In 1914, astronomer and naturalist William Pickering peered at Mars from a secluded observatory and devised a theory: the planet was a watery, living world. He believed Mars was covered in a network of canals and marshes, continually moistened by storms and squalls. As Sarah Stewart Johnson writes in The Sirens of Mars : as “terrestrial catastrophe loomed in the form of the impending World War, Pickering seemed to take refuge” in his Martian dream. I think of Pickering often, because I wrote a novel that is partly set on Mars—but the Mars we now know: a harsh landscape where no rover has yet found water or life. Still, as environmental catastrophes unfold around us, I can relate to Pickering's wish to find a wild and pristine refuge. This desire is shared by one of my characters, Amber, a recovering evangelical who is tortured by feelings of impotence when it comes to the climate crisis and longs to escape to an Eden. Like Elon Musk, who hopes to die on Mars (“just not on impact”), Amber wants to terraform the planet, using technology to transform Mars so that it teems with life. Never mind that we already live on a planet that teems with life, and that needs our resourcefulness and help. When it comes to Mars, we see what we want to see: Pickering believed it was a vast, untouched garden, while other scientists of his day believed it hosted an intelligent Martian civilization. And Mars currently lives in the minds of billionaires, men who exploit the Earth so profoundly that it seems they have become terrified of their own planet, and of us, their fellow earthlings. Space has become the rich man's most coveted refuge. * Right now I am living through the second heat dome of my life; during the first, I was nine months pregnant. The words heat dome make me think of the geodesic domes featured in every CGI “how we'll live on Mars” fantasy. Would they be as oppressive as the dome I currently find myself in? It strikes me that I wrote […]
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