Nathaniel Rich

Red Eden

When We All Move to Mars,
Will We Be Happier?

Discussed: Mars as Real Estate, The Panama Canal, The Boston Lowells, The Martian Proletariat, Loose-Fitting Bodysuits, Socialist Vegetation, Post–World War II Science Fiction, Disillusioned Earthmen, Voguish Postcolonialism, Futurist Shopping Malls, The Halliburton of the Space Industry, Planetary Redundancy, Galactic Mining, Jilted Ex-NASA Engineers, Billionaire Hobbyists, The Mars Society, Libertarian Fantasies, Bloody Noses, A Virgin Civilization

You can learn all you need to know about a culture by studying its attitudes regarding Mars. This has been true since at least 1877, when the notion of Mars as real estate became a matter of public speculation. That year, Giovanni Schiaparelli, a Milanese astronomer, observed that the surface of the red planet was crosshatched by a network of intersecting canali. Though canali denoted “channels”—likely caused by erosion or meteor showers—credulous Americani translated the word as “canals,” which was taken to mean giant public-works projects overseen by industrious Martians. This had deep significance in 1877, when canals had come to represent the pinnacle of human achievement. The surveying of the Panama Canal had just gotten under way, and the Suez Canal had been completed eight years earlier. These were proud accomplishments, but the Martians, it now appeared, were well ahead of us, having built a vast network that appeared to increase in size and complexity upon each subsequent observation. The canal race was on.

Over the next thirty years, an amateur astronomer named Percival Lowell, of the Boston Lowells, discovered nearly five hundred additional Martian canals. A 1906 issue of the New York Times Magazine ran a front-page feature about Lowell under the headline there is life on the planet mars. It began: “Legions of canals on Mars, forming a colossal and a widely planned system designed to irrigate the oases of the vast planet, are an unanswerable argument for the existence of conscious, intelligent life.” On January 1, 1910, as concrete was first being laid for the construction of the Panama locks, a front-page Times headline declared, MARS BUILDING NEW CANALS (“The Martians are making the dirt fly”). Eighteen months later, the paper published a follow-up dispatch: MARTIANS BUILD TWO IMMENSE CANALS IN TWO YEARS: VAST ENGINEERING WORKS ACCOMPLISHED IN AN INCREDIBLY SHORT TIME BY OUR PLANETARY NEIGHBORS—WONDERS OF THE SEPTEMBER SKY.

Here, at the peak of the industrial age, was the ultimate motivation to push harder, to reach new heights of production and innovation. An astronomy professor at Iowa’s Charles City College predicted that advanced telescopes would soon make it possible “to see cities on Mars, to detect navies in its harbors and the smoke of great manufacturing cities and towns.” The Martian canals measured one thousand miles long and twenty miles wide—“in comparison,” as one journalist pointed out, “the cañon of the Colorado River would be a secondary affair.” If the Martians could build two immense canals in two years, why should it take us half a century to plow such diminutive ditches as the Suez and the Panama? Buck up, earthlings!

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Nathaniel Rich is the author of The Mayor’s Tongue. His second novel is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He lives in New Orleans.

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