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March 15, 2006

First Mars Description

In honor of Google Mars -- or rather, my excitement about Google Mars, which has not abated since yesterday -- I am posting my first description of Mars in my novel, written 3.5 years ago. It's been revised a bit since then, but I'm not sure where the original description got to, so I'll just give the latest version. Maybe Google Mars will change my view! Maybe Mars will become more beautiful, or sharp, as we go along! We'll see ...

This is from the first letter home written by Leonard Lord, a newcomer to the Martian gold-mining colony. If he sounds a bit poky and pedantic, it's because he's writing in 1899, and he's 40-something years old, so he actually learned to write in the 1870s:

But do not delude yourself any longer, Freddy, Mars is ugly. There is none of the strange beauty here that you've described in your Earth deserts. Perhaps I would have found your Earth deserts ugly, too, but it seems that beauty, the beauty you find in the world, Freddy, is dependent upon a contradiction between the familiar and the strange. The same blue sky, but larger. The same life, but differently shaped. There is none of that here, no blue sky, no greenery, no movement, no life. Here it is red, dusty, and dead. This much you knew already. But I can't convey to you in words, reports, or even descriptions how red, dusty and empty of life this place is. It is so red there is no yellow. It is so red it begrudges us blue. But such a red! It is rust-red, not a satisfying bloody scarlet, or any other shade of red one thinks of. One can't help but associate the color with decay. Picturesque decay perhaps. Even the sky is red - a pale, watered-down version of the red of the ground. Pink like a cooked salmon - no, paler, the background color is a dirty white, like clouds on an overcast day. All the colors on this planet are the colors of dirt and decay back on Earth. This is how I see it. This is how all the adults see it, although some seem to be getting used to it. The children born here - I wonder - will they learn to see freshness in a dirty white sky?

And there are dust storms frequently during this season I am told, without rhyme, reason or warning. There was one yesterday, to complement my mood. A red-out for fifteen hours around New Georgia town. The transports were brought in, and all outside activity ceased. The storm was like a rust-red cap around the New Georgia bubbles. Although the impression of the planet is already red - the very dust motes in the still air tinting everything with brick and rust color - still, the dust storm brought an intensity of red that I hadn't thought possible, as if the dust itself were a source of light and its furious stream through the air the holding up of a red lantern emitting decay and deadening. The already deathly-looking skin of the settlers turned to putty in the storm. I had never before realized how much we depend upon the sight and movement of blood under our translucent skin for the appearance of life. In this redness we look like so much plastic material, animated by stubbornness and not divinity. My second day here. Welcome to Mars!

And the lack of life - after years of reading, hearing and imagining your descriptions of the Southwestern American deserts, I had learned to expect from these dry, dusty rednesses a hawk or lizard or scorpion, or sudden extrusion of bush. Some occasional burnt green. A movement, animated corners, anything. But there is nothing. They say even the Sahara Desert contains life but here - nothing. Not a plant, not a creature - nothing. Were I to plunge into the outside and survive the cold and the boiling blood and the quick suffocation, I could find myself in a place void of disease, mosquito bites, malaria, cholera, tiger attacks, flies, snakebite, spiderwebs. Even death is missing. Never more than an indifferent naturalist, I would not have imagined that I would notice the absence of fossils, much less miss them. But every rock is smooth with the absence of life. I still have that rock you brought me from the center of the Painted Desert that proved that it was once a living seabed. I am tempted to drop it to the ground here, to see if I can sow this volcanic valley with the death of life and therefore bereave it of the death of no-life.

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It's 1899 and we're on Mars? I'm sold :-).

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