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by Binoy Kampmark


The Montréal Review, August 2012



There's a one-ton piece of American ingenuity and it's sitting on the surface of Mars right now.

John Holdren, quoted in New Statesman, Aug 6, 2012


With NASA's latest efforts on Mars with the Curiosity rover, humanity is now bracing itself for the hope of finding life past, present or future, on a distant plant. Much of this is drivel, suggesting a continued obsession of humankind's "inner child" ("We discover ourselves through discovering others") but the prospects are intriguing. Colonising Mars will enable us to export rapacity and problems and possibly unearth a few scientific gems on the way.

In a more specific way, the Mars mission - shall we say missions? - demonstrate again that science is as political as any pursuit of knowledge. The selfless scientist is an extinct species, or at the very least a rare one. Like sports personalities, they are guns for hire, hoping to receive the gold medal at the end of the race.

Naturally, the event of seeing the first colour photos of Mars has sent NASA administrators into a state of frenzy. In the words of Charles Bolden, "It is a huge day for the nation, it is a huge day for all of our partners who have something on Curiosity and it is a huge day for the American people." Strikingly, the mission's significance is framed, less in terms of humanity than in terms of America - the narrative of Independence Day and the space race. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, affirmed it. "We are actually the only country that has landed surface landers on any other planet."

President Barack Obama has been similarly impressed by the effort as American-made, resisting, at least for the moment, glossing it over with nostrums of human significance. Keep it simple, keep it American. "The successful landing of Curiosity - the most sophisticated roving laboratory ever to land on another planet - marks an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future." Even on Mars, nation states strut in conquest to the tunes of parochial gibberish.

The theme was picked up by Michael Brooks in the New Statesman (Aug 6). "The US has won the space heptathlon (separation from cruise module, heat shield deployment, parachute opening, altitude sensing, rocket-powered sky crane, rover touchdown and sky crane flyaway, since you ask)." Russian and Chinese efforts have stuttered with the failures of the Phobus-Grunt mission and the wet end to Beijing's probe. NASA's administrators are pulsating with enthusiasm and runaway hubris.

The journey enables us to open the treasure trove of fantasies that have governed the pursuit of Mars for decades. Much of the fascination with Mars has been one of pan filled terror, a mere outlet for human fears of what they themselves might do next. Martian viciousness is merely an artistic device. It takes the absurd hack form of Tim Burton's box office bomb Mars Attack! (1996), where Jack Nicholson plays the President of the United States, and is duly impaled by the sophisticated greenlings.

More to the point, however, is H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898), the standard science fiction work on Mars, a tale of extraterrestrial invasion by creatures piloting three-legged machines that has been inverted by the good works of NASA. No longer are we waiting for Martians, but we are seeking Mars with a certain, uncontainable lust. The Martians, in the novel, "regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us." In time, the invaders suffer their demise at the hands of nature - as Mars is free of bacteria, their bodies suffer a microbial attack that kills them. Hurrah for earth and its good works.

Nation states, the greatest vehicles of war imaginable, are gearing up with tedious familiarity to broaden their rivalry into space. Whether in actuality of allegorically, writers of science fiction have acknowledged the link between their creations and humankind's desire to realise them via the laboratory. In most direct form fantasy, space travel and militarism met in the scientific projects of rocket pioneer Robert Goddard. After reading Well's War of the Worlds, Goddard developed an obsession: he would find a way to fly to Mars. While never realising his dream, he managed to contribute extensively to the development of lethal weapons - it is hard to imagine intercontinental ballistic missiles without his Mars-inspired contribution.

Mars has often figured as a military frontier, an ersatz human world of blood and gore re-enacted as if it was earth. Given that Mars is the Roman god of war, it is fitting that so much that is associated with the red planet is not merely military but militaristic. Wells's Martians might as well be heavily armed Germans encroaching upon Britain and empire. Arnold Schwarzenegger in Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990) is a construction worker inhabiting a delusionary remade world on earth where a Mars riven by conflict is the only reality. His memory, in fact, has been reprogrammed, concealing his role in the resistance movement on the red planet that combats a vicious governor by the name of Vilos Cohaagen.

Earth, it seems, is filled with implanted memories and docile subjects. The regime itself is a play on the fantasies of life on Mars, a mirror of fractious human existence. Is it really a dry and hostile place, or does it contain promise and purpose? The catch here is that a previous Martian civilisation built a reactor that will, provided it is triggered, generate a liveable atmosphere on the planet. Eventually, in a dramatically absurd final scene, an entire ecosystem is unleashed on Mars - water and oxygen explodes to the surface in a rapturous scene. Cohaagen bites the dust, and the hero and heroine embrace with a certain pop finality.

Mars as epic, Mars as a pulp joke and Mars as scientific ecstasy. Mars as fantasy may in time become Mars the reality. The mission to Mars is as cultural and military as it is scientific. The science of it, however, is entirely subordinate to state interests. Pity the planet, and pity the human race for this discovery.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Image: Detail from the cover of H.G. Wells's book "The War of the Worlds"


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