Sci-fi ecosystems- two trips to Mars

This is my third blog entry. I’ve finished my reading for the project and am now posting blog entries on all the remaining novels and short stories at once. In August, I will post a final summary entry comparing all the books I’ve read and bringing together my conclusions. This entry will focus on two very early works of sci-fi (one, in fact, is from 1912, before sci-fi as a genre had even properly emerged, and could probably be better described as an adventure thriller- however, it does take place on Mars and features alien life forms, and so is useful for this project). That novel is A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. With it, I will discuss several short stories by Stanley Weinbaum, published in the mid-1930’s, which are set on Mars and Venus.
A Princess of Mars features an Earthling who ends up on Mars (in a quite unrealistic way- a hallmark of a thriller rather than good science fiction) and comes into contact with several alien tribes and empires. While living amongst them, he discovers various multi-legged oviparous alien fauna, which subsist on the yellowish moss carpeting much of the Martian surface. There are two large herd-forming herbivores and several carnivores of various sizes. While their many legs, eyes, and facial structures are reminiscent of insects, the animals are clearly similar to Earthly analogues in behavior. Despite the detailed descriptions and the plausibility of the shapes of the animals, as a portrayal of an ecosystem the novel mostly fails. There is an extremely limited number of animal species (and no catastrophe or particularly harsh conditions to explain that) mostly feeding on only one plant species. Besides this, almost all the animals are very large- this is implausible. Finally, carnivores are apparently very common and running rampant over the countryside (from the number of times the people encounter them), despite there not being enough herbivores to sustain them. As an afterthought, although the Martians have had large canals throughout the planet for thousands of years, the ecosystem around them is identical to the surrounding countryside. This is also implausible. Making a realistic environment of Mars is clearly subordinated to other considerations in this novel (which is understandable given its age-ecological science had not yet developed by its publication).
The Weinbaum short stories have slightly more imaginative depictions of alien planets, possibly because their author had a scientific background. In the two Martian ones, “A Martian Odyssey” and “Valley of Dreams”, Mars is portrayed as a world where plant and animal never fully differentiated. Thus, all life forms are mobile, but have various plant-like features such as a root-appendage that can be placed in the ground to obtain nutrients during the night. They also reproduce by budding off from the parent like some plants (e.g., aspens) although they then detach from the parent as well. Some have nervous systems; others apparently lack them. Several species live in symbiotic relationships, and there is one known predator (an ambush hunter that lures prey by conjuring up visions for them-how it does this is unclear, and whether it can only attack certain intelligent species is even less clear). Additionally, there is a silicon-based creature which lives separately from the carbon-based life and builds little homes for itself out of its silica waste. It reproduces by releasing a gas enclosed in silica bubbles, which escapes and acts on nearby silicon in the soil to create a new silicon creature. Besides the use of silicon in all its chemical reactions instead of carbon, it seems to be similar in most fundamental respects to Earthly life and could be considered “alive”. Several other Weinbaum stories focus on Venus- “Parasite Planet”, for instance, depicts Venus as exploding with life because of the high heat and humidity (this was long before Venus’s true conditions were known) and having all of its life constantly feeding on other life-forms, even to the point of molds growing instantly on unprotected foliage or skin. In fact, living matter is so abundant “doughpots” (masses of undifferentiated cells rolling along the ground absorbing as food any life in their path) can thrive in the forests, and all the plant species catch and eat animals to supplement their diet. Both planets are shown as following the same general biological principles as Earth, with the difference being that by chance or adaptation, plants and animals are not fully separate. The ecosystems shown all contain large numbers of small prey species and plants, and are fairly realistic because of that. Weinbaum clearly considered carefully-thought-out alien life-forms one of his top priorities.

Comments

  1. William Adams says:

    Why am I not surprised that you used the word “oviparous”?