John Carter McKnight
John Carter McKnight is a freelance writer and business development consultant. He is the author of a biweekly online column, "The Spacefaring Web," which addresses economic, political and technological aspects of space development. His work has appeared in Space Times: The Magazine of the American Astronautical Society, Space News, SpaceDaily.com, SpaceRef.com, Arizona Republic, East European Investments Magazine and Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, best known as the creator of Tarzan, wrote ten novels set on a fictional Mars known to its inhabitants as Barsoom. Published between 1912 and 1948, these popular stories provided seminal inspiration for generations of youngsters who would grow into scientists and science fiction writers, including the likes of Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan. Writing in 1971, Bradbury (Mars and the Mind of Man, p.17) went so far as to say that "I also admit the terrible fact that Edgar Rice Burroughs was in some ways my father.... thousands of wild-eyed boys have fallen in love with [him] and had their lives changed forever. He has probably changed more destinies than any other writer in American history." Yet within a few years of Bradbury’s writing, Barsoom had virtually disappeared from bookstore shelves and the popular imagination. Burroughs’ decline holds important lessons for the marketing of Mars, as entertainment, educational subject, governmental program or private initiative.
Burroughs was one of the great marketing geniuses of American popular culture. His was one of the first creator-owned multimedia empires; his corporation, Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc., has licensed Tarzan movies and merchandise (and recently licensed the Mars novels to Paramount) for some four generations of fans. His first sale, A Princess of Mars, in 1912, revealed his brilliance in synthesizing pop-culture memes. Percival Lowell was at the height of his outreach efforts and popularity: Martian canals and intelligent life were memes as universal then as Roswell and Area 51 were in The X-Files’ heyday. The ultra-hot pop culture genre was the Western; with "certain consistent, even programmatic elements: a hero who represented a synthesis of civilization and wildness; an affirmative finding with respect to progress; an emphasis on action; and a setting of epical import - usually vast, wild, open spaces." ("The Literary West," Thomas J. Lyon, in The Oxford History of the American West, p. 712) Burroughs had served in the Indian-fighting U.S. Army in the same landscape that was informing Lowell’s visions. Drawing on all these elements, he created a Western adventure set on a dying Mars. The Martian/Western was a huge hit, and an immensely sticky meme: to this day, much of the factual and fanciful speculation over the nature of Mars - and a human future there - struggles in the tar of the "Mars as Arizona" meme.
Why did Barsoom appeal for so long, only to fade in the mid-1970s? To some degree, science erased Lowell-based imagery: through the age of telescopic astronomy, the Lowell/Burroughs vision remained, if not entirely plausible, at least not disproven. Mariner and Viking were the death knoll for tales of canal-building Martians. But the cultural reasons for the stories’ decline are more significant.
Prior to the Mariner and Viking era, American popular culture had been largely unitary, both the cause and result of fairly crude, monolithic systems of meme-distribution. In Burroughs’ day, Henry Ford could give us cars in any color we wanted, so long as it was black. By 1970 Alvin Toffler looked at the birth of customization and niche marketing and saw a social revolution of fragmentation: Future Shock. The trend began with the rise of rock music and youth-oriented marketing in the later 1950s. The 1960s and early 1970s shattered American cultural uniformity in every respect, from politics to music to fashion.
One critical breakdown of consensus was over the meaning of Westward expansion mirrored and upheld by Burroughs. In the 1970s Native American writers and organizations began reaching a broad public with their side of the "conquest of the West" story; cowboys-and-Indians began to die off as a childhood game. Environmentalism and the direct experience of Western wilderness through the rise of backpacking challenged the construction-and-exploitation ethos that had urbanized the West. A generation of children born in the Western states knew nothing but city life; they lacked the experience of moving from the old East to someplace new and alien that enabled their parents to identify with the Western-frontier memes. The Western genre itself effectively died: in 1957 seven of the top ten television shows were Westerns; by 1977 the count was zero, and John Wayne was dead. Along with him died the living legend of the Wild West, the frontier. Shortly, though, Ralph Lauren (and arguably Ronald Reagan) would bring it back as nostalgia, a very different thing.
