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#1 2002-08-19 09:29:49

Bill White
Member
Registered: 2001-09-09
Posts: 2,114

Re: Mars as Arizona - Excerpts from an essay

The following are quotes from John Carter McKnight, who gave a presentation on August 10th at a SanDiego comic book convention - with the help of the San Diego chapter of the Mars Society.

IMHO, this is great stuff - see it all at www.spacedaily.com:

The Martian/Western was a huge hit, and an immensely sticky meme: to this day, much of the factual and fanciful speculation over the nature of Mars - and a human future there - struggles in the tar of the "Mars as Arizona" meme.


The tar of "Mars as Arizona!" - LOL! - and exactly right, IMHO.

Why did Barsoom appeal for so long, only to fade in the mid-1970s? To some degree, science erased Lowell-based imagery: through the age of telescopic astronomy, the Lowell/Burroughs vision remained, if not entirely plausible, at least not disproven. Mariner and Viking were the death knoll for tales of canal-building Martians. But the cultural reasons for the stories' decline are more significant.

Prior to the Mariner and Viking era, American popular culture had been largely unitary, both the cause and result of fairly crude, monolithic systems of meme-distribution. In Burroughs' day, Henry Ford could give us cars in any color we wanted, so long as it was black. By 1970 Alvin Toffler looked at the birth of customization and niche marketing and saw a social revolution of fragmentation: Future Shock. The trend began with the rise of rock music and youth-oriented marketing in the later 1950s. The 1960s and early 1970s shattered American cultural uniformity in every respect, from politics to music to fashion.

One critical breakdown of consensus was over the meaning of Westward expansion mirrored and upheld by Burroughs. In the 1970s Native American writers and organizations began reaching a broad public with their side of the "conquest of the West" story; cowboys-and-Indians began to die off as a childhood game. Environmentalism and the direct experience of Western wilderness through the rise of backpacking challenged the construction-and-exploitation ethos that had urbanized the West. A generation of children born in the Western states knew nothing but city life; they lacked the experience of moving from the old East to someplace new and alien that enabled their parents to identify with the Western-frontier memes. The Western genre itself effectively died: in 1957 seven of the top ten television shows were Westerns; by 1977 the count was zero, and John Wayne was dead. Along with him died the living legend of the Wild West, the frontier. Shortly, though, Ralph Lauren (and arguably Ronald Reagan) would bring it back as nostalgia, a very different thing.


Why are space advocates a "voice in the wilderness?"

The death of the uncomplicated, pre-revisionist Western memes is as much of a sure thing as can be found in cultural studies - as any number of Hollywood executives who've speculated financially on a revival have learned. Yet space advocates in particular are given, sometimes fanatically so, to using them. This is readily explicable: the Western-frontier myth was at the height of its popularity from about 1957 to 1965 - the impressionable pre-adolescent years of the baby boomers (someone once remarked that the "golden age of science fiction" is twelve); the birth of the American space program, steeped in Westward-ho imagery; and, of course, President Kennedy's "New Frontier." Given how few people ever entertain a new idea after age 25, it's little surprise that some continue to sell a product - space as Manifest Destiny - that isn't exactly flying off the shelves.


Manifest destiny? - Can you spell Robert Zubrin?

This is not to say that the Mars (or space) as West meme is dead; far from it. Rather, there are a plethora of such memes, constantly evolving and speciating to match the diversity of meanings the West holds for various groups. While some do still hold the old triumphalist views of Western expansion, many view the Western legacy through lenses of cultural and environmental revisionism. Historical preservation and environmental protection, limits to growth, the boomtown, gambling, entertainment and tourism - each of these is the foundation of its own Western image.


Mars fiction has become progress / technology versus more humane, anti-capitalist, green themes. Ayn Rand -vs- the Sierra Club.


Post-Viking (and post-Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a contemporaneous revisionist bestseller), we lost the Mars of Apache warriors and Bureau of Reclamation waterworks but gained a sense of the planet that paralleled our social and environmental concerns (and prejudices) here on Earth. The modernized Mars/West analogy has informed numerous contemporary Mars novels, from the Navajo astronaut of Ben Bova's Mars though Kim Stanley Robinson's "Reds" to the Sonoran techno-dissenters of Paul McAuley's The Meaning of Life. Astronomer/artist William K. Hartmann uses Mojave landscapes as backgrounds for his Mars exploration paintings and paints the Sonoran desert with skies out of Chesley Bonestell's Mars. The Mars Society's desert hab combines science with meme-nailing showmanship in a manner worthy of a Lowell. In the next column, I'll look at some current Western imagery alongside new Mars fiction, to highlight how far the cultural center of gravity has shifted from the "shoot it, pave it and dam it" frontier.

