Thursday, May 5, 2011

Imagination, or How Different Can They Be?

This past week in reading has been difficult. Almost no progress has been made in the book I don't like, but in other areas I've been moving along quite nicely.

Last Monday I finished A Princess of Mars by Edgar R. Burroughs which was a free ebook on Suvudu. In finishing A Princess of Mars (and even upon starting it), I realized I had read it before and never noted it. I can't remember for the life of me when or where I read it. Maybe in college? I did take a science fiction course in my last semester. There was also the Arthurian literature course I took in undergrad, but I don't think we read it in that class. Anyway, what struck me as funny was that I had been looking forward to starting over in C.S. Lewis's final novel in his space trilogy, That Hideous Strength. And the reason for this? I remembered the opening scene from A Princess of Mars and got them confused. So it's nice to have that put right again, and now that I've read it over again I realized why I was looking forward to reading it again - it was such a different take on what may exist on Mars.

I've read Bradbury's Martian Chronicles a couple of times and that book helped form the basis of my Mars-novel expectations. In his stories, he talks about how desolate Mars is, how most of the Martians have died off and how humanity helped to kill them. One particular story stands out in my memory: it's not about Martians at all, but rather about what happens on the planet once they're gone and once humans have deserted the place. It's just a planet, it's a lonely miserable place that boasts both relics of Martians and of humans. There is one man left on Mars. After eating food in shops and at first paying for it, then wandering around and realizing everyone's gone, he starts dialing the phone to random numbers. Someone picks up on the other end, and he asks where she is and she asks where he is, and they get cut off. So they each start to travel to the other's location, and they miss each other. In the end, he never meets this woman. It leaves you with a melancholy feeling after reading, because the Martians weren't as strong as we would suppose them to be, and the humans couldn't even triumph on Mars. They went back home to Earth and nothing was left on the planet except perhaps a couple of Martians who had fled to the mountains.

A Princess of Mars was so much different! John Carter travels somehow to Mars and encounters two different races of "people." They call the planet Barsoom and refer to themselves as Barsoomians, but identify themselves by their race. Each of the races has two factions that war against each other, and then they all war against everyone else. John Carter teaches the two races how to work together in order to keep the planet living. After many years of living with his princess-wife and the people of Mars, their atmosphere machine fails and they are preparing to die. However, John can help fix it and his last act is to open the door for the man who is to go in and fix the machine. When he wakes up back on Earth we realize that we don't know what happened on Mars.

The two takes on Mars are very different: one presents a destroyed planet and one presents a thriving planet full of creatures and people and life in general. Which one is right? At present it looks like there aren't any people on Mars and that we won't experience anything remotely similar to what these writers imagine. But in the end, it's the imagination that makes it all real to me. The red planet in the sky, millions of miles away, with no life left on it, is not my reality. Is it strange to prefer the fantasy to the reality? When you are book-minded, I don't think so.

In other reading, I have also finished Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb, and His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik, both of which were very good (and now I must get the rest of the series for both). I have now started a re-read of Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, and I'm still working on the damned City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer, which I am determined to finish even if it kills me!

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