Gray Mars, Vorlons, and Robert Heinlein

On Mars, the Curiosity rover drilled into some rock in what appears to have once been an ancient (think billions-of-years ancient) stream bed and found gray material considerably less oxidized that the present surface of the red (rust, sort of) planet tends to be. The chemistry suggests that relatively neutral—neither especially acidic nor alkaline—water that you or I would have been able to drink once flowed over it. Most of the atmosphere and the oceans of that ancient Mars long away leaked into space, but, at one time, now-arid Mars was a place friendly to life.

I confess to having a soft spot in my heart for Mars. The first novel of any kind I ever read was Robert Heinlein’s Red Planet. I came across it when I was in the third grade, and the book hadn’t been around much longer than I had. It was in a niche now called “young adult” that publishers market to teens, although plenty of adults enjoy them. (Twilight, anyone?)

Compared to now, our knowledge of conditions on Mars when Heinlein wrote Red Planet was pretty sketchy. Heinlein’s human colonists on Mars faced challenges similar to those that people trying to set up housekeeping in Antarctica face, except they needed respirators when venturing outdoors.

The real Mars isn’t that cozy and comfortable. For example, nobody in 1949 was worrying about the long-term health problems of getting repeatedly zapped by cosmic rays (mostly high-energy protons and chunks of atomic nuclei from solar flares or remote, exploding stars) while living on the Martian surface. Earth has a strong magnetic field and a thick atmosphere that keeps most of this nasty stuff from reaching us. Mars doesn’t. Real Martian colonists would probably have to live deep underground. (It looks as if a cosmic ray strike fried one of the computers on the Curiosity rover. Fortunately, NASA had a back-up on board.)

That said, Heinlein was a good storyteller. Even though Red Planet is a bit dated, I wouldn’t hesitate giving a copy to a “young adult” who liked science fiction any more than I would handing over a copy of H. G Wells’s Victorian-era novel The Time Machine.

If anything, I’d be more inclined to hand a kid the Heinlein, with a recommendation that he or she afterward look up current science on Mars and remember that, relative to his generation (born 1907), and when it took real guts to publicly take such positions, Heinlein had very liberal views on issues of race and tolerance for non-majority religions.

Specifically, I’d tell the kid that who objects to the comment about the colonists needing “to treat a boy old enough to fight as a man and a girl old enough to cook and tend babies as a woman” to consider that comment in the context of the social climate of 1949 instead of 2013. The goalposts have moved a long way down the field since then, and yesterday’s progressive might look like today’s reactionary. For goodness’ sake, Heinlein was unusual among white, male science-fiction writers of his generation in creating intelligent, sympathetic characters of color as well as tough, competent females in science fiction decades before the Ripley character in the 1979 film Alien. Cut the man some slack.

But back to Mars. Something that I believe has held up very well is the alienness of his Martians. Talking to one of Heinlein’s Martians from Red Planet is rather like sitting down with a Zen master who is apt to respond to your straightforward question about where he keeps his teapot with a koan such as ”what face did you wear before your parents conceived you?”

I’ve wondered if the oracular Vorlons in Babylon 5 owe something to Heinlein’s Martians. If we ever do encounter real aliens, they are likely to be, at best, borderline incomprehensible, like the Vorlons or Heinlein’s Martians, rather than the humans-with-makeup in Star Trek. You should never assume that your psychological or social norms and values are universal and accepted as normal and valid on all planets or in all eras. They aren’t



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