Sunday, November 13, 2011

"Oh my God, Mars smells like shit" ~ Geoffrey Landis talks about his vision of Mars at 2008 conference

 I’m still reading bits and pieces of Visions of Mars: Essays on the Red Planet in Fiction and Science (McFarland 2011), a heavy academic volume examining the way Mars has been depicted in literature, film and popular culture that I purchased earlier this year for my Kindle e-reader.

As I mentioned in several recent posts, one of the more interesting sections is Appendix 2, “The Extreme Edge of Mars Today,” which is a transcript of a panel discussion with editor David G. Hartwell and award-winning authors Geoffrey A. Landis, Larry Niven, and Mary A. Turzillo that was conducted at the 2008 J. Lloyd Eaton Science Fiction Conference, held in Riverside, California. In this lengthy excerpt, Landis discusses his vision of Mars and a couple of his Martian SF&F works:
Okay, well, my fiction has been evolving as we learn more about Mars, and I'm not even sure sometimes what to think about the Mars that we're now discovering. I guess my first story that really featured Mars was a story called “Ecopoiesis,” which is in Impact Parameter which is now sold out in the dealers room, but I'm sure you can find it online. And that had a sort of odd genesis. I was at a Case for Mars conference in, I think the mid-1980s, and Carl Sagan had a paper about terraforming Mars, and there was a lot of discussion about terraforming Mars. There's been a lot of very inaccurate science fiction about terraforming, most of which proposes that it's just vastly simpler than it really is.

It's a difficult problem, but the idea had been sort of floating around that what would be interesting to do was not to necessarily terraform Mars in the sense of “terra” meaning “make Mars like Earth,” but just to set an ecology on Mars, not necessarily an Earth-like ecology but make it a life-filled planet, and the word for that is “ecopoiesis” -- to initiate an ecosystem. And it would be an anaerobic ecosystem because Mars has no oxygen, and the interesting thing of course is that if you just want to warm up Mars you don't want to give it an oxygen atmosphere, that would be the worst possible thing to do because the carbon dioxide atmosphere is the only thing that keeps it as warm as it is, and its average is -40°. So you don't want to get rid of the carbon dioxide; you want more carbon dioxide. You want a thick carbon dioxide atmosphere. So ecopoiesis and warming up and giving an ecosystem to Mars would in fact mean adding more carbon dioxide and making an anaerobic ecology. And Sagan was sort of a little bit sarcastic about this possibility and said, “Well, let's see, let me see if I get this straight -- basically, you're proposing converting Mars into a sewer. Anaerobic bacteria! Yay, sewer bacteria!” So, the sort-of working title of Brown Mars was going through my head. So this was a story about Mars that had been not terraformed, so it wasn't Earth-like, but yet it had an ecosystem, an anaerobic ecosystem that, as our astronauts going to it many years after that ecopoiesis event, take off their space suits and say, "Oh my God, Mars smells like shit." So that was my first Mars story. It did incorporate one thing from all of the spacecraft results: I was looking at them saying, “My God, Mars is a sulfur-rich planet.” Mars is a very sulfur-rich planet, so I put sulfur in as a major plot element in the story and am sort of pleased every time we send another mission to Mars and the chemical analyses we're getting over and over [with] this emphasis that Mars is sulfur rich.

So I said, yay -- I got that one! The salt that's left behind from the putative vanished oceans or perhaps the very briny lakes, the salt that we see in the salt stones and silt stones on Mars is a very sulfur-rich salt, it's calcium, magnesium, iron sulfates, so it's not sodium chloride, which would be most of what would be left on Earth if we evaporated our oceans. So, you know, it really is a very rich planet in sulfates, and that probably comes from its long history of volcanism, that Mars does not have global plate tectonics that can bury the sulfates and get them out of the shallow crust layer. I guess sulfates were a little bit also a plot point when I finally wrote a novel about Mars -- Mars Crossing -- where I tried to write a novel about Mars that was accurate. Seems [that in] too many Mars novels ... you get to the end [and] you discover either (a) the ruins of an ancient Martian civilization or (b) artifacts from aliens that have come to Mars. I said, you know, the real Mars is also really interesting; there's a lot of interesting stuff! So I tried to put as much of Mars as we knew at the time into Mars Crossing, showing that it's not Earth but it is a fascinating and interesting planet, very different from Earth with very different phenomena. And that was sort of the Mars as we knew it as of Pathfinder and the early Mars Global Surveyor. A very desolate, but in its way, a very beautiful world that's quite interesting and quite different from the Earth. So that's my Mars. The next Mars, with more knowledge, well, that will be even harder.
Thank you for that wonderful insight, Geoff Landis!

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