Science fiction writing about Mars is a ‘red mirror’ for today’s world

June 23, 2022

ASU English Course subject of an article published in Science and Education

Earthlings arrived in handfuls, then hundreds, then millions. They swept away the majestic and dying Martian civilization to build their homes, shopping malls and cities. Mars began as a place of boundless hopes and dreams, a planet to replace an Earth sinking into waste and war. It has become a canvas for humanity’s darkest follies and desires. Eventually, the Earthlings who had come to conquer the red-gold planet woke up to find themselves conquered by Mars. Lulled by its ancient enchantments, Earthlings have learned, at great expense, to defeat their own humanity.

– “The Martian Chronicles” by Ray Bradbury

Mars science fiction works are imaginary journeys in a word fantasy.

They are also a mirror held up to today’s world – a “red mirror”.

It’s the name of Arizona State University’s graduate-level online course taught alternately by Joe Lockard and Peter Goggin, both associate professors in ASU’s Department of English. The course – which invites students to “teleport from wherever you are” – is the subject of a recent article published by the professors in the journal Science & Education.

“A very significant literature has accumulated that uses Mars as a discursive center for issues that have preoccupied American culture,” the newspaper states. “A Mars literature course can set out to historicize and trace the imaginative development of a trope that reflects the changing nature of the United States. …Taking HG Wells’ “War of the Worlds” as its starting point, our course of Mars literature demonstrates how this planetary trope crossed the Atlantic, entered and merged with the American milieu, and now both symbolizes and challenges notions of progress.

Lockard and Goggin primarily use six works — “War of the Worlds,” “Princess of Mars,” “The Martian Chronicles,” “The Martian Time-Slip,” “Moving Mars,” and “Red Mars” — to discuss issues like colonialism, imperialism, anti-fascism, gender conflict, race and authoritarianism.

“We titled the course Red Mirror because we understood that Mars served as a mirror of Earth and terrestrial society,” Lockard said. “Mars has been a way to examine problems on Earth by building societies through fiction.”

The course, which has been taught since 2013, resonates with students, Goggin said, because the novels used in the classroom confront both historical and current global issues.

For example, Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Red Mars” trilogy, according to one review, “fundamentally challenges the apparent dichotomy between science and culture, the mere human body and a world of technological possibilities”.

Sound familiar?

“It wasn’t a science fiction lesson,” Goggin said. “We (ASU) already had science fiction classes. It’s kind of like, ‘Hey, this is happening. It happens in real time.

“So it’s both an interrogation, but also in some cases a celebration of misogyny, racism and colonialism, and things haven’t changed much in terms of certain attitudes. So it was very useful for our students’ learning in terms of critical analysis or critical thinking. »

We titled the course Red Mirror because we understood that Mars served as a mirror of Earth and terrestrial society.

— Associate Professor Joe Lockard

Lockard and Goggin believe that the use of fictional work encourages students to talk about sensitive issues.

“When they read Ray Bradbury, there’s this great story where all the black people decide to leave and go to Mars,” Lockard said. “The N-word is used by racist white people, and it gives students a chance to delve into that in a way they might not have felt comfortable doing if it was about a real novel about race. In some ways, this allows for perhaps less risky thinking.

Says Goggin: “I think there’s a nice synchronicity there that students start to appreciate when they start to make these kinds of connections, seeing the critical issues that literature is starting to illustrate for them as they think about real events from the real world.

Although they use works of fiction to teach their class, Goggin and Lockard have discovered one thing: they better get their facts straight.

“Sometimes you get students who know more about science fiction than you do,” Goggin said. “It’s kind of like a kind of comic-con. You have to be on the ball.

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