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You are standing in the Juventae Chasma, a box canyon cut deep into the red plains of Mars whose walls loom six kilometres above you, three times the height of the Grand Canyon. The sky is magnificently wide, a hazy stretch of violet and lavender. To the east is an ocean of sand whose divots and waves have formed the pattern of fish scales. Closer is a towering flat-topped mound of rock. Sunlight soaks it in gold. Other mounds protrude in the distance like tombstone teeth. But here, where you are standing, the dirt is hardpan, with soft blossoms of dust that unfurl before taking ages to settle. It isn’t like you thought it would be, not like the movies: even during the worst storm conditions, the wind here won’t knock you over. There’s barely any atmosphere. A squall that kicks up could take weeks to settle and while it could fry the electronics of the suit you’re wearing, you yourself would barely feel it. 

This beguiling ‘underland’—a place of deep time, of katabasis, those mythical descents into the land of the dead—is the setting of my novel-in-draft, The Floating City, which imagines a citizen’s assembly gathered on Mars in 2067 for a once-in-a-generation debate on the possibilities for colonisation. The colonisation of Mars is hardly a ground-breaking theme in science fiction. Authors such as Ray Bradbury and Kim Stanley Robinson have been imagining such possibilities for decades and, indeed, the most recent season of Apple TV’s brilliant For All Mankind has brought these conversations back to public consciousness.

What sets the world of my novel apart is that it depicts a future in which politics has become newly re-sensitized to the importance of place, to walking the land as an integral part of understanding it. What do you know? Where are you standing? ask the Observers whose work it is to guide this deliberation.

For a writer interested in the politics and philosophies explored in the novel, but with little knowledge of astrophysics or Martian geology, this presented a real challenge for my craft. I wanted to write a novel that could capture the essence of a landscape of which I had little sensory experience, a landscape whose fundamental physical properties were different from my own. What would it mean to walk on the surface of a planet whose gravity is 38% that of Earth? What would it be like to see the rise and fall of two moons? To spend weeks in a place where the solar day was forty minutes longer? How could walking such a landscape help you understand it?

Hard science fiction—that branch populated by writers such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Peter Watts and others—has never resonated with me with the strength of so-called soft science fiction writer such as Ursula K. LeGuin (or indeed much stranger, more fantastical writers such as Karin Tidbeck and Nina Allan). But this project seemed to ask from me a different approach than what I had done before. To honour the importance of place in the thematics of the novel, I could hardly handwave the setting. 

So what did I do? I chose a very specific place—the Juventae Chasma—and did as much research as I could so I could evoke it with the clarity, visceral impact and deep affection of a nature writer such as Robert Macfarlane who in his book The Wild Places called landscape a “medley of effects, a mingling of geology, memory, movement, life.” Such writing required both the skills of hard science fiction—understanding geology and physics so I could grasp the space, textures and sounds of the landscape—as well as those of soft science fiction—memory, history, philosophy, politics, culture and metaphor.

In 2023 I was privileged to work with two student researchers from The University of Queensland, Alexandra Trueman and Andrew Millar, who helped me survey scientific literature. Over the course of several months, we engaged in a deep dive process of exploring and documenting the Juventae Chasma from a writerly perspective. While this should seem straightforward, in fact, using researchers was anything but. It was difficult in many cases for me to frame exactly the questions I had and, without the clarity, it was just as difficult for my researchers to help me find what I needed. This is because, as author Tess Brady argues (1), writers when they research are like bowerbirds; they need the skill not to just find information, but more importantly to know the questions to ask so they are able to isolate the essence of what they need.

Yet the Juventae Chasma is a place which has never been seen directly by humans (though we have images) or, indeed, been described in a work of literature, which meant I had only opaque jargon as a starting place. How then to come to terms with its beauty? Its strangeness? How to understand its essence and how then to make that essence known and felt to readers? 

What I was really searching for were shibboleths. Shibboleths are technically any custom or tradition, usually a choice of phrasing or even a single word, that distinguishes one group of people from another. In this case, what I craved were the kinds of interesting, specialised or specific language that give a passage authenticity, depth, and texture but also have a sense of poetry. 

Shibboleths are beautiful things and finding them—finding or inventing the terminology for what you are describing—is difficult. For example, our research revealed that the Juventae Chasma is studded with what the geological literature calls ‘light-toned mounds’. The phrase would be leaden and awkward for general readers and indeed it took me several false starts to even understand what ‘light-toned’ meant contextually let alone what a Martian ‘mound’ might look like to a traveler used to Earth’s size and scale. But the objects themselves were important as anchoring points. But what language could I use to replace the term that both carried a sense of poetry and retained the accuracy of what I wanted to describe? Sulfate mountain? Kieserite mesa? Andrew suggested I use the term ‘sulfate monolith’. For me, ‘sulfate’ evoked a chain of meanings: a shocking yellow spray of colour, sulfur from the Old French for ‘brimstone and hellfire’, descended from the Latin ‘to burn’; monolith: a single stone the largest of which is Uluru, but also, of course, the black cuboids of Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey. This gave me a confluence of meanings and resonances. Its colour, heat, scale and texture but also the associations an alien rock formation might hold in the memories of those first seeing it. This kind of unique and resonant language is, in the words of scholar Tom Jones, ‘both attention-seeking and attention-rewarding’(2).  It hooks the imagination. It announces itself with its unfamiliarity and asks the reader to linger and to engage. 

Metaphor can also be a powerful tool in this respect. To say the surface of Mars is devoid of life may be accurate and yet on its own it may not evoke the strangeness of encountering a landscape so fundamentally different from our own.

Instead, envision a landscape stripped back the way a Renaissance anatomist might a human corpse, searching for clues, delving through skin, fat, and muscle to understand the shape of the cortical bone beneath. Start with signs of animal life: birds, mammals, fish. Erase them from your mind’s eye, no tracks, no darting movements, no flutter of wings or gleaming eyes. Next comes the flora, every tree, bush, flower, every streak of green, gone in an instant. 

Does the landscape feel bare and denuded? We aren’t finished yet. Evaporate the rivers and lakes and oceans, of course, but also the puddles, the rain, the fog, the sparkle of light hitting a damp stone. Now you are looking at the geometry of pure rock. It is barren and lovely in its own way but as uncanny as finding a skeleton on your doorstop.

Orson Scott Card famously said if you looked at the cover a book, “The difference between science fiction and fantasy…is simply this, science fiction has rivets, fantasy has trees.” This kind of thinking can leave us wrong-footed because it misunderstands the relationship between the focus of a genre and its aesthetics. It suggests that science fiction needs to be cold and stripped down, devoted to new technologies, and while I doubt very much that Card clung to this as his own definition, it speaks to prevalent perceptions. Crafting my own science fiction novel has been a profoundly transformative journey because it heightened my appreciation for the poetics of hard science fiction while also rekindling my recognition of the strangeness of the universe. We don’t need always need to reach for the fantastical to find the otherworldly.

  1. A Question of Genre: de-mystifying the exegesis. Brady, Tess. 2000 TEXT. (4) 1

  2. Poetic Language: Theory and Practice from the Renaissance to the Present. Jones, Tom.  2012 Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Feature image via NASA (Public Domain)