Mars, the brave new utopia

March 14, 1997

MARS has become a natural backdrop for 20th-century writers wanting to create their own Utopias.

According to Edward James, professor of history at the University of Reading. "It has taken the place that the West had for 19th-century American writers. It is a new frontier beyond which an entirely new civilisation can be created which avoids the mistakes of our own.

"It is a logical development because Mars is, other than the Moon, the only vaguely habitable planet that we can see. That reality gives it a resonance that a fictional planet would not have."

Professor James combined two interests, historical research on utopias and his role as editor of the academic science fiction journal Foundation, in his work on Martian utopias, published in the journal's Autumn 1996 edition.

He points out that they tend to come in waves, prompted by external circumstances. Edgar Rice Burroughs effectively launched the genre with his works in the 1920s and 1930s, and there was a major wave in the 1950s.

"This was because it had become clear that space travel was a practical possibility and produced books like Arthur C. Clarke's Sands of Mars and Robert Heinlein's Red Planet".

A fresh wave, predating the last few months' excitement over possible new evidence of life on the planet, has started in the 1990s. The catalyst this time, says Professor James, was then-President George Bush's speech saying that the US intended to put a man on Mars in the next 40 years. This has produced half a dozen Mars-based works, of which he selects the American Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars as the most significant. He argues that this work is much more important than is realised by critics inclined to be dismissive of so-called genre writing.

"This is where new utopian ideas are being developed," he says.

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