Monday, 22 April 2013

A Trip Around Mars - Kim Stanley Robinson in conversation

How do you get people into the landscapes of Mars by radio, rather than by rocket?    Kevin Fong and I faced the challenge in our BBC radio project, A Trip Around Mars.  We were lucky to secure a stellar cast of planetary scientists –  William Hartmann, Chris McKay, Steve Squyres et al. "We should interview Kim Stanley Robinson," said Kevin.  Stan is the author of Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars – collectively known as the Mars Trilogy.  The books were published in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The three novels tell an epic story of colonisation, terraforming and the making of a new global society.  More importantly for our programmes, KSR takes the reader just about everywhere on Mars with his descriptions of the planet’s myriad landscapes.  The Martian terrain is the narrative bedrock.

We interviewed Stan at his home in Davis, California in February and most of the interview didn’t make it into the broadcast BBC programmes.  So here’s more of it in three segments. 

This first clip covers Stan’s synchronous interest in the images of Mars from the Viking missions and his own exploration of the Sierra Nevada mountains.  It then moves to Mars’ greatest volcano Olympus Mons and the topographic giganticism of the Red Planet.

Olympus Mons

KSR elaborates on why he chose to set his story on Mars – an explanation encompassing the Viking missions, the Sierra Nevada, the Vietnam war, utopias and the end of the Cold war.   He’s happy to confine his exploration of Mars to the imagination.

A Martian landscape by William Hartmann

In the last audio clip, Kevin and Stan talk about how data from Martian orbiters influenced the writing of the novels.   We hear that KSR was led astray by miscalculations of the topography of the Hellas basin.  It's the largest impact crater in the southern hemisphere.  Stan filled it with a sea.  Kevin and Stan also discuss the relationship between scientists and science fiction writers.


As an aside, it's said that the lowest region of Hellas is deep enough for liquid water to be stable at the surface.  There's enough atmospheric pressure to prevent water boiling away as it would do elsewhere on Mars (except at the bottom of Eos Chasma in Vallis Marineris).  On the warnest days, it would be liquid, say Pascal Lee of the Mars Institute and Margarita Marinova of NASA Ames Research Centre.

Chasma Borealis in the Martian north polar ice cap

Kim Stanley Robinson's next novel is set on the Earth during the last ice age, 20,000 years ago.  It's called Shaman and is out in September 2013.

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