Tag Archives: mars

On My Latest Short Story

I was working on this for several days before The Voice came through. In a taxi on the way to Rome airport. By the time I finished it we were in the clouds.

The Voice told me who it was about. I knew then that she was female, where she came from, and how she was about to die. “I was born on Mars in the year 2713,” she told me.

The themes, I suppose, are the usual ones for me. Alternate history, religion… Oh, and a dollop of Byzantine history.

It is only after you write something like this that you understand what it is about. The impossibility of living a moral life after the worst holocaust in history. Sorry, a bit dark, then. I will append some notes at the end on the technicalities of writing short fiction.

 

SURVIVORS’ GUILT

By Martin Waller

1.

I was born on Mars in the year 2713.
Your year. We do not date our years from the birth of an obscure
prophet from a largely forgotten religion. We date our years from a
more significant event. But I am getting ahead of myself.
I can walk among you unseen and unknown. My clothes, the baggy dress you sport,
the trousers, the odd accoutrements, the belts, straps – they feel strange to
someone who cannot step outside her home without a face mask and a
full coldsuit.
In the year 2713 Mars is approximately half terraformed. We will be
able to walk unprotected  on the surface in about forty years. Our
years – shall we say one hundred of yours?
I will not see that, nor my children, or theirs. We live short lives,
because of… Once again I am getting ahead of myself.
2.
I am astonished by two things, as I walk among you. The heat, plainly.
I was born 11 years ago, our years, in a tent city outside Vallis
Marineris. Step outside the tent and the temperature falls to about
the freezing point of water. How do you bear it? To exist in a
place that is at around the heat of your own blood?
We see things differently, then.
3.
Let us now talk of the things that are not often spoken of. My great
grand-parents were from Greece, the place that was. On Mars, where you
come from is important, because there is no going back. My grandmother
would tell me of her homeland and her history, when I was a baby. She
died when I was in my first year, our years again. A good age, on
Mars.
In the year 1071 the Byzantine emperor Romulus Diogenes decided to
attack the Seljuk Turks. The resulting disaster was so awful that the
Greeks always referred to the battle of Manzikert as The Terrible
Day. Likewise the event that places us where we are today. The Terrible Years.
And that second thing. The crowds. How do you bear it? Someone at your
side every second of the day, their breath in your face? All the time?
I step outside the tent and I am alone.
We grow food outside the tent. Gengineered chard, kale, pulses,
some corn. Martian food is largely vegetarian, heavy on spices. We eat
little meat.
You will see this. Unless I do the task which I am sent to do, in
which case you will not. Ever. I must hope so.
4.
Death, my death, which I expect and will welcome, is not like true
death. No pain, no suffering. A sudden cessation of being. Where does
a flame go, when the flame goes out?
So I walk among you, looking for the place where I have to be. The
intersection of two people whose meeting must be prevented.
If I do this, billions of lives will be saved. Just cut that thread,
move that block, rearrange that chess piece and all changes. On this
timeline, at least.
5.
This is what we do. We enter the portal and we go up to a place in
history where the least nudge, the smallest movement of history, that
chess piece on a different square, changes things utterly.
Byzantium does not fall. The Jesus shepherd does not die on the cross.
The thing we dare not talk about does not happen.
6.
I cannot tell you where I am. But that businessman, in the grey
suit, must not meet that one, with the yellow and blue tie. With the
blond hair. (Our hair is never blond. Too small a gene pool.)
Their meeting will create a great business empire, which will lead to
the developing of… That clever device, the thing and that other thing that follows, und so
weiter.
(Your languages are so strange. Why so many of them? On Mars we say, On
pesson di do sei, et voche copre. One person speaks this, and all understand.) So Grey Suit brushes by. It is the work of a moment to slip the spores into his pocket.
His meeting will take place, but later, at the hotel, he will become
feverish. The next meeting will not happen The empire will not be
born. On this timeline, no Terrible Years.
7.
In your time, you would ignore the suffering of billions of your
fellow human beings but devote your efforts to alleviating the pain of
some randomly selected animals.
We do not have billions, just a few million scratching a living on a
cold, hard place.
We travel down the timelines changing this little event, this tiny
accident. And ensuring that on that timeline, the Terrible Years do
not take place.
Like the millions of those suffering creatures you cannot or will not
help, we can do nothing for those billions of other people across the
multiverse. We do what we can.
8.
When I return to cold Mars, I will return to a future where I do not
exist. I will cease to be, like a soap bubble that bursts in the rain.
My alternates will continue, to walk the timelines and stop that
meeting, that event, that accident, that leads to the place where we
do not go, even in thought.That is what we do. And you do what, with your billions of
lives?

