This excerpt has been adapted from Dunn and Kukula’s extended introduction to W.S. Lach-Szyrma’s Aleriel, A Voyage to Other Worlds. First published in 1883, Aleriel is one of the early classics of science fiction. The titular hero explores the Solar System – from his homeworld of Venus to the ‘inchoate horrors of Saturn’, with lengthy stops to visit a Utopian society on Mars and, of course, Earth. Notable for the way the novel incorporated the latest scientific, political and religious thinking, Aleriel is also the first work of fiction to use the words ‘Martian’ or ‘Venusian’ to describe the residents of these planets.
This new edition of Aleriel contains the author’s original prefaces and end-notes to the first and second editions, and comes with a lengthy introduction from the Richard Dunn (Head of Science and Technology, Royal Museums Greenwich) and Marek Kukula (Public Astronomer, Royal Observatory Greenwich), discussing the role our celestial neighbours – especially Mars – have played in inspiring contemporary fiction. As a further bonus, Vermilion and The Pleasure Merchant‘s Molly Tanzer has written a brand new sequel to Aleriel, “Civilisation and Its Discontented”, which investigates the repercussions of Aleriel’s visit to Mars. Alerial will be available November 24th from Jurassic London.
Utopian Mars: From Aleriel to The Martian
Writers have long found inspiration in science and its discoveries. This was certainly true as Wladislaw Lach-Szyrma began to imagine journeys around our solar system for Aleriel (1883), a story about the possibility of extraterrestrial life presented through the planetary explorations of its titular hero. The novel describes Aleriel’s journeys to other planets: including his native Venus, Saturn with its ‘horrid, inchoate forms’ and, most of all, his lingering visit to the Utopian society of Mars.
Although our understanding of the physical conditions on the Red Planet has changed radically since Aleriel’s publication, the allure of Mars as a laboratory for Utopian thinking, against which to measure the successes and failings of earthly civilisation, has continued to the present day.
The belligerent Martians of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1897) may not seem to fit the Utopian mould set by Aleriel, but the assumption that Mars would be an older planet than Earth and its civilisation correspondingly more advanced than our own is grounded in the mainstream science of the time. In particular, the Nebular Hypothesis of the formation of the Solar System, proposed by the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace in 1796, supposed that the outer planets had formed before the Earth, giving them a head start in evolutionary terms. Like Lach-Syzyrma, Wells plays with Darwinian ideas, and his Martians are famously laid low by terrestrial microbes.
Lach-Szyrma’s Venusian and Martian societies may now seem uncomfortably theocratic, but twentieth century writers often used Mars to explore more secular versions of Utopia. Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star (1908) unfavourably contrasts the injustices of prerevolutionary Russia with a Mars blessed by socialism, while in Aelita (Aleksey Tolstoy, 1923) the reality of the newly-communist Soviet Union is set against a technically-advanced but unequal and exploitative Martian civilisation.
Ray Bradbury’s hugely influential stories of the human colonisation of Mars, written in the 1940s and collected as The Martian Chronicles in 1950, turn Wells’s scenario on its head. Here it is humankind, with all its contradictory vices and virtues, which invades Mars, unintentionally wiping out the native population with chicken pox virus carried by a member of an exploratory expedition. Bradbury’s Martian civilisation is not exactly Utopian – the Martians are shown to be capable of very human flaws including jealousy and pride – but it is depicted as an ancient and settled society, with a strongly aesthetic and philosophical focus which contrasts with the gung-ho naivety of the explorers from Earth.
The central section of the book details the inevitable influx of human colonists to Mars, with their dreams of a better life and their equally inevitable inability to leave the problems of Earth behind them. In the final tale of the sequence a family commandeers a rocket, fleeing from the doomed Earth. Fulfilling a promise to show his children ‘real’ Martians, the father takes them to the banks of deserted canal. There, reflected in the water, they see themselves.
