Scientists are closely watching America's robotic rover Spirit as it sends back data and pictures from its new landing site on Mars. Watching, too, are science fiction writers. They're looking for fresh story ideas, and wondering how new findings will compare to the imaginary worlds they've created in their fiction.
Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson cheered along with lots of other people when the U.S. space agency NASA landed its robotic rover on Mars. Now he says he's most interested in getting answers to the same question that's long haunted Mars-watchers.
"They landed on a dry lake bed with the idea that if when it was a lake there [were] bacteria alive on the bottom of the lake, it would have left fossil layers, which would be a sign that Mars at one time had life. And if at any time Mars had life there would be a strong possibility that it [is] still alive somewhere under ground near heat sources. So finding out something from Mars would give us that first data point where we could begin to get a better handle on how lonely we are in the universe."
The possibility of life on Mars has tantalized generations of storytellers, from H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to the makers of recent sci-fi action films like The Red Planet.
Kim Stanley Robinson has made an acclaimed contribution of his own to Mars lore, with a trilogy published during the 1990s. In his novels Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, he wrote about a twenty first century expedition to colonize the planet. He believes the Martian setting is bound to attract writers like himself.
"If you have a world next door to you which can be seen with the naked eye, but yet is empty and full of the Utopian possibilities of a new society and all that might follow from that - for a science fiction writer interested in these kinds of issues, it's just the perfect place," he said.
A century ago, points out Mr. Robinson, Mars was only an image in a telescope, leaving science fiction writers free to conjure up all kinds of colorful fantasies.
"That idea of six-armed people on these giant canals crisscrossing a dying planet [was] actually based on the best scientific information they had at that time," he said. "But when they discovered the atmosphere was one percent of earth's and entirely carbon dioxide, then clearly it was not a place where it could sustain the kind of life forms that H.G. Wells had populated the planet with."
Writers like Ray Bradbury responded to discouraging findings by imagining Mars as a place where the ghosts of alien life continued to haunt visitors from Earth. Then, beginning in the 1960s, a series of unmanned probes of Mars provided science fiction writers like Kim Stanley Robinson with a wealth of new information about the red planet.
"In my stories the planet has vast sources of water underground, which I think we are now establishing is indeed the case," said Mr. Robinson. "But also, in the Viking era it was pretty well agreed that the planet was dead and had never had life. And in that case you have a big rock with a lot of water on it fairly close to the sun, [so] you could terraform it - essentially import to Mars all the species and ecozones of earth and make a planet out of it that we could then inhabit. What's happened since I wrote my books is that the possibility that there already is life on Mars complicates that whole picture. The comforting thing to me is that my books will still stand. The possibility of terraforming will remain no matter what we find in these subsequent explorations."
Science fiction author Ben Bova has also been following the Mars landing, wondering how well findings will match what he imagined in his 1992 novel Mars, followed by Return to Mars.
"It's a planet that is more earthlike than any other world in the solar system," he said. "And yet it is very, very different from our world. It's a bone dry desert from pole to pole. It's very cold. And the big question of course is, is there life on Mars, or was there once life on Mars? And in my novel I took a novelist's prerogative and answered in the affirmative - microscopic life, very interesting but different forms of life exist on Mars. I think they once did."
And if life, or the possibility of life, does exist, what then? Both Ben Bova and Kim Stanley Robinson write about the competing interests and moral dilemmas created by the discovery of a new biological frontier in space. Kim Stanley Robinson believes that if bacteria are found on Mars, a spirited debate could follow over how it should be protected.
"There are people who argue, bacteria - we kill millions of them with our mouthwash, don't worry about it," he said. "There are other people saying, life on another planet is the biggest scientific discovery we will have ever made, if we make it, and we'd have to stay off Mars for a really long time until we were quite certain we knew what we were studying."
In Ben Bova's fiction, the competition between those who want to study Mars and those who want to exploit it for commercial purposes is a central theme. Mr. Bova believes organizing the first human expedition to Mars will be difficult.
"As I wrote in my novel Mars, you're going to need a driving spirit who cajoles the governments of earth into spending the money to send a human expedition to Mars," he said. "I foresee a time when we will explore Mars. But colonize in the sense of setting up homes and shopping malls? No. I've lived in Florida too long to want to see Mars done in in that way."
Ben Bova says he remains fascinated by Mars, and might do another story set there in the future. Kim Stanley Robinson believes he's done writing about the planet. He's currently working on a novel about global warming set in Washington, D.C. But he says the Mars landing raises an important issue for all science fiction writers these days.
"Once the whole world becomes like a science fiction novel - you wake up, and you see these things on TV and read about them in the newspaper - what does the actual science fiction novel have to say that's different from ordinary American reality?"
Kim Stanley Robinson believes the most intriguing science fiction novels of the future could be the ones that explore the way science - and science fiction - are beginning to merge.