In this, the first in a six-part series, A Hero Is Born, we span a hundred years of science and science fiction finding the answers to questions like: What does an Italian astronomer and a rich, eccentric American from the turn of the previous century have to do with fantasy and space opera? How many times can an officer go to Mars before the public takes notice? Is there Life on Mars? What does any of this have to do with Star Wars?
“I’ve done a lot of reading for this picture. It’s not really research so much as mythology and fantasy are taking over my life. I read everything from John Carter of Mars to The Golden Bough, so obviously all of that influences you in a certain way. I’m trying to make a classic genre picture, a classic space opera – and there are certain concepts that have been developed by writers, primarily Edgar Rice Burroughs that are traditional, and you keep those traditional aspects about the project.” [Lucas, p16, 1]
Space opera was a derogatory term born in the 40s to describe the kind of filth-flarn-filth, escapist, planetary romances that were made to do for boys what soap operas were for girls – soap operas so-called because these radio romances were mainly sponsored by soap manufacturers. And space operas often shared many of the attributes associated with soap operas, being melodramatic, romantic (you know, in a strong, silent, warrior-type way), with impossibly complicated relationships and plot points, mostly episodic and most importantly, ‘to be continued’.
A complete literary genealogy of the science fiction genre up until Star Wars is somewhat beyond our scope, though it would be a quite interesting topic in its own right. But in the spirit of understanding how Star Wars sprang from something like Flash Gordon, it’s worth also taking a look at where Flash Gordon came from. And in doing so, see how some of those same mechanics of inspiration and iteration shape ideas and indeed whole genres over time.
Easily spotted on the night sky, our closest celestial neighbor has long enthralled mankind with its mystique and teeming promises of life. Up until the 1960s (and arguably until recent years even), it was still widely held that the planet held some sort of life, even if it was simply bacterial. But ‘some’ runs the gamut from long-dead bacteria to fully-fledged civilizations. The latter was an idea which had its start in the late 1800s, and which captured the public’s imagination in a grand way.
Looking at Mars in 1877 the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli saw the planet with more clarity than anyone before, and in drawing up a new map for it began its mythification by naming the dark and light areas he saw with names from classical literature, the Bible and countries of Earth. But more importantly, his map and observations described what he referred to as ‘canali’, an Italian word which can be translated to english as both channel and canal. Schiaparelli clearly meant ‘channel’, that is a natural occurrence, as he used the Italian word ‘fiume’ interchangeably, but it infamously got translated as ‘canal’. That is, an engineered structure.
Schiaparelli was far from the first person to take note of such features, but he would be the one who eventually spread the idea through his thorough mapping and careful descriptions of his observations. He also pushed the so-called ‘maritime’ idea that the dark areas of the planet were shallow seas, often pushing into the brighter land areas, flooding them. The more he observed the planet, the more he became convinced of these canals, noting how he found parallel lines crossing massive stretches on the planet’s surface, goes so far as to referring to it as ‘a world little different from our own’. It wasn’t long before his ideas were vindicated when the canali were accepted amongst astronomers in general, and reports of their existence became common case.
Owing to less than perfect instruments and some sort of mass auto-illusion, astronomers kept finding everything from the canals to snow-capped mountains from which the snow melted and flowed through the martian landscape. It was thought to be a planet replete with lakes and a rich, red flora.
In 1888, in the grips of Mars-Mania, observations of bright spots on Mars were reported by the media as signal flashes from the Martians! That the astronomers cautioned that the bright spots were probably simply mountains and craters mattered little. And lucky for us, as a certain author by the name of HG Wells ended up writing his novel War of the Worlds (1898) based on the idea that the flashes on Mars were the Martians launching rockets towards Earth.
In 1894 rich-man Percival Lowell took to astronomy like a fish to water, and it wasn’t long before he had built his own theory on top of Schiaparelli’s observations. Mars was a dying planet, and the artificial canals were leading water from the melting poles to so-called oases throughout the desert-ridden planet. It was a civilization’s last ditch attempt at survival.
Now, recall that this was a time when scientific discovery held a place in people’s imagination and every day life. It was the decade of Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell to name but a few. It was a time in which archaeologists were unearthing profound treasures from civilizations past, and battling paleontologists held the public’s attention in the dinosaur bone wars. It was a time ripe for big ideas, and Lowell’s spread like wildfire.
Despite being a complete newcomer, having spent only one month as an astronomer, he through pure personality and persuasive publications
put the scientific community on its ear, and the public at his beg and call. But, he was less than loved by his ‘fellow’ astronomers, who found his scientific discipline somewhat lacking.
Lowell’s theories were accepted and expounded upon by fellow astronomers as often as they were challenged, and by the time of his death in 1916, he still believed that his theory of sentient life on Mars was true, and that with every new observation of Mars it only grew stronger.
Only, there are no canals. The theories are completely wrong. Schiaparelli, Lowell and the contemporaries who sided with them had fallen victims to less than perfect equipment, tricks of the eye and mind and a wanting to believe.
Luckily what made for poor scientific observation, made for what was in the late 1800s called scientific fiction, or scientifiction.
For more information about the Martian canali, I highly recommend The Planet Mars: A History of Observation and Discovery by William Sheehan.
Jonathan W Rinzler. The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film. Ebury Press, 2007.