The human fascination with Mars it started with a translation error: in 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed a network of stripes on the planet, which he called “canali”. Due to a linguistic misunderstanding, many scientists thought that these were artificially constructed channels, a mistake that sowed the notion that there would be intelligent life on the red planet. Now, after more than 20 successful unmanned missions to Mars and as NASA’s newest spacecraft, Perseverance, is sent there, two classic books recently launched in Brazil help to understand the evolution of our view on Mars: Red Star, of Aleksandr Bogdánov (Boitempo publisher) and The Weather on Mars, of Philip K. Dick (publisher Aleph).
Unprecedented in Portuguese, Red Star (1908) is one of the most interesting novels in Science fiction pre-Soviet. Not necessarily a great work in literary aspects, the book is almost a political propaganda leaflet, but with the dazzling veneer of space adventures in the fashion of Jules Verne e H.G. Wells. This makes it a fascinating historical document, since Bogdanov joined the Social Democratic Workers’ Party until 1910 alongside Lenin, with whom he broke up years before the Russian Revolution.
Narrated in first person as the manuscript of a Russian communist activist named Leonid, the account consists of his encounter with Menny, a Martian who takes him on a trip to Mars. The title’s red star is a utopian civilization, without a central authority, in which people work two hours a day without any obligation and decide their professions depending on what society needs most. Most of the novel consists of a long walk through the technological and social wonders of the Martians, in which Leonid – and, consequently, the reader – is a mere spectator led by Menny. This passive narrative structure, present in Plato’s utopian fiction to Thomas More, contributes to the feeling of a didactic work, which aims to offer proletarians a glimpse into the future of Russia.
Although the political subtext of the work was hardly credible, Bogdanov was attentive to discussions about physics of his time. He envisions an interplanetary mode of transportation powered by “negative type matter” years before Paul Dirac theorized antimatter. Published before Einstein’s general relativity, the book already addressed “a precise theory of matter and gravity” as something fundamental for humanity to reach the scientific level of Martians. Red Star he anticipated nuclear fusion propulsion years before it was known that it could be a source of energy, predicted the damaging consequences of an atomic arsenal, imagined computers and reflected on blood transfusions. In real life, Bogdanov, who was a doctor, believed that blood sharing could be the key to rejuvenation and even immortality. A pioneer in research in this area, he ended up dying in 1928 when he received the blood of a student who suffered from malaria and tuberculosis.
It is worth noting that, at that time, the Martian stereotype was already formatted. This is how Leonid describes Menny: “His eyes were monstrously huge, as human eyes would never be. Their pupils were dilated even in relation to the unnatural grandeur of their eyes, which gave them an almost hideous expression. The upper part of the face and head was as wide as was sufficient to accommodate eyes of that size; the underside, on the contrary, without any trace of beard or mustache, was relatively small ”. This visual reference appeared in the book Two Planets (1897), by Kurd Lasswitz, the father of German science fiction, who inspired Werner von Braun to pursue his career as a rocket engineer (first for Hitler, then for the United States) and Jorge Luis Borges (the tale To Library of Babel is inspired by a Lasswitz narrative).
It is clear that Bogdanov was not the only author to enforce political issues when dealing with Mars – this, in fact, is the rule, not the exception. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, To War two Worlds (1898), by Englishman HG Wells, who was also a socialist and exerted an influence on Bogdanov’s work, describes the Martians as bellicose, expansionist and truculent invaders, in a clear criticism of British imperialism.
Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, whose centenaries are celebrated in 2020, have also looked at the red planet. Asimov dedicated the nonfiction book Mars: Our Mysterious Neighbor and the soap opera The Martian Way to the theme. Bradbury wrote the short story cycle The Martian Chronicles, in which it addresses the human occupation of the red planet, while the native Martians watch their waning species. The work critically portrays colonialism and its impact on the indigenous populations of the Americas and discusses the question of belonging and how humanity has been destroying its natural habitat, forcing itself to seek new homes through spatial expansion.
No account … And the moon keeps shining, a human settler acknowledges that “somehow, the mountains will never seem suitable to us; we will give them names, but the old names are there, somewhere in time, and the mountains have been shaped and seen with those names ”and“ however much we approach Mars, we will never touch it. And we’re going to be mad about it, and do you know what we’re going to do? We are going to tear it apart, tear off its skin and transform it into our image and likeness ”. The character laments: “Earth men have a talent for ending big and beautiful things.”
For it is this very question of unstoppable expansionism that Philip K. Dick deals with in The Weather on Mars (1964), which has a new translation in Brazil. In the book, the Terran settlers also threaten the survival of the bleeks, a tribal people who originally inhabited the red planet: now began to replace. ”
Dick portrays the forced advance of civilization through a land dispute between a union leader and a real estate speculator, both corrupt. Amid the competition of capitalists, the novel plays with the idea of past, present and future in the figure of Manfred, a human boy born on Mars who becomes a key part in the plot. Autistic and mute, he perceives time in a non-linear way and becomes valuable to know which land to invest in.
However, oblivious to the real estate market, the boy lives his own reality, and very characteristic of Dick’s work, so fond of thinking about the viscerally unusual nature of space-time: “I have the impression that Manfred does something more than that simply knowing the future: somehow, he controls it, he can make things happen in the worst possible way because that seems natural to him, that’s how he sees reality ”, fears one of the characters.
The notion that Mars is inhabited by little green creatures may sound naive today. However, less than 100 years ago it was not only considered, but considered plausible. On August 21, 1924, the orbits of Mars and Earth registered closer proximity than in many decades, and the US government even created National Radio Silence Day, asking listeners not to use their radios for five minutes every hour. That way, scientists could use a powerful radio receiver to try to pick up signals from life on the red planet, an idea originally suggested by none other than Nikola Tesla.
In 1938, a radio drama of War of the Worlds by Orson Welles caused panic, as thousands of listeners believed that there was indeed a Martian invasion taking place. It is no accident that in the suite The Planets, composed by the English musician Gustav Holst between 1914 and 1916, the music dedicated to Mars is entitled The Messenger of War and influenced John Williams’ soundtrack in Star Wars. This fear is explained by Asimov in a 1988 interview, in which he relates the iconography of Martian invasion, so widespread in the collective imagination, to mythology (after all, Mars was the god of war in the Roman pantheon).
Who came closest to deciphering the fascination that the red planet has exercised for so many years on humanity, however, was the astronomer and scientific promoter Carl Sagan: “Why Martians?”, He asks. “Why so many anxious speculations and fiery fantasies about Martians, and not, for example, Saturnians or Plutonians? Because Mars, at first glance, is very similar to Earth. It is the closest planet whose surface we can see. There are polar ice caps, white clouds floating, furious sandstorms, characteristics that change seasonally on its red surface and even a 24-hour day. It is tempting to imagine it as an inhabited world. Mars has become a kind of mythical arena on which we project our earthly hopes and fears. ”
It is in this arena that Bogdanov, Philip K. Dick, HG Wells, Asimov, Ray Bradbury and so many other writers paraded their questions, always talking much more about the problems of Earth than in fact about Mars, that fascinating red mirror.