The death of the uncomplicated, pre-revisionist Western memes is as much of a sure thing as can be found in cultural studies - as any number of Hollywood executives who’ve speculated financially on a revival have learned. Yet space advocates in particular are given, sometimes fanatically so, to using them. This is readily explicable: the Western-frontier myth was at the height of its popularity from about 1957 to 1965 – the impressionable pre-adolescent years of the baby boomers (someone once remarked that the "golden age of science fiction" is twelve); the birth of the American space program, steeped in Westward-ho imagery; and, of course, President Kennedy’s "New Frontier." Given how few people ever entertain a new idea after age 25, it’s little surprise that some continue to sell a product - space as Manifest Destiny - that isn’t exactly flying off the shelves.
This is not to say that the Mars (or space) as West meme is dead; far from it. Rather, there are a plethora of such memes, constantly evolving and speciating to match the diversity of meanings the West holds for various groups. While some do still hold the old triumphalist views of Western expansion, many view the Western legacy through lenses of cultural and environmental revisionism. Historical preservation and environmental protection, limits to growth, the boomtown, gambling, entertainment and tourism – each of these is the foundation of its own Western image.
Post-Viking (and post-Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a contemporaneous revisionist bestseller), we lost the Mars of Apache warriors and Bureau of Reclamation waterworks but gained a sense of the planet that paralleled our social and environmental concerns (and prejudices) here on Earth. The modernized Mars/West analogy has informed numerous contemporary Mars novels, from the Navajo astronaut of Ben Bova’s Mars though Kim Stanley Robinson’s "Reds" to the Sonoran techno-dissenters of Paul McAuley’s The Meaning of Life. Astronomer/artist William K. Hartmann uses Mojave landscapes as backgrounds for his Mars exploration paintings and paints the Sonoran desert with skies out of Chesley Bonestell’s Mars. The Mars Society’s desert hab combines science with meme-nailing showmanship in a manner worthy of a Lowell. In the next column, I’ll look at some current Western imagery alongside new Mars fiction, to highlight how far the cultural center of gravity has shifted from the "shoot it, pave it and dam it" frontier.
What we have lost is not the meme but the mono-meme. The hope of creating a grand, unifying vision of a Martian New Frontier, complete with neo-Kennedy presidential commitment, can only shatter on the reality of American cultural balkanization and fractal marketing. It’s notable that even James Cameron, at least as great an entertainment-marketing titan as Burroughs, has yet to bring any of his Mars projects to fruition. While some cultural memes do become nearly universal, at least in capturing a sense of the times – The X-Files and Seinfeld in the 1990s, The Bonfire of the Vanities and Miami Vice in the 1980s, there is no clear post-9/11 zeitgeist and no one uncontroversial meme for Mars.
Rather than marking the impossibility of mobilizing cultural forces for Mars exploration, the death of the
unreconstructed frontier myth is instead a great opportunity for diversity of expression, in storytelling and in time on Mars. Burroughs’ Wild West Mars was supplanted in the postwar generation by Mars as Southern California: stultifying suburbia and Cold War industrialism. Bradbury, Philip K. Dick and others gave us Martian dystopias to match the real dystopia of the times. In reaction against social ills, the American monoculture of the 1950s was undone by dissent, allowing new forms of self-expression, new opportunities to seek out the like-minded of every persuasion, right and left, traditional and revolutionary. Likewise, the lack of a single universal meme supporting Mars exploration prevents the replication of that monoculture on Mars. The diversity of constituencies, rationales, goals and imaginings of Mars exploration should ensure similar diversity if and when we get to Mars. There will be no "Red Tarzana" – Mars will not be a government-sanitized image of suburban Houston, the way Low Earth Orbit was for forty years before Dennis Tito and, hopefully, Lance Bass.
For this, most all of us ought to be grateful. Especially the next generation’s children, who may reach that "golden age of science fiction" looking out from station, hab or rover onto the red world, dreaming of exploration and swashbuckling adventure, of genuinely being able to boldly go where no one has gone before. They’ll want tales of derring-do: Barsoom may just live again.
This column, along with the subsequent issue, Spirit of Mars, formed the basis for my presentation on the "Mars: Past, Present and Future" panel at ComicCon, the World Comic Book Convention, on Sunday, August 10. Hosted with great professionalism by the San Diego Mars Society, the panel (myself, space entrepreneur Jim Benson, science fiction authors Larry Niven and Kevin J. Anderson, and Dr. Michael Caplinger of Malin Space Science Systems) packed a standing-room only crowd into the only science-based presentation at the four-day event. Mars is alive and well in the popular imagination.
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