No Martians in the Martian

One noteworthy feature of The Martian is the absence of any, well, actual Martians. In many science fiction works set on Mars, most notably Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, the presence of an intelligent native species is a key plot element. And thanks to the work of Percival Lowell, whom I wrote about in yesterday's blog post, many credulous people believed that Mars was inhabited. And given that contact between different human cultures has often resulted in war, there was little reason to believe contact with Martians would be any different. Cultural works reflect the anxieties of their times. In H. G. Wells' index1898 novel The War of the Worlds, Earth is invaded by hostile Martians.  In the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs (yes, the creator of Tarzan), a Virginian named John Carter finds himself transported to Mars and must fight to survive in a strange, violent society. In Olaf Stapledon's 1930 novel First and Last Man, Earth is invaded in the far future by Martians who want our water and air. Anxiety about hostile extra-terrestrials was heightened by the 1947 Roswell Incident, when an Air Force cover-up of the crash of top-secret aerial surveillance equipment led many to believe the Marvin_the_MartianU.S. military was hiding a crashed alien spaceship. Societal anxieties often find an outlet in humor: the  year after Roswell, audiences of Warner Brothers cartoons met Marvin the Martian, a rather ridiculous creature who's always trying to destroy Earth because it obstructs his view of Venus (he's always stopped by Bugs Bunny). Throughout the 1950s and 60s various people claimed to have seen unidentifiable aerial objects, fueling speculation that aliens were visiting Earth. The U.S. being what it is, it was almost inevitable that a TV network would make a sitcom about this.  The result was My my-favorite-martianFavorite Martian, a TV series that ran from 1963-1966 in which a young Los Angeles journalist takes a stranded Martian anthropologist into his home, passing him off as his uncle. So, given this long history of belief/anxiety/worry about Martians, why isn't there a Martian in the The Martian? Bottom line: we know too much about the red planet now. Observational craft have been orbiting Mars since the 1960s. The first exploratory unmanned spacecraft landed on the planet in 1975. All of the planet's surface is mapped. We know what's there, and it doesn't include intelligent life. If The Martian had been written sixty years ago, a novelist could say anything about the planet and it could be credible. Not now. We still have our alien fantasies, but we have to keep moving their homes to farther-off places. That's why the aliens mentioned on The X-Files were supposedly from Zeta Reticuli. That's why ALF was from Melmac.

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