Kage Baker was, frankly, not especially interested in the space program when we were kids.
I was up before dawn to watch launches, all the way back to the Mercury days – camped out in front of the telly in my footie pajamas, clutching a cup of hot chocolate and staring rapt at the tiny B&W images of the launches. It fascinated me from the very get-go, and I watched everything that was broadcast. Everything was broadcast, back in my neolithic childhood.
Kage slept in, and read about it. She watched the reruns, as it were – she was as familiar as most people with the views of the Moon from the Apollo missions, of Earth from the Moon, of Earth from orbit. Somehow, it just didn’t seem to stir her emotionally: not the way schooners did, or the golden age of piracy. She listened politely when I raved and expostulated, but I couldn’t understand how space flight left her unmoved.
That turned out to be a mis-perception on my part. Kage was thinking about it all those years, and deciding where the best stories were … the stories about people, and ideals, and dreams. While she admired clever machinery, it didn’t inspire her unless she could tell a story from the viewpoint of the machine: which, of course, she ultimately figured out a way to accomplish, in the cyborg Operatives, and the AI Captain Morgan. Kage liked to be able to get inside her characters’ heads.
But space, simple of itself, wasn’t interesting. Kage couldn’t get a handle on the emptiness of space, unless she could find a way to make it – well, UN-empty. Writing about immense nothingness, she said, was work for French surrealists, not her. Cowboys in space, another classic approach, didn’t do much for her either – she hadn’t especially liked cowboys in cowboy-land, back in the 1950’s when they dominated television. Pirates in space had potential – Kage felt that pirates, rather like chocolate, could be added to anything – but her attempts at stories in that mode produced the ghastly space opera she ultimately gave to Lewis to write. The dreadful adventures of the intrepid space smuggler Marshawke sent us both into giggles, but weren’t otherwise very useful.
Then Kage discovered Mars.
Mind you, she’d been listening to all my preaching for decades. (She never forgot anything, even when she gave you the impression she was in a coma or another world.) Then, when we researched for her Company stories, and for Empress of Mars, she got intrigued with the oddities of the Tharsis Bulge. Then the rovers’ pictures began coming in, photos and films of the surface of another world; and supplied, as well, by two machines with totally heroic personalities … Kage was hooked.
The tendency of Mars to eat our exploratory vessels fascinated her. The failures of mathematics, navigation and Congressional funding were blackly amusing. The rise of Space X as a commercial venture intrigued her. And finally, she had her motivation.
Mars, said Kage, would never be successfully explored until the venture became profitable.
And so rose Mars I, inhabited by good ecology-minded communalists but funded by successful capitalists for the basest and most old-fashioned of motives. And in its time, so too rose Mars II, founded by people who really wanted to be successful capitalists but also wanted to just plain survive. Not the gleaming white scientific outposts so often portrayed, but real towns full of people. And cottage industries. And scrap heaps. And plumbing difficulties. And diverse varieties of bull shit. The frontier was alive.
And if space was the final frontier ( reasoned Kage) what did a frontier people need to survive? Food and shelter, sure; but no one would essay Mars without those in the first place. As soon as the walls went up, what people wanted were other things: sex, drugs and rock & roll, typically. For a given definition of all three, at least … a little fun. Fancy food. News from home. Beer.
Compelling dreams arise when people are desperate. They are nurtured when people get a little breathing space, a small success, a taste of freedom. When you can buy a new hat or get your teeth fixed. What Mars would eventually require, decided Kage, was small heroes.
It’s why she loved the rovers Spirit and Opportunity so much. They’re little guys, who have lasted much longer than expected, plugging away at their jobs in a workmanlike way. She was so glad they outlived her … she would be thrilled with Curiosity, now about to make its mark (in a safe, survivable way, we hope) on the surface of Mars.
And now, Dear Readers, I am off to try and connect the living room TV to my hard drive. The whole household wants to watch Curiosity land on Mars tomorrow night. It’s been a long trip but it’s nearly over! And Curiosity is gaining.