Notes: Writing short fiction,and in particular short science fiction, is an exercise in withholding information. You start with an intro. “Katie drives like a maniac.” “I always get the shakes before a drop.” Why? Who is Katie? What is a drop?

Then you slip in some details. Why are you walking among us? What do you want? A bit of colour – the food on Mars, say. Gradually you bring in the facts, the motivation. Then you know what you are writing about.

No dialogue here, because the central character is not engaging with those around her. What does she think of them, as she carries out her mission of mercy? There is a clue.

(There is a cheeky joke reference within this story. “We See Things Differently.” An utterly extraordinary story by Bruce Sterling, given when it was written. Nothing to do with the above.)

MW.

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“On Mars, On Mars…”

Conspiracy theories abound. Did NASA hold back this week’s news of the discovery of water, in small amounts admittedly, to boost the gate at the Ridley Scott film The Martian, which has just opened in the UK and US?

Probably not, though it has panned out like a Hollywood publicist’s dream and encouraged interest in all things Martian. I have read the book, by Andy Weir. It’s a decent read, but definitely one of those that you know you will never pick up again, and my copy went straight to the local charity shop. It is also clearly written with a film script in mind.

It sent me back, though, to probably the best books about Mars yet written, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Martian trilogy. This is a daunting prospect. It is about the terraforming of Mars and covers 220 years, and about the same number of pages.

Robinson has researched so much about the geology, climate and geography of Mars that at times you worry about his sanity. (His other books are equally well researched.) And he spares you none of it.

The trilogy’s strength is his ability to create so many different human viewpoints on the project, from straightforward corporate exploiters through revolutionaries seeking independence to hard core eco-fanatics who oppose any change to the environment, however hostile and sterile it is.

He also shows how subsequent generations growing up there begin to identify with the place and, returning to Earth, view it as utterly strange. His settlers are a multi-ethnic bunch, all of whose separate cultures are seen to adapt to their new home in their own ways.

Above all, there is the wonder of observing, over the centuries, the greening of the planet, the arrival of micro-organisms and a thin atmosphere, the first hardy animals and plants, and eventually the creation of oceans.

The ending is an apotheosis, as several of the main characters and their offspring gather on a beach around one of those new oceans. “On Mars, on Mars, on Mars, on Mars, on Mars.” The last words of the last book.

Robinson plainly did not know of the discovery of water there. His method of introducing moisture into the ecosystem is to bombard it with comets, which are in essence icy snowballs. Oxygen is gradually introduced by self-replicating machines, heat by orbiting reflective shields. None of the science is intrinsically impossible – no time or faster than light travel.

Clearly something of an obsessive, he returned to the project with a volume of linked stories, The Martians, showing alternative endings for characters and storylines and other events. One is set much later, when the terraforming is starting to fail, the oceans are freezing and the temperature dropping. His Martians seem unconcerned; they will survive somehow.

It’s a beautiful set of books, and it has taught me at least two new words, worth tucking away. Krummholz, literally twisted wood, is the top layer of sparse vegetation seen as you climb a mountain to beyond the habitable zone.

A pingo is not a cute Swiss penguin, but a structure formed by the freezing of saturated rock, so expanding it and pushing it above the surrounding terrain.

I feel better for knowing that. And pingo is a killer Scrabble word.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars.

On Mars, And Conspiracy Theories

“On Mars, on Mars, on Mars, on Mars, on Mars.” Last lines of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Blue Mars, last book in his Martian trilogy.

I have wondered before what it is about space travel that is so conducive to wild conspiracy theories.

The latest, from the Mail’s online site, has NASA sending real live astronauts to Mars along with the Viking lander in 1979.

A woman called Jackie, who claims to be a former NASA employee, rang a radio station to say she was watching a live feed from Viking. She saw the Viking rover moving around, as well as two men in unfamiliar space suits on the Martian surface. As, she said, did six of her colleagues.

This story, although oddly enough not immediately corroborated by NASA, is all over the Internet conspiracy sites, which contain the belief that there was, or is, a secret space programme.

There are a couple of problems with it, raised some way down the Mail online story. One, Viking did not have wheels, unlike more recent Martian probes. It could not run around, then. Second, there was no live telemetry feed.

 Still, it allowed the Mail to field another recent theory about the Red Planet. A man described as a physicist believes there was once an advanced civilisation on Mars, but it was destroyed by another race of aliens in a nuclear bombardment from space. This is why Mars is red. (Actually it has to do with the presence of iron on the surface which has rusted.)

It’s always space, isn’t it?