Like Melville’s elusive white whale it tasks us — to come, to see, to explore, eventually to colonize as humankind’s first step towards an outward-bound migration to the stars.
No one understood this more, or more poetically, than Ray Bradbury, who died this year on June 5, and who is currently, I like to think, hitching a ride on the latest Mars rover, Curiosity, and will land with it on his beloved red planet on August 5. Ray was not a scientist. He was not even, really, a science fiction author. Ray was a romantic with a nineteenth-century imagination combined with twentieth-century anxieties. He was an artist of pure instinct who understood the call of a beck, the necessity of a task, and the blood-quickening need to answer an urge.
The mission of Curiosity to Mars, and all the other past Mars missions, might very well not have happened without Ray Bradbury. It would probably be difficult to find a space scientist, especially one concentrating on Mars, who was not inspired by Ray’s The Martian Chronicles, despite the fact that the novel contains not one concrete factual detail on the difficulties of get- ting to, landing, and living on Mars. The Mars that has been and will continue to be explored by these scientists bears little resemblance to the Mars that Ray wrote about in his stories of humankind’s disturbing annexing of the red planet. But what it does contain is a portrait, or maybe better said, the music of the urge to leave the relative comfort and safety of our home, our backyard even, to go out into the extremely inhospitable space beyond our atmosphere to explore — and it must be said, to exploit — its few equally inhospitable islands of matter that we can stand on.
The Homo genus first migrated out of its cradle continent of Africa around 1.8 million years ago, and repeated that migration often, especially after the near extinction of humanity 73,550 years ago when Mount Toba, a large volcano on Sumatra, erupted decimating most of our species, reducing it, back in Africa, to only four to ten thousand females of reproductive age. It would be nice to think that our species continued to move out of our cradle because of a hunger to see what was over the next hill, but that most likely wasn’t the case. It was a hunger that compelled them alright, but it was the more elemental hunger for food. They followed the herds out of Africa not only to eat them, but to let them find the water and vegetation to compliment the meal. There was no time to give in to what little curiosity they may have had. Many generations later, though, as the cradle continent gave way to the cradle of civilization, our curiosity, our need to know, grew, slowly — but not as slowly as one might think — and then exploded about five hundred years ago in an exponential expansion of knowledge that has left many dizzy.
And here we are now, only one hundred nine years after the first powered flight in an aircraft, landing a roving science laboratory on Mars.
The urge that led to this has, I believe, three components. Ray Bradbury instinctually understood two, and was a poet of the third.
The first is survival. This is why primitive humans did not stay home when the climate changed and the herds moved and vegetation became more lush elsewhere. To do so would have meant extinction. During the first migrations out of Africa the world population was in the low thousands. We are now a planet of over seven billion people facing the crises of climate change caused by our rapid technological growth, hoping we can deal with it if only knowledge can win out over ignorance. But even without climate change, the balance of population to resources is putting a negative pressure on all of us. Can the exploration of Mars and going back to the moon — even going beyond both — relieve that pressure? If so, not quickly, not easily, but eventually? The possibility of a positive answer compels us.
The second component has provided the name for the current rover: Curiosity. We have become a knowledge-seeking species, it is as ingrained in us genetically as the need for survival. To have the capacity to go to the stars and explore and to not do so, would be the greatest of sins — the denial of our nature.
The third component is either more primitive than the other two, or more advanced. I’m not quite sure which, which may be why it is best expressed through art, and why Ray was so effective at expressing it. It is a purely instinctual urge not to be confined, that feeling some of us have when we look up at a night sky — especially away from city lights — and see the Milky Way, of which we are a part, and ask, “Why?” Why must we be confined to this thin slice of atmosphere, why must we be but a smudge of life on only this one small planet, when the whole of our solar system, possibly the Milky Way, maybe the universe, is out there for us if we but only....
In The Martian Chronicles and many other stories Ray, still hot from the fever he caught from Edgar Rice Burroughs, created a romantic Mars of golden-eyed natives, wondrous ancient cities, expansive landscapes, and a very utilitarian canal system. But knowing the history of humankind’s past explorations and exploitations of new territories and their peoples, he did not romanticize the humans who might be going to Mars and the range of their motives from the best to the worst. There is a certain dark cynicism throughout the book accompanying the idealism of Man ascending. But this ninteenth-century romantic with twentieth-century anxieties knew that it is not whether we could or should go to Mars and beyond, but that we must, as surely as we must breathe and eat and quest for knowledge and feel the injustice of planet-bound confinement. And despite that some of our motives are less than pure, that we may, most likely will, make mistakes along the way, that we might take some of the worst of us into space, none of that should deter us from the opportunity to take the best.
As Ray said to Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci when she asked him ”So why go?” for her 1967 book, If the Sun Dies:
“Don’t let us forget this: that the Earth can die, explode, the Sun can go out, will go out. And if the Sun dies, if the Earth dies, if our race dies, then so will everything die that we have done up to that moment. Homer will die, Michelangelo will die, Galileo, Leonardo, Shakespeare, Einstein will die, all those will die who now are not dead because we are alive, we are thinking of them, we are carrying them with us. And then every single thing, every memory, will hurtle down into the void with us.
“So let us save them, let us save ourselves. Let us prepare ourselves to escape, to continue life and rebuild our cities on other planets: we shall not long be of this Earth!”
Nowhere in The Martian Chronicles are these thoughts as precisely expressed, for in fiction Ray’s art was the art of the metaphor. In reality Mars is just a sun-orbiting rock. But Ray knew that Mars, in the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, had been romanticized into much more than that. Because it was our fellow sun-orbiting rock that was most like us, because it seemed to harbor life, or at least the remnants of life, because it represented both danger and opportunity, the two grand aspects of adventure that stir human blood, Mars was the perfect metaphor for the human urge to migrate off our orbiting rock. Whether to survive, gain knowledge, or just because we see no reason to be confined to here when there is so much “there” there, Mars has become the material manifestation of this instinctual urge.
That is why, at the end of The Martian Chronicles, when a family of survivors of the destruction of Earth land on Mars, and a child pleads with his father to show him a Martian, the father directs him to look at their reflection in the waters of a canal. For they, the seeds of human expansion beyond our world, were now the Martians.
In 2010 in a ceremony before the Los Angeles City Council, which had just proclaimed August 22 through 28 Ray Bradbury Week in Los Angeles, the poet in Ray said to the assembled council members and a packed council chamber, “How strange it must be for you to see before you this Martian.”
No, Ray, not strange. Inspirational.
The above essay appears in Searching for Ray Bradbury, a book of eight essays about Bradbury written between 2009 and 2012 by his colleague and friend, Steven Paul Leiva, which was published in April of this year. The essay was originally written for KCET.org and published on July 31, 2012 on their Social Focus Blog