A Passion for Mars

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

My forthcoming first novel, Arabella of Mars, is—as you might guess—largely set on the planet Mars, or an alternate-historical version of it anyway. Several of my short stories, including “The Wreck of the Mars Adventure,” “Citizen-Astronaut,” “Ukaliq and the Great Hunt,” and “The True Story of Merghanther’s Run,” take place on that planet in whole or in part. So what’s the big deal? Why Mars, anyway?

Mars, to me, is the most interesting planet in the Solar System apart from Earth. It’s visible with the naked eye, and shows detail in even an amateur telescope. It’s more similar to Earth than any other planet we know, and it’s close enough that we could travel there in a reasonable amount of time with current technology. It has an atmosphere, albeit thin; it has water, albeit brackish; it has weather and seasons. We could almost survive there without life support, and that almost is the realm where interesting science fiction happens. It’s far and strange enough that anything is possible, but close and familiar enough that anything is plausible.

I’ve always been fascinated with Mars. One of the first books I can remember reading is Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars by Ellen MacGregor (I never read any of the other Miss Pickerell books), and an LP of Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds radio broadcast was among my earliest record purchases. George Pal’s movie of War of the Worlds was also a formative influence, as were Robinson Crusoe on Mars and My Favorite Martian. (I was fortunate enough to miss Rocketship X-M and The Angry Red Planet.) I devoured the Heinlein juveniles, including Red Planet, The Rolling Stones, and Podkayne of Mars. Okay, many of these are objectively terrible, and indeed I knew at the time that they were. But… but Mars!

And it’s not just me: Mars has fascinated humankind since before history began. Even before we understood the solar system, we could tell that Mars was different from the other lights in the sky… it was red in color, and wandered among the fixed stars in a way that was not easy to predict. Because of its distinctive color, many cultures considered the planet a symbol of masculinity, war, or fire. As science and technology improved, we began to be able to understand its motions, and then trained our first telescopes upon it. And though the Moon and Venus are closer to Earth, Mars has always been more interesting—unlike the Moon’s bare unchanging rocks and Venus’s boring cloud cover, Mars displays surface features which, in early telescopes, suggested ice caps, vegetation that varied throughout the planet’s year, and even canals.

But I have to wonder… did the canals some observers thought they saw in those early, wobbly views of Mars prompt them to imagine a Martian civilization, or was it the other way around? Admittedly, the earliest published science fiction stories about Mars came after Schiaparelli’s supposed discovery of “canals” (though we may never know what planets Cyrano de Bergerac visited in the lost third volume of his Comical History), but it’s not hard to imagine that the discovery that Mars is a planet not unlike ours would almost immediately be followed by the idea that it might harbor beings not unlike ourselves. And once this idea occurs, it might lead an astronomer peering through a primitive instrument on a cold, dreary night to imagine those beings seeking desperately to stay alive on that distant, dying planet.

Mars has been a place of utopias, experimental societies, pipe dreams, and horrors for a very long time—a distant, red-tinged mirror through which we view the best and the worst in our own natures. We project ourselves in our imaginations to Mars, whether as native Martians or as settlers from Earth, to envisage the effects of our own decisions. Englishman H. G. Wells, a keen observer of his own time and culture, imagined the Martians as a technologically advanced empire invading more backwards peoples in search of resources (remind you of anyone?). During the Cold War we imagined a Mars whose ancient civilizations had destroyed themselves with nuclear weapons; later the A-bombs were replaced with ecological catastrophe. More recent writers have placed fictional Martian colonists into a variety of technological, sociological, and economic utopias and dystopias—a virtual petri dish in which to observe humans in controlled circumstances.

For myself, the fantasy Mars of my youth became even more fascinating with the reality of the Viking landers, which returned frustratingly ambiguous signs of life, and especially the landing of Mars Pathfinder and its Sojourner rover in 1997. That plucky little robot—which bounced down to the surface inside an inflated beachball, a scenario that combined amazingly sophisticated engineering with Looney Tunes comedy—was so easy to anthropomorphize that it made the whole thing seem personal. Its close-up views of specific rocks and crevices made Mars seem like not just a planet but a place—a real place where I could imagine myself walking and exploring. I still have a toy Sojourner on my shelf. The Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers that followed had even more personality—Spirit and Opportunity even had LiveJournal blogs!—and kept Mars alive in the public imagination, and in mine. Even the failures, such as Mars Climate Orbiter, Mars Polar Lander, and Beagle 2, served to raise the stakes and make the successes still more sweet.

I have walked on Mars in my imagination so many times that when I discovered that there was a way to do it for real, albeit only in Earthbound simulation, I determined that I must do this somehow. My blog post about this wish bounced to Facebook, and the returned echo led me to the Mars Society, which led in an astonishingly short time to a volunteer stint at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. There I lived for two weeks in a metal tube with five strangers, eating dehydrated food and wearing a simulated space suit for walks outside. It was an amazing, life-changing experience, combining gosh-wow sense-of-wonder with the sort of pedestrian maintenance tasks you’d have at any wilderness cabin, but I got to feel the sand crunch beneath my booted feet while trying to keep my helmet visor from fogging up, which was educational and very very cool. When I “returned to Earth” I appeared in the newspaper and on TV, presented a slide show about the experience at numerous venues including Google and the Nebula Awards, and published a book of the crew’s blog posts . My Analog story “Citizen-Astronaut” was also based directly on my MDRS experience.

Another outcome of my trip to “Mars” was a draft of a hard-SF YA novel titled The Loneliest Girl on Mars. That book is still unpublished—too many agents and editors told me categorically that “SF doesn’t sell.” But that project’s failure led me to combine my love of Mars with my love of the seagoing adventure novels of Patrick O’Brian into a new idea, one which I hoped would be close enough to SF to hold my interest but close enough to fantasy to be more acceptable to the market. That idea eventually became Arabella of Mars, and now it’s available for you to buy. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Read chapters 1-3 from Arabella of Mars here on Tor.com!
Top image: theatrical poster for Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

Arabella-MarsDavid D. Levine is the author of the novel Arabella of Mars and over fifty science fiction and fantasy stories. His story “Tk’Tk’Tk” won the Hugo Award, and he has been shortlisted for awards including the Hugo, Nebula, Campbell, and Sturgeon. Stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, Tor.com, numerous Year’s Best anthologies, and his award-winning collection Space Magic.​​


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