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March 20, 2006

Mars Description II

I spent yesterday with my friend Jaime in his studio, reading through the novel and making notes (I'm still not done!) and I found this description of Mars, which comes in the first half of the book but which I added near the end of writing the first draft. So it's pretty much the latest description of Mars that I have, which is sort of an end parenthesis to the earliest description of Mars that I posted earlier. Compare and contrast, if you'd like.

(Note: this is Leonard Lord, about a year after the last description. He's just climbed Olympus Mons, the biggest volcano in the solar system.)

I had never been this high off of the ground, this far up. I've never been 16 miles high before. It seems like it should be a euphemism for something. It was nearly impossible to encompass. This was the view I came to Mars for. I had imagined that the bubble ships would be like real ships, approaching a goal slowly, so that for days you could see the shore approaching and approaching, and when you landed, you had the prospect of an unbroken line of land to breach, coming ever nearer, resolving itself slowly into trees, and brakes, and huts, and Indians in canoes ... details. I had thought -- imagined -- that approaching Mars would be something like that, that first we would see a star. Then, more and more, a ball of rock, like Earth, only redder and more strange. Halfway through the trip it would be like the moon to us: something with features we could see, barely, with much squinting, Then the slowing approach, as to a strange shore, with the disc of the planet growing larger and larger and more and more like a world to us, until we were no longer approaching it but in it, and the features on the ground resolved themselves into cities, then individual houses, then the tops of men's heads. I was really looking forward to this, to seeing what a world looked like from so far above, watching a world resolve itself out of a star.

As you know, I was cheated of this view. That is, until the past weeks, when I went up Olympus. The crater is only 75 miles across so it comes to a point and that point, if you think about it, is about as high in the air as I would have been when the details of the planet started to become clear to me on my imaginary ship. It is not quite the same thing, but it is so close that I feel that I have arrived again-or perhaps I have arrived finally, for I feel that something here belongs to me. I have earned something.

What does it look like? Oh Freddy, I've been avoiding the question, for it is nearly impossible to describe. How can you explain being on a planet and yet standing above it as well? You will be thinking of our trip through the Donner Pass (ill-fated trip as it was) and the views we had of the Plains, but it is so much more than that. From the top of Olympus I could not only see the entire disc of the planet 360 degrees around me, but I could also see the curve of the surface. We have never seen this, you and I. We've stood on mountain tops and taken measurements against the next mountain top and proven to our satisfaction that the Earth is, indeed, a sphere, but we have never seen the floor of the Earth curving, like the ball it is. On Olympus I saw the planet I stood on -- the ground beneath my feet that held me aloft -- I saw it curving beneath me.

Directly over our heads was a bank of clouds. As we climbed, we'd seen these collecting every morning and then dissipating in the afternoon. The cloudbank was thick enough to filter the sun and the top surface of our outer clothing was cooler than I'd ever felt it since I arrived on Mars. Also, the glare of the suns rays around our eyes was lessened. The very air seemed clearer. Thus, I had a better view of the world than I had had since I arrived. I could see the variations in pink and orange and brown and grey on the ground now. I could see the patterns of the wind shifting the bright yellow and white/salmon dusts across the desert floor. Here was a patch of dunes, like the rippling of burned skin, but much more regular and smooth and beautiful. The waved shadows on the dunes' dark sides grew shorter quickly as the sun rose to its zenith. There was a bare ground of rocks and gravels, the rocks looking more and then less black as I stared at them, trying to make out what their exact color was. They were volcanic rock, no doubt, as all the bedrock in this region is, but pocked with air bubbles, broken and jagged and occasionally reaching for the sky, laid bare -- today only -- who knows about tomorrow -- by the fickle, bright dust that went to play elsewhere for awhile, perhaps forever. And over there, if I turned entirely away, a river of lava, looking exactly like molasses spilled onto a countertop and left by a lazy housewife to harden. There are river flows such as these leaking from this mountain's every pore; this was, perhaps is still, a volcano, but a volcano of a might and power that we have no idea of on Earth. For eons this volcano has been bubbling and spitting and overflowing, with no soul to see it, hear it, or to fear for its life. Fire. Fire!


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