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Dying Planet by Robert Markley (2005)

Dying Planet by Robert Markley

This book is subtitled, "Mars in science and the imagination" and as mission statements go, there are absolutely no grounds for complaint. Author Robert Markley (Professor of English at the University of Illinois) has written what will likely come to be regarded as the standard work on the subject for many years to come, and while I find some of his conclusions a little questionable, the depth of research and the way in which he binds the many threads of fact and fiction into an historical whole make for a compelling and authoritative work of scholarship. You can hardly claim less for a book that comes loaded with 48 pages of notes and cited references.

This does mark it out as a highly academic work, so be prepared to wade through some seriously rigorous analysis. On occasion, you can sense that Markley is straining to write in a more accessible style, but he can't quite bring himself to lower the tone and so you are faced for instance with the use of jawbreaker phrases like "epistemological heuristic", when he could have just said that the accepted beliefs of a culture change with the acquisition of knowledge, or something like that.

A dictionary and strong cup of coffee to hand however, and you will be rewarded with a wealth of knowledge. This is an astonishing work of research, meticulously connecting the worlds of science and literature, as over the centuries, they have influenced, shaped and encouraged each other. The material on Percival Lowell and his passionate belief in the existence of a Martian race of Canal builders is especially good. The author digs deep into the scientific and cultural ramifications of his work and by an in-depth analysis of the recorded reactions to his work, tracks the influence of Lowell on science and literature. I doubt such a degree of detail has ever been attempted before, and Markley is to be commended on his diligence.

Interestingly, Markley discusses the propensity of early Mars observers to see the very things that they wanted to see, (the canals) and yet ironically, I feel that the author too is seeing things that just aren't there. To suggest that British readers of The War of the Worlds took the book to their hearts because Wells' invocation of the Darwinian principle of "survival of the fittest" let them off the hook for their own countries barbarous behaviour, is I think a connection too far. It's equally valid, and fair to say, that the simplest of explanations can often be the best, to wit, that Wells simply wrote an extraordinarily good book. I would not however categorise this as a damaging criticism of the book, for Markley makes coherent arguments for his position, and these can only be judged by your own reading of the material. Even if you come to disagree with some of his conclusions, the evidential material he presents represents a treasure trove of fact on the development of Martian science and literature.

Alongside the familiar writers such as Wells, Burroughs and Bradbury, you will find in-depth profiles of lesser-known works that add considerably to our understanding of how the vision of Mars has evolved in popular culture. Markley also provides an excellent summation of the exploration of Mars and the many controversies that have arisen over the years, and indeed continue to vex scientists. Chapters are arranged in broadly diametric fashion, with a period of scientific observation in one chapter, offset by a discussion of the fictional reaction to the new discoveries in the next. It is fascinating to see how even the disappointments of our growing understanding of Mars as a dead world have re-energised the field of Martian literature, moving from its earlier ideas of a utopian Martian civilisation waiting to be discovered and visited, to a more recent form of highly scientific literature, that sends human colonists on missions of revitalisation by means of god like terraforming techniques.

Not the easiest read in the world, but for those looking for a highly detailed, academic and above all, comprehensive discussion of the place of Mars in our culture, this book can come as nothing but highly recommended.

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See also

Books

2002
Mapping Mars by Oliver Morton

Mapping Mars by Oliver Morton. Telling the history of attempts to map the surface of Mars. The book includes detail on fictional Mars.

2005
The War of the Worlds: Fresh Perspectives

The War of the Worlds: Fresh Perspectives. A collection of intriguing essays by some of the best science fiction authors in the world.

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