Lieutenant Patricia Kelly Elizabeth Strickland—otherwise known as Podkayne—has joined the Music, Arts, and Drama Division of the Martian Navy, passing the audition with a little help from some higher-ups. And now she’s going to Europa, one of Jupiter’s many moons, to be an entertainer. But she’s about to learn that there can be plenty of danger to go around in the Martian Navy, even if you’ve just signed on to sing.
John Varley, Hugo and Nebula-winning author of Rolling Thunder, discusses science fiction's long-time fascination with Mars.
What is it about the red planet? It's a pretty insignificant rock, as these things go, but I am only one of a long list of science fiction writers to be fascinated by it. H.G. Wells, when he needed a source of alien invaders, "intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic," chose Mars. Why not Venus? It's closer, and nearer in size to the Earth. But it's shrouded in clouds, you can't see any detail at all. But Mars, in 1878, revealed itself to the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli as being criss-crossed by canali, or "channels." That could have meant river channels, but it was misinterpreted into English as "canals," which implied they'd been built. And science fiction writers were off and running...
The very first science fiction book I ever read was Red Planet, by Robert A. Heinlein. I was in the seventh grade. And there were the marvelous canals, straight as arrows, frozen over most of the year, with guys pretty much just like me skating on them!
Then came the age of planetary exploration, the beginnings of which both Mr. Heinlein and I were privileged to see, and a lot of science fictional applecarts were upset. Mercury didn't keep one face perpetually turned to the sun. Venus wasn't a swamp planet, it was boiling hot. Jupiter had rings, and so did Uranus. Saturn had not just three rings, but hundreds of them. It's hard to remember just how very little we knew about the Solar System as late as the 1960s.
As for Mars... sorry, those canals were only optical illusions. There would be no skating on them. So another whole set of stories, from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Arthur C. Clarke to Ray Bradbury, became dated.
But not obsolete, never that. A good story is a good story, even if the scientific basis for it has been disproven. The Martian Chronicles is as good a novel today as it was in 1950, and the John Carter stories are just as exciting as they were in 1911.
And now a new generation of writers are tackling Mars with the facts as we know them today. Ben Bova has written of the red planet. Kim Stanley Robinson has set a grand trilogy of terraforming there. Joe Haldeman is publishing one. And I have just completed Rolling Thunder, the third of four novels detailing the saga of one family and their experiences on Mars and the other planets. These stories pay back my debt not only to Heinlein's Red Planet, but to all the great juvenile novels he published in the 1950s that started my generation of writers down this path.
In fifty years they will all certainly be dated: Bova's, Robinson's, Haldeman's, and mine. But here's hoping they will never be obsolete, as long as people like a good story.
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