Science fiction author Philip Purser-Hallard looks at faith in an increasingly futuristic world.
It must be HG Wells’ fault. Or maybe Percival Lowell, the astronomer who popularised the idea of “canals” on the Red Planet. Perhaps we can even blame those pesky Romans, capturing our imaginations by naming the blood-red “wandering star” after their god of war.
Whoever started it, the idea of Life on Mars has become a mild obsession in popular culture – the titles of the David Bowie song and the time-travelling police drama are just the tip of the polar icecap. Venus may be closer to us, and Earth’s nearest match in size and composition, but it’s Mars we look to for companionship as we hurtle together through the void.
The news that the Mars Global Surveyor probe has found evidence of free-flowing water on the planet’s surface has been received with all the usual excited suggestions that the property next door may not be quite as vacant as we’d supposed.
The most sensational such stories have always ended in disappointment. The “fossil microbes” in a Martian meteorite, and the giant stone “face” photographed by Viking 1, turned out to be optical illusions like Lowell’s canals. Even the scientific findings, such as our increasing evidence of water beneath the Martian surface, have been speculative at best.
Most reputable sources now agree that any Martian life we find will be equivalent to Earth’s extremophile bacteria, eking out a precarious existence in the freezing, nearly airless desert. Not much to show for what would still be the single most spectacular discovery in scientific history.
None of this has stopped the science-fiction authors, of course. Wells started it, using his warlike Martians in their armoured tripods as a mirror for the technological aggression of imperial Britain. His successors were often less sophisticated, adorning Mars’s inhabitants with what CS Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet called “various incompatible monstrosities – bulbous eyes, grinning jaws, horns, stings, mandibles”.
Lewis went against the flow, depicting his Martians as not only wise, beautiful and peaceful, but also highly religious people, existing in the same state of grace as humanity before the biblical Fall. Since then, religious faith has been a characteristic frequently associated with science fiction’s Martians.
For instance, Robert Heinlein’s cult novel Stranger in a Strange Land – supposedly an inspiration to the serial killer Charles Manson – presents Martian beliefs, approvingly, as a disturbing neo-fascist hippiedom. In 1975 Doctor Who imprisoned a renegade Egyptian god on Mars, while the earlier BBC serial Quatermass and the Pit made the Martians humanity’s creators, albeit decidedly diabolical ones. And Philip José Farmer’s self-explanatory (but very bizarre) Jesus on Mars reveals where Jesus went after the Ascension.
Writers like Anthony Boucher – whose short story “Balaam” has a Catholic priest and a rabbi averting war between an Earth expedition and the religious aliens they meet on Mars – followed Lewis’ lead in asking what, if the Martians existed, our spiritual response to them should be?
It’s not an issue which applies in any great degree to extremophile bacteria, of course. Still, the possibility exists that one day, whether on Mars or elsewhere, humanity will come into contact with non-human intelligence. (Indeed, the aliens in “Balaam” aren’t true Martians, but visitors to the planet like the Earthmen.)
Suppose these aliens do indeed have gods of their own. Worse still, suppose they have none – that religion is a purely human aberration. Should we teach them the error of their ways, instructing them in arcane rituals such as confession, communion and Christmas? Should we leave them to their heathen devices? Or try to learn from them?
I think that that’s a question for a future column.
• NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor
• Mars – a Multimedia Tour
• Life on Mars course at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire
• HG Wells at the Literature Network
• Into the Wardrobe – a CS Lewis website
• Philip Purser-Hallard
• It’s been unreal
• Getting needlessly messianic
• Through An Orbital Mirror, Darkly
• The Shape of Kingdoms to Come