Mars, Martians, and Genre

On a clear night in 1986, my dad showed my sisters and me Halley’s Comet, visible only every 76 years. My memory of this is still vivid, not so much of seeing the comet itself, but of the experience of it, standing in the grass beside the clothesline, looking up, away from what is now a massive oak tree. This was the beginning of a series of sky-watching evenings with my dad: even when I visited after college, we’d go outside after dark, my dad with his printed charts showing when the International Space Station would go over or where we should look to see an iridium flare over the ridge of pines.

Sky watching has been on my mind again recently. Since my neighborhood is far too polluted with light for good views, I’ve researched our local planetarium shows and the star parties within short drives so that when my baby is old enough, we can pick out stars, planets, comets, and satellites in dark skies, simulated or real. At the last star party I attended, a while ago now, Mars looked, in comparison with the spectacular Jupiter and Venus, dim and distant. Mars, too, has been on my mind, given recent news stories about the successful rover missions and plans for sending people to explore and colonize the planet.

Science Fiction, Science Fact, and Genre

Though folks have been watching for comets and other natural phenomena for millennia, there is something that would have been, at one time, science fictional about watching the artificial satellites. Same for thinking about sending people to the red planet, such as the Mars One and NASA missions. This raises a question for me: how will my child view Mars? My generation and all those before see Mars as the object of science fictional speculation: we haven’t been there yet–at least not in person–so as a fictional subject, we see it relegated to SF.

But when Mars is peopled, will it become a setting for “literary” fiction? (Using the quotes here as I think there is already a solid overlap between SF and literary fiction.) Will the predominant “life on Mars” short story consist of an MFA-style narrative about a disaffected young artist in search of himself among the habitation pods? Perhaps an extended meditation on the breakup of a suburban Martian marriage, the husband and wife in separate rooms watching their children kicking stones in the regolith just outside the windows of their ranch style house?

Such stories have already been written, I’m sure: we see examples of this use of Mars as a background for the domestic as far back as Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, compiled from his 1940s stories about the red planet. The plot of “The Million-Year Picnic,” for example–the father’s attempt to protect his family from the horrors of war by sneaking them away from the war-torn region–is one shared by numerous literary stories; in this case, the end goal is just much farther away. (There is something troubling “this is all yours, now, sons” proclamation the father makes, but this is beyond the scope of this post.) The story concludes with the father showing the family the “Martians”:

“The Martians were there–in the canal–reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad.

“The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water….”

Towards a Martian Style of Writing?

Does it matter so much that the family’s new identity is one off Earth? The (already very blurry) line between literary and speculative, you might say, is one of possible lived experience. After living on Mars is possible, even for a brief time, then will the genre boundaries be more complicated? Stories about life on the red planet will be told: travelogues and personal narratives at first, followed, I hope, by the sort of rich exploration of the Martian experience fiction can provide. What will these stories look like? How will life there shape the structure of narrative? Will the length of the day or the year affect the pacing? What metaphors, at first fresh, will become Martian cliches? How will all this change if the writer was born on Mars rather than on Earth?

Languages, cultures of origin, and the talents and proclivities of the colonists will, of course, affect the Martian style of writing more than anything else, especially at first. I don’t think there will be a homogenous style of writing regardless. But the questions are interesting ones. How will we tag and “shelve” Martian fiction in the bookstores of the future? And what will they teach in Martian MFA programs to come?