Longing to return to a world that never was

What we know of Mars today is nothing like the depictions of the planet in earlier times

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by stories of Mars.

Over the past six decades, people have flown in rockets and set foot on the surface of the moon. Mars, which can be as close as 55 million kilometres from Earth, is the next step in humanity’s conquest of space.

For many years, the fourth planet from the sun has inspired stories of a world that never was.

The War of The Worlds, written by H.G. Wells in 1897, told of a Martian invasion of Earth.

From the 1910s to the 1940s, Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the Barsoom series, depicting a civilization on Mars. These pulp-style stories influenced later writers.

In 1951, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury wrote about people settling on Mars.

The human settlements he depicted had similarities to isolated uranium mining towns in northern Saskatchewan or oil drilling settlements in Venezuela’s Maracaibo Basin from the 1940s and ’50s.

Other writers in the mid-20th century also told stories of human settlement on Mars. Some stories were brilliant, while others are best forgotten.

There was an optimism to these stories.

They looked forward to a time when humanity would make new discoveries and settle on an unknown world.

But the stories of Mars from the 1950s and before belong to an earlier era.

Since the mid-1960s, space exploration has taught us much about Mars.

There are no canals, cities or ruins on Mars, and there are no signs an earlier civilization had ever inhabited the planet.

Instead, we now know Mars is a cold, dry planet with a thin atmosphere and dusty winds.

Settling there would be extremely difficult.

With this knowledge, science fiction stories had to evolve.

Those who wanted to tell stories of interplanetary conflicts or contacts with alien races needed to set their sights far beyond Mars, to distant galaxies where the hopes of new life and new civilizations had not been shattered.

The Martian, a 2014 novel by Andy Weir, tells a gripping story about Mars based on what we know today. The science is accurate based on what is known today.But the old images still linger.

Recently, someone showed me a sub-genre of science fiction, telling stories of the earlier version of Mars.

These are stories by contemporary writers, working to recreate the science fiction of the 1950s and earlier.

I started to read a few of these stories, but quickly abandoned them.

Knowing what we know about Mars today, it is no longer possible to accept the premises of these newer stories.

What’s more, they lacked the hope and optimism of the earlier Mars stories. Instead, they seemed to have a yearning for a world which no longer exists.

I can still enjoy the stories from the 1950s and beyond for what they are, but new works based on disproved assumptions will ring hollow.

I’m wondering if there is a lesson to be learned from the contemporary Mars nostalgia stories and the yearning for a world that never was.

We are in the midst of a widespread and rapid change in our society and around the world. We will not be able to return to what we knew in 2019 and before.

The choice will be to accept and learn to live in the new world, or to sadly long for a world to which we can never again return.

~ John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review

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