"Life on Mars." A few bits of organic matter, and some odd tubular shapes, in a meteorite were front page news last week. After a couple of days of discussion, ranging from the science involved to a summary of War of the Worlds, everyone put them aside and went on to the next thing, which in the US was the Republican convention, a made-for-television production with all the surprise value of boiling water for tea. Despite what a friend said, I don't think people are blase. It's not that nobody cares: itís that nobody is really surprised. It isn't just us science fiction fans whose reaction, after the first excitement, is likely to be "well, yes, I knew that already."

Most Americans grew up hearing about Martians: romantic Martians, menacing Martians, funny Martians. The Viking lander's reports that there was no evidence of Martian life were the surprise; Allan Hills 84001 is a confirmation of what most of us already believed, nice to have but not surprising. As Walt Willis pointed out when Sputnik first went up, everyone is a science fiction fan these days: it's not in the front of most people's minds, but life Somewhere Out There is almost a given.

For some of us, this meteorite is the difference between faith and knowledge--but for such minds, a few chemicals that the scientists working on them won't call more than "possible relic biogenic activity" are a thin reed. We were expecting aliens to land on the White House Lawn, or at least Mare Serenitatis; or we were expecting the SETI people to pick up alien radio programming, either entertainment or a calm recitation of the first thousand prime numbers; or at least, if it was going to be fossil life, we wanted Martian ruins or Jovian trilobites, not just bacteria. When NASA called a press conference to announce evidence of alien life, the proof was supposed to have come from a spaceship, not from wandering around the ice sheets of Antarctica. Under the excitement, there's disappointment; we've opened our birthday presents and found new pajamas. Very nice pajamas, to be sure, and in our favorite color, but we wanted a bicycle.

Is this all we get? Maybe not. Maybe Clinton meant it about going off to Mars and looking for more proof. I've been somewhat skeptical of the "space exploration at all costs" mentality in the past, in part because it seemed clear that everyone assumed someone else would be making the sacrifices--the money would come from foreign aid, or farm price subsidies, or some other program that the advocate didn't benefit from, and it's easy to spend other people's money--but it makes a difference, somehow, that we have a greater expectation of finding something real. It shouldn't: not only are billion-year-dead bacteria pure science, on the same level as exploring Io, something I'm glad to be doing but can't really argue that people should go hungry to pay for, but I'm not surprised that they're there. And if I'm not surprised, if the ubiquity of bacterial life on Earth makes Martian bacteria seem eminently likely, then the arguments for exploring Mars aren't really any different than they were a month ago. But I don't think I'm the only fan who finds herself thinking differently about exploring Mars as a result of this. Oh, I can argue that science calls for trying to confirm the results, and taking the risk of ruling them out instead, but other studies of the same meteorite, and the other 11 meteorites we think came from Mars, can do that. In fact, there's another paper due out this month from other people working on the same rock, but their results, based on the sulfur in the rock, are far less exciting. You can find them if you look around on the World Wide Web, and they will be published in a reputable journal, but they haven't been splashed all over the news. "There may not be life on Mars" isn't much of a headline, and most newspapers would rather not explain biochemistry to their readers.

Since I've remembered that I want us to go, either ambiguity or confirmation becomes an argument for more and better Mars missions. There are bacteria deep in the Earth's crust, possibly adding up to as much biomass as all the surface life that most of us think of as the biosphere: maybe Mars has its own buried biosphere, where the water still flows, and the rock protects it from the harsh ultraviolet radiation. It's a nice thought, almost enough to make up for knowing that there are no canals, no silicon- based but friendly alien civilizations, and that the famous moons of Mars are too small to show a disk from the planet's surface.

Copyright 1996 Vicki Rosenzweig

This essay is an excerpt from issue 6 of my personalzine Quipu, which was available for the science fictional usual: specifically, trade or editorial whim. I don't think I have any spare copies left, but all the contents are on this Web site.

Next article