Otago Daily Times
After Mars, where to for our fantasies?
THROUGHOUT my life UFOs have touched down in the more rural states of the USA.
The UFOs have been always circular, always supported by a tripod, always with a hatch like the mouth on an octopus and always, but always, beaming up plump and credulous rural women, sucking their brains dry and then returning them bewildered to their life in Hicketyville Tennessee to sell their story to a supermarket tabloid. The beasts on board who organised the sucking were humanoid in shape with a big head, green skin and no genitals.
And their home was Mars. Always Mars.
Barren, reddish, moderately close to us in cosmic terms, awkwardly distant in human terms, Mars was the place where we deposited our fantasies for safekeeping, the fantasies of alien life forms that delighted and terrified us at once, that were both ogres of nightmare but also company of a sort in the limitless empty wastes of space. Mars was what we didn’t know. It was like the blank bits on the ancient maps where the monks wrote Here Be Dragons. In HereBeDragonsland lived all the products of our overactive minds, the embodiment of hope and fear.
Bit by bit, of course, explorers sailed to HereBeDragonsland and found no dragons at all. They found indeed that every bit of this little globe was subject to the same blind laws of physics and of evolutionary selection, though that of course didn’t make the land unappealing or not worth owning. Indeed the first thing every explorer did was to plant the flag and claim the newfound land for his mother country and to warn others off from trying to seize it. For we are a tribal and territorial species, a belligerent coloniser, like ants. Soon all of HereBeDragonsland was gone.
And now what happened to HereBeDragonsland is happening to space. It began with the moon. The first thing man did there was plant a flag, not a species flag but a tribal flag. And though the ownership of the moon is not decided yet, and won’t be till we start to mine for metals there, we’re on to Mars already, and the craft are queuing up. Three missions are due to go into Martian orbit in the next few weeks. One hopes they don’t crash into each other. One mission is American. The others are from newcomers to Mars, the first of whom is China.
When European explorers were colonising HereBeDragonsLand, the Chinese by and large sat back. They were content to remain within their own vast and ancient borders, confident that they were still the Middle Kingdom, the hub around which the world revolved. They were wrong.
In the 19th century the European colonisers did them over. Their great imperial nation imploded and suffered subjugation. China has not forgotten the humiliation and it does not intend to let it happen again. These days China is everywhere, the first of the new colonisers, in Asia, Africa, South America and space. This is the century of Chinese resurgence.
The other newcomer to Mars is the United Arab Emirates, a country born in 1971 and consisting of little more than the oil of Abu Dhabi, the commerce of Dubai and quite a lot of sand. What’s it doing in space? Same as all the others. Sniffing around for commercial opportunity; establishing itself as a global player; selfaggrandising.
This brings the number of entities that have reached Mars to six. You can guess the others: Russia, because it yearns for status and is always keen for a stoush; the European Union, because it remains rich and doesn’t want to become a museum; and India, because, like China, it is very big indeed, and because, like China, it suffered from European colonisation, and because, like China, it does not intend to suffer again.
It is of course no coincidence that of the six countries that have made it to Mars five have nuclear weapons. And the last, the UAE, would dearly like to.
Will they all behave in space? If one of them finds minerals on Mars will they share them for the benefit of all? If they all promise to be good and one of them misbehaves who’s going to be the policeman? If there’s distrust between the parties on Earth how can there be trust in the silence of space? Who will be the first to arm their space craft, purely in selfdefence, you understand, purely to keep the peace?
Meanwhile, as Mars is colonised and armed and remade in our image, where are we going to park our fantasies?