What we have lost is not the meme but the mono-meme. The hope of creating a grand, unifying vision of a Martian New Frontier, complete with neo-Kennedy presidential commitment, can only shatter on the reality of American cultural balkanization and fractal marketing. It's notable that even James Cameron, at least as great an entertainment-marketing titan as Burroughs, has yet to bring any of his Mars projects to fruition. While some cultural memes do become nearly universal, at least in capturing a sense of the times - The X-Files and Seinfeld in the 1990s, The Bonfire of the Vanities and Miami Vice in the 1980s, there is no clear post-9/11 zeitgeist and no one uncontroversial meme for Mars.


Folks there is our mission - create a non-controversial reason for going to Mars. . .

smile

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#2 2002-08-19 10:26:48

Adrian
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From: London, United Kingdom
Registered: 2001-09-04
Posts: 642
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Re: Mars as Arizona - Excerpts from an essay

Non-controversial? Hardly - John Carter McKnight actually used to be Executive Director of the Mars Society, way back in 1998 when we had our the Founding Convention. After a few 'problems' (I'll leave it up to the interested reader to find out exactly what) he left after a while...


Editor of New Mars

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#3 2002-08-19 11:14:31

Bill White
Member
Registered: 2001-09-09
Posts: 2,114

Re: Mars as Arizona - Excerpts from an essay

Interesting, Adrian, very interesting. I did not know. That may explain how McKinght came to certain positions he now advocates, especially concerning the "Wild West" stuff.

But, even if Hamlet were accidentally typed by a monkey thrashing away at a keyboard - its still Hamlet.

Setting aside Mars Society history, isn't McKinght correct in asserting that space advocates have been pretty much unsuccessful in finding a story that enthuses a sufficiently large percentage of the public?

Anyway, as a fairly new convert to "space advocacy" - October 1998 to be precise - I have not been part of *any* of the political wranglings between various advocacy groups. Yet, my National Space Society mailings and my Planetary Society mailings do seem to trumpet the Devon Island project all without a single mention of Zubrin or the Mars Society.

The same with TransLife. . .

Sometimes it seems people are more interested to taking credit than getting the job done - or maybe its just my imagination, running away with me.

wink

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#4 2002-08-19 12:51:22

Adrian
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From: London, United Kingdom
Registered: 2001-09-04
Posts: 642
Website

Re: Mars as Arizona - Excerpts from an essay

Yes, there's far too much political wrangling going on behind the scenes with all space advocacy organizations - and all organization in general. However, I think it's a more disappointing feature with space considering the scientific, noble and somewhat utopian natures of the organizations...

I agree that McKnight's analogy is interesting, and valid in some ways - certainly as he says much of the older Mars SF exudes a Western frontier attitude. However, the analogy is only useful up to a point, and it's easy to make the mistake of thinking it applies to everything. The fact is, Mars is a frontier, it does have opportunities and many young people not exposed to the 'Western' memes still express a desire to travel and live there.

Personally, I like McKnight, he presented a paper for me at the Second Mars Society convention and I think he has a good - if sometimes contentious - habit of asking difficult questions.


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#5 2002-08-19 18:07:49

Phobos
Member
Registered: 2002-01-02
Posts: 1,103

Re: Mars as Arizona - Excerpts from an essay

Being one that has spent some time driving the I-10 freeway between LA and Phoenix and occassionally side excursions through the Mojave Desert, I can readily attest that Arizona and other desert areas probably look a lot like what Mars would if you only painted the hills red.  Anyone ever been to Red Rock Canyon national park?  Great place to go camping in the desert.  It's a like having a little bit of Mars on Earth. smile  Anyways, I'll try to be more on topic next time.


To achieve the impossible you must attempt the absurd

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#6 2002-08-20 06:29:05

Adrian
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From: London, United Kingdom
Registered: 2001-09-04
Posts: 642
Website

Re: Mars as Arizona - Excerpts from an essay

Thank you for that interesting anecdote Phobos  smile

You might be interested in reading the review of Mapping Mars on the main site - apparently the book covers the whole Mars = Wild West theme. It isn't out in America yet, but I think it's being released next month. Sounds well worth buying (I haven't read it yet myself, mind).


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#7 2002-08-20 21:42:02

Phobos
Member
Registered: 2002-01-02
Posts: 1,103

Re: Mars as Arizona - Excerpts from an essay

Can't wait to get my hands on it.  I'm a big fan of frontier theories not to mention that I'm something of an Old West history and Mars buff so it should be interesting seeing all of those things mixed together. smile


To achieve the impossible you must attempt the absurd

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