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Mars science fiction writing is a 'Red Mirror' to today's world

ASU English course subject of published paper in Science & Education

Mars planet
June 23, 2022

The Earthmen came by the handful, then the hundreds, then the millions. They swept aside the majestic, 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 became a canvas for mankind’s follies and darkest desires. Ultimately, the Earthmen who came to conquer the red-gold planet awoke to discover themselves conquered by Mars. Lulled by its ancient enchantments, the Earthmen learned, at terrible cost, to overcome their own humanity.

— "The Martian Chronicles" by Ray Bradbury

Science fiction works about Mars are imaginary journeys into a fantastical word.

They’re also a mirror held up to today’s world — a "Red Mirror."

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

“A very substantial literature has accumulated that employs Mars as a discursive center for issues that have preoccupied American culture,” the paper states. “A Mars literature course can undertake to historicize and trace the imaginative development of a trope that reflects the changing nature of the USA. … Taking as its starting point H.G. Wells’ 'War of the Worlds,' our Mars literature course demonstrates how this planetary trope crossed the Atlantic, entered and merged with the American milieu, and now both emblematizes and questions notions of progress.”

Lockard and Goggin use primarily 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 it was our understanding that Mars serves as a mirror of Earth and earthly society,” Lockard said. “Mars has been a way of examining problems on Earth by constructing societies via fiction.”

The course, which has been taught since 2013, resonates with students, Goggin said, because the novels used in the class confront both historic and current world problems.

For example, Kim Stanley Robinson’s "Red Mars" trilogy, according to one review, “fundamentally questions the apparent dichotomy between the sciences and culture, the merely human body and a world of technological possibility.”

Sound familiar?

“It wasn’t a science fiction course,” Goggin said. “We (ASU) already had courses on science fiction. This is kind of like, ‘Hey, this is actually happening. This is happening in real time.’

“So it’s both an interrogation, but then also in some cases, celebration of misogyny and racism and colonialism, and things have not changed significantly in terms of some attitudes. So that really was also useful for our students’ learning in terms of critical analysis or critical thinking.”

We titled the course Red Mirror because it was our understanding that Mars serves as a mirror of Earth and earthly society.

— Associate Professor Joe Lockard

Lockard and Goggin believe using fictional pieces of work emboldens students to speak up 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 the racist whites, and it gives students a chance to dig into that in ways perhaps they may not have felt comfortable doing if it was an actual novel about race. In some ways, it allows for a perhaps less risky reflection.”

Said Goggin: “I think there’s a nice synchronicity there that the students begin to appreciate as they start making those kinds of connections, seeing the critical issues that the literature begins to illustrate for them as they think about actual real-world events.”

Although they’re using works of fiction to teach their class, Goggin and Lockard have discovered one thing: They better have their facts straight.

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

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