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Extraterrestrials Have Problems Too

Life on Mars by Donn Kushner, Childe Thursday, Toronto, 1998. 104 pp, ISBN 0-920459-45-5

The possibility of life on other planets is a subject that has interested me for many years, so I should make clear at the outset that anyone picking up this book expecting a treatise on astrobiology will be sadly disappointed. In a review of an earlier book by this author, “The Night Voyagers” (Peace Magazine May/June 1996) I described it as a work of magic realism. The present book goes away beyond magic realism deep into the realm of fantasy, with a strong seasoning of irony.

The Martian organisms imagined by the author seem to be a kind of humanoid lichen, deriving energy for their vital processes from the photosynthetic activity of symbiotic algae growing beneath a layer of transparent skin on their heads. They are intelligent, much smaller in stature than their terrestrial counterparts but morally superior, and endowed with sense organs of a kind quite unknown to earthly organisms.

Two years before the time of the story one small community of Martians had an exciting experience. Thanks to their specialized sense organs they had received two hours of a television transmission from Earth. This included part of a cowboy movie, a number of commercials, and a news broadcast dealing with the 1973 war between Israel and Egypt. In their gentle innocence they understood very little of what they were seeing. In particular the idea of fighting and killing was totally alien to them. Their leader, a mysterious omniscient figure whom none of them had ever seen, although they could hear his voice, provided a fanciful interpretation, and told them the names of the individuals involved. They soon took pleasure in reenacting the events as games, and applied the names to themselves. Two inseparable friends adopted the names of Shmuel and Abdullah; others adopted the names of Indian scouts, cowboys, and other fictional or real individuals. They gave to their mysterious leader the name Red-Spotted Serpent, after a wise Indian chief in the cowboy movie.

The story begins as another exciting event is occurring. The second Viking Lander has just set down near them and has aroused much interest and speculation. Red-Spotted Serpent has warned them not to reveal themselves to the lander’s camera and they have succeeded in doing so, otherwise the information transmitted back to earth would have been considerably more startling than it was.

As the story progresses we become aware that Martian life has not always been so idyllic. There are references to what are called the Catastrophes, the nature of which is gradually disclosed. At the same time the arrival of the Viking Lander and the likelihood of further human intervention raise fears for the future. The story ends with Red-Spotted Serpent (whose nature is eventually revealed) speculating on how he may guide his people through the difficult times that may lie ahead.

I have only one criticism. In the cowboy movie that the Martians saw the author reports that the cavalry advanced to the strains of “The Stars and Stripes Forever”. However Sousa did not compose this well-known march until 1897; surely what the Martians heard was “Garry Owen”.

This amiable parable should provide a pleasant diversion to readers seeking temporary escape from the often far from amiable reality of life on our own planet.

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