As the Space Age has become a reality, the idea that the Martians might ultimately turn out to be us – and better versions of us to boot – has become a defining theme both in science fiction and the real life exploration of Mars. When Bradbury was writing his Martian tales in the 1940s, the vision of a clement, habitable world was already out-dated (a fact of which the author was well aware, explaining that his aim was to create myths, not make predictions). Nevertheless, The Martian Chronicles has exerted a significant influence on generations of space scientists and engineers, helping to imbue the space programme with a distinctly Utopian philosophy – or rhetoric, at least. Indeed, Carl Sagan, one of the architects of NASA’s planetary exploration programme, remarked that ‘Mars has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears’.
Perhaps Bradbury’s greatest insight was that myth and poetry could be just as powerful in motivating the exploration of Mars as scientific curiosity. It is certainly remarkable that, as a succession of probes, landers and rovers revealed a world that seemed increasingly barren and inhospitable, these craft were also sending back images of Martian landscapes that resembled Bradbury’s descriptions to an eerie degree. When NASA’s Curiosity rover touched down in Gale Crater in Mars’ southern hemisphere in August 2012, just two months after Bradbury died, the site was named Bradbury Landing in his honour.
Even the cold and hostile Mars of the Space Age continues to inspire Utopian speculation. Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic trilogy, Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1994) and Blue Mars (1996), describes the terraforming of the Red Planet over a 200-year period, while simultaneously exploring a range of Utopian and dystopian social models as the physical and ethical challenges posed by the Martian environment elicit novel solutions from the colonists. Their attempts to build a viable Martian civiliation are contrasted with events on Earth, where conditions descend inexorably towards overpopulation, war and environmental collapse through the inertia and self-interest of governments and transnational corporations. Once again, the implication seems to be that Mars might offer us a chance to free ourselves from the deadlock of outmoded terrestrial ways of thinking. In White Mars (1999), veteran author Brian W. Aldiss, writing in collaboration with the physicist Roger Penrose, provides an alternative vision of a Martian Utopia – one in which the colonists explicitly reject the idea that the environment of Mars should be remade in the image of Earth.
The spell that science fiction exerts over space exploration is illustrated once more by the inclusion of text and artwork from Robinson’s Mars novels on a DVD carried by NASA’s Phoenix lander, which touched down in the north polar region of Mars in 2008. This ‘First Interplanetary Library’, intended as a time capsule and message to future Martian explorers, contains literary representatives from several different terrestrial cultures and can be seen as yet another manifestation of the Utopian flame that Mars continues to fuel.
Andy Weir’s sleeper hit The Martian, self-published in 2011 and subsequently adapted by Hollywood in 2015, is the latest iteration in our fascination with the Red Planet. Largely shorn of existential philosophizing and political subtlety, Weir’s novel is a celebration of human resourcefulness in extremis as its protagonist, accidentally abandoned by his crewmates, devises ever more ingenious (yet still scientifically plausible) strategies for survival on the unforgiving Martian surface. In its emphasis on practical solutions over political ambiguities, The Martian reveals as much about the anxieties and contradictions of the time in which it was written as it does of the challenges to be faced by future Mars explorers, yet it is hard not to be cheered by its tale of human determination and triumph over adversity – themes that would have struck a chord with the Victorian sensibilities of Lach-Szyrma himself.
Certainly the author of Aleriel would have approved of Weir’s meticulous grounding of his story in the details of current planetary science and space technology. In the preface to the first edition of Aleriel, Lach-Szyrma puts forward a thoroughly Utopian manifesto for his own work, writing: ‘I trust, however, that this seemingly fantastic tale may encourage the young to study in more serious works the facts of astronomical science, and perhaps cheer their elders with the thought that, though much is sad on Earth, yet there may be brighter worlds than this, and a happier existence than we can have here.’
As Molly Tanzer reminds us in ‘Civilisation and its Discontented’, the sequel-response to Aleriel that concludes the new edition, history has since taught us to be more wary of Utopian dreams. Yet, while science expands the stage on which humanity plays out its age-old obsessions and desires, science fiction continues to provide an invaluable laboratory in which their consequences – and also their resolutions – can be formulated and explored.
Richard Dunn is Senior Curator and Head of Science and Technology at Royal Museums Greenwich.
Marek Kukula is the Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. He is the author of The Intimate Universe and co-author (with Simon Guerrier) of The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who.