and widely-heard champion. Is it the position closest to where a popular consensus would lie if the issue were widely considered today? Might the current wilderness-preservation ethic serve as a common bond between Yeah and Nah as the basis for a broad opposition to Mars settlement or exploitation?

The setting of both Spirit and The Meaning of Life indicates the power of the Western conservation memes in shaping a consensus about development. It is fitting that the land that naturalist Gregory McNamee calls the "Holy Sonoran Empire," the land from which Burroughs' hero began his sojourn to Mars, would be the birthplace of freedom for the Stallion of the Cimmaron as well as for McAuley's forward-looking humanity.

The Great American Desert has always held an inexorable attraction for the dissident from mainstream American culture. The Mormons stood here against Spirit's adversary, the US Army, avidly terraforming while deeply appreciating the red land.

The environmental movement won a landmark victory here in the early 1960s when it prevented the damming of the Grand Canyon. Another band of radical activists formed here: the Mars Underground was born in Boulder, Colorado, and a generation later its founders can still be found there and in other arid places West.

Perhaps McAuley's vision is not so far-fetched. Vivid dreamers, redrock scientists, atom splitters, land defenders, still-viable indigenous communities, all scattered across the red desert - they might be seeds of some hopeful new future. This is the shape of the "frontier" at the beginning of the 21st Century.

And yet there is that other great meme beside the Frontier: the Other. Spirit and his band in proud isolation, bioterror, fear of "Frankenfoods," the mythic pull of that sense of hubris that comes from tampering with raw life, all powerful images that resonate strongly in current popular culture.

The prospect of microbial life on Mars is a nexus of our fears of the alien, of our own Faustian powers, of that revisionist Western history that sees cultural and literal genocide where our grandparents saw the white man's manifest destiny. A happy ending to the story of discovery of life on Mars may well be the brave microbes winning their freedom from the ruinous presence of man.

Would that in fact be a happy ending? Some would strongly disagree: Spirit's horse-breaking colonel is alive and well at the fringes of the spacefaring discussion. "Nuke the red bugs" is a sentiment one hears from Southern California's old Star Warriors. Spirit's story is a measure of how little influence they would have over popular culture should the issue arise. Everyone boos the colonel till he wises up at the end.

Our ethical views shaping our answer to the question of the rights of any indigenous Martian life may be informed by other data available when the question becomes ripe. By the time we look for life on Mars in a serious, comprehensive way we may have preliminary data from the search for terrestrial planets.

If Earthlike worlds are common as grains of sand, we may well choose to leave Mars alone and wait on planetary settlement until we can reach more congenial, or more sterile, worlds. If they are rare and Mars represents a near-unique opportunity, keeping an entire planet off-limits as a microbial preserve may seem a lesser good than some form of human intervention.

The moral calculus involved will be complex and subtle. More nuance, more ethical debate now might shape the parameters of later discussion. There are other positions than the colonel's, an entire spectrum of ethical views ranging from conservative "wise stewardship" through a range of green positions short of bacterial triumphalism.

The more each position is expressed, transmitted into the popular culture, and allowed to shape that culture, the better off we will be. One of those positions will form the basis for popular opinion when the time comes to address Mars seriously across society. There will be a consensus as to what we should do about Mars: to ignore it, or explore lightly, settle, terraform, or something else entirely.

Today that consensus would likely call for leaving the wilderness alone. A new decade, though, may replace Spirit with a new frontier hero, a new cultural response to the memes of Frontier and Other generated by the perception of Mars. That response will reflect who we are as a people at that time. White-paper policy will not determine it, zeitgeist will Our answers may come from a young generation standing on Arizona mountains and Utah slickrock, spreading their arms and dreaming of Mars. Or from the summer hit Western of 2015.

This column along with its predecessor formed the basis for my presentation on the "Mars: Past, Present and Future" panel at ComicCon, the World Comic Book Convention, on Sunday, August 10. Hosted with great professionalism by the San Diego Mars Society, the panel (myself, space entrepreneur Jim Benson, science fiction authors Larry Niven and Kevin J. Anderson, and Dr. Michael Caplinger of Malin Space Science Systems) packed a standing-room only crowd into the only science-based presentation at the four-day event. Mars is alive and well in the popular imagination.

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Writing in the Infrared
Scottsdale - Jul 04, 2002
Ideas and technologies that were recently only the wildest speculation now are hotly, even violently, debated worldwide. But not the prospect of a spacefaring future. While many address opportunities in space, their work seems to fall into a cultural blind spot, present but unseen. It's as if they were writing in the infrared: something is there, discernable by anyone sufficiently attuned. The world at large, though, literally cannot see the writing on the wall.

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