“There were once two planets” – Martian Chronicles for the Anthropocene

“There were once two planets, new to the galaxy and inexperienced in life. Like fraternal twins they were born at the same time, about four and a half billion years ago, and took roughly the same shape […] They were “Goldilocks planets,” our astronomers would say: just right for life” (Bilger, 2013: 65).

mars

Quite by chance, I was recently reading two reflections on our nearest planetary neighbour. On one day I commenced reading Ray Bradbury’s melancholic, 1951 novel The Martian Chronicles. Set in a distant future, when humanity has successfully established colonies on Mars, Bradbury’s novel reflects on the peculiar forms of human experience that emerge in this alien landscape. On the following day I read Burkhard Bilger’s Reporter at Large piece for the New Yorker, entitled ‘The Martian Chronicles: a new era of planetary exploration’ (2013: 64-89). Bilger’s piece offered an in-depth account of NASA’s successful Curiosity Mission to Mars. His highly engaging narrative focused on two characters: Adam Stelzner (leader of Curiosity’s entry, descent, and landing team) and John Grotzinger (chief scientist for the Curiosity Mission). As Bilger pointed out, ‘[O]ne man wonders how to get to Mars, the other what we’ll find there’ (ibid: 69). What I found most fascinating about this article was the backstory it provided on human exploration of the read planet. This is a history that encompasses Giovanni Schiaparelli’s first astronomical mapping of Mars in the nineteenth century; the grainy images of the planet that were sent back from NASA’s Mariner 4 probe in 1965; and the forty odd spacecraft that have since been sent to Mars in the hope of unlocking its secrets.

earth

 What appears to connect Ray Bradbury and the Curiosity Mission is not a desire to better understand Mars per se, but to grasp more fully the nature of life of Earth. Just as science fiction reveals collective truths about the nature of human existence through the exploration of extreme socio-technical scenarios, the exploration of Mars appears to reflect a collective desire to comprehend Earthly ecologies. In this context, Mars appears to be an important, if perhaps unexpected, place in and through which to consider the nature of the Anthropocene. While the Earth and Mars appear so similar they have, of course, taken very different geological and ecological paths. As Bilger observers, ‘By the time Earth took its first breath three billion years ago […] Mars had been suffocating for a billion years’ (ibid: 66).

Literary reflections and scientific explorations of Mars are about opening up the dialectic of life and death that both connects and separates it from the Earth’s own environmental history; it is about the (re)construction of a geo-ecological  hypothetical; a what if things had been different! In relation to the Anthropocene the red planet thus looms menacingly: a salutary lesson in the contingency of the Earth’s life giving potential. But the Curiosity Mission, with its elaborate Sky Crane and mind-blowing budget, is also suggestive of technological solutions to our current ecological predicament: the off-planet future that Bradbury was so keen to explore.

The news is now full of accounts of Curiosity’s latest findings as it forages and drills on the Martian surface. As I read the updates on the mission I am reminded that finding life on Mars is a difficult task. It is for this reason that it is such an important place to think about the nature of the Anthropocene. Mars appears to be a place that is both furthest from and closest to our own ecological experience; as such, it may provide an extraterrestrial promontory from which to develop a new appreciation of life on Earth.

Reference:

Bilger, B. (2013) ‘The Martian Chronicles:  a new era of planetary exploration’ The New Yorker April 22: 64-89.

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About Mark J Whitehead

Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University
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