This morning on my way to the car I stopped to look up at the sky, because I stop to look up at the sky on a regular basis and if I didn’t stop I’d probably trip over something and end up looking at the ground and maybe some sharp object would pierce my eye and then I’d be looking at everything with no depth perception. The bright side of that—since I can find a bright side to everything—is that it wouldn’t affect my stargazing. Celestial objects are so distant they all look like they’re on a flat field. Anyway I noticed a bright red object directly overhead and thought it might be a star but, after checking, found it’s actually Mars, hanging out with the Moon in the constellation Gemini.
I’ve always thought Mars has an unfairly bad reputation because of its association with the Greek and Roman gods of war and science fiction’s long history of imagining hostile invaders from Mars. Historically we’ve fired more objects at Mars than it’s sent our way, although as a result we’ve learned that Mars is cold and barren but still holds the promise of life—it’s just like Toledo.
What we see when we look to the skies says a lot about what we see in ourselves, and seeing Mars as hostile and a harbinger of war doesn’t say much for us. Then again the more we’ve learned about Mars the more it’s captured our imaginations in a very different way: it’s the first planet other than our own that we may be able to reach and explore, and a potential stepping stone into the universe beyond.
And on the third hand it occurs to me that when I look up at the skies one of the things I see is incomprehensible distances and vast emptiness, which doesn’t say much for what’s going on in my own head so sometimes I need to keep my eyes on the ground. Anyway there’s a pretty long history of humans seeing Mars as a welcoming place as well. Here are the final lines of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles:
They reached the canal. It was long and straight and cool and wet and reflective in the night. ‘I’ve always wanted to see a Martian,’said Michael. ‘Where are they, Dad? You promised.’ ‘There they are,’ said Dad, and he shifted Michael on his shoulder and pointed straight down. The Martians were there. Timothy began to shiver. The Martians were there – in the canal – reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad. The Martians stared back at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water…