Having discovered such a thing as the Mars Society in San Diego and its Friday night events calendar, my column was clear. In a way. It will certainly sound odd to say that I have many associations with Mars, I suppose, but not terribly when you ask around certain guys my age -- and no few women. It is mostly a guy thing though, I suspect (or "a boy thing" as one editor phrased it). Having visited the society in Golden Hill at the Arts Union Building at 2323 Broadway, I can tell you a little about them, but I can't pretend to know much. At any rate it would be greater fun, if you're so inclined, to find out more on your own, and I will feel free to indulge in some of my associations with the red planet. My first memory of Mars involves me in the 1950s in a low-income veteran's housing development tract in Bensenville, Illinois. I am wearing a snowsuit, and I can still hear the swish, swish of the syntho-thermal fiber environmental E.V.A. suit as my thighs, rendered even more chubby by the suit, abrade against each other during my trek across the frozen colonial settlement in the meteor crater designated FUTURE SITE of PIGGLY WIGGLY FOODS. Banished from the family Modapt unit on the unpaved Grace Street, #411, as my mother was experiencing planetary orientation sickness that would continue through decades of exile among the Markons, I extended my tongue to an icy telephone pole to taste my new home and brought it away bloody. Through freezing tears, I attempted re-entry through the airlock and was turned away to face predatory hordes of invisible aliens. My survival that first day of planet fall is chronicled in the mission log by a drawing entitled "Me in marz."
As a boy I somehow missed the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the adventures of John Carter, though I would have surely loved them. At an early enough age I did discover H.G. Wells and War of the Worlds and about that time also encountered the bubble gum with the trading card series "Mars Attacks" (much later a movie by Tim Burton) with its depiction of Martians roasting herds of cattle with their heat rays; between them I was appropriately horrified. In a recent re-reading of the Wells, I was stunned at his ability to envision mass destruction on such a scale years before the First World War.
A movie called Marooned, in the late '60s or so, also left an indelible mark on not only myself, but, I discovered via Gerry William of the Mars Society this past Friday, more than a few real-life scientists, military men, and astronauts.
Later there was, of course, Robert A. Heinlein that great libertarian crank but also, like Kipling, a peerless storyteller for boys (and Tomboys, i.e. Podkayne of Mars). Later, when I came to California, I realized that science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, in novels like Martian Time Slip was not so much inventing a fictional Mars in his stories but describing a fairly naturalistic Los Angeles in the 1950s, not greatly different from my Bensenville.
Breathing figurative life into the Martian landscape is still very much the province of SF writers these days. Most notably we have former San Diegan Kim Stanley Robinson with his novels Red Mars, Blue Mars and Green Mars. These books are scientifically rigorous and literarily have nothing whatever to apologize for. Another San Diegan, physicist and fictioneer Gregory Benford regularly weighs in with work about Mars rich with hard science. There are several others in the field (Arthur C. Clarke, Ben Bova, etc.), but most real news about this neighbor and most Earth-like of planets is from NASA these days. We'll be getting stuff from Pluto soon, but the focus of the space program is likely to remain Mars oriented for a good time to come.
The Mars Society, by the way, has a functioning replica of the Mars Rover you may be allowed to play with. It is, I believe, the only one extant. The Friday night I chose to drop in was movie night, featuring Randy Quaid in 1990's Martians Go Home, a truly awful comedy (with moments) based on the short novel (from, I think, the 1950s) by Fredrick Brown. I remember the novel being funnier. The movie version has Earth invaded by green stand-up comics from the red planet, somehow summoned by Quaid who scores music for TV. While ripping off the five-note theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind for some science fiction TV show, the Martians arrive and batter the world with shtick. Truly a film to rival Queen of Outer Space.