Life on Mars, for real
December 30, 2010
One of the things I like best about being a writer is the life of the mind that goes along with it. I spend a lot of time thinking, day dreaming, reading, pondering, etc. I sit on my sofa, curled up with a drink and good music, thinking. I am well suited to this life.
I’ve started writing a story about a character from Mars (post-colonization), and I’ve had to do a lot of thinking on this one. The classic Mars novels and stories that I grew up with — anything written before 1970, really — were all speculation, within a certain set of parameters. Mars is a desert, it’s got ice caps and a couple of moons. After that, writers could pretty much make shit up. Not that they did — they speculated based on the current best knowledge of the time. But that knowledge was so very tiny. I had a book on the planets in elementary school that was considered cutting edge because it included photos from the Viking missions. Even then, what we knew about Mars fit on just a few pages.
Now — holy crap. We have multiple surface rovers, multiple orbital missions. Books do not contain all we know. We have maps with hundreds of place names labeled. We don’t have to speculate because Mars is knowable to the level of the chemical composition of rocks. I can’t just have characters be on Mars — I have to figure out what might be the best location for a Mars colony, name it so someone else can find it on a map, and look up the photos of the spot.
To write about the old metaphoric, speculative Mars at this point — the Mars of Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, for example — is just lazy (although I can see a situation where I’d write about the relationship between the old Mars and the new). Especially because I want to write about real people who really are from Mars.
I must fall back on my old research mantra: I don’t have to know everything about Mars. I just have to convince the reader that I do.
I’ll tackle this like I tackle most of my research on a topic I can’t possibly master even if I had all the time in the world. I just keep reading and taking notes and pulling in as much as I can by sheer osmosis. I look for what will add to the story. I start writing and figure out what I need as I go.
Mars is cold. It has complicated geography and intense dust storms. UV radiation is a problem. There is water frozen in the rocks. I can look at pictures and imagine what it’s like to walk across that land, just over one third of what I weigh on Earth. See, in the end, the details don’t really matter. My characters won’t be spouting elevations and chemical compositions at each other. But I have to know those things well enough to be able to feel what it might be like on Mars, and be as right as I possibly can. Brownish dust covers everything. Sunglasses are important.
Writers get told to write about what they know. In my case, that would be so limiting. So, I tackle these projects, where I write about things I can’t possibly know. I try hard. I do my best. And I keep doing it because it turns out I really love going to the library, checking out a stack of books on a topic I know very little about, and learning all I can. I love my job.