First on Mars

first on mars

I needed a Man Friday’ (29: 143)

      Rex Gordon’s First on Mars (1956), like Andy Weir’s The Martian, casts its main character away on Mars and has him think and fend for himself as Robinson Crusoe did on his island. Gordon’s castaway is well aware of how he resembles and differs from Crusoe, but it is in the different treatment of the equivalent of Friday that this novel springs its surprise. First On Mars1 is the narrative of Gordon Holder, last survivor of a British expedition that had planned to orbit round Mars; the rest of the crew perishes in an accident involving the rocket’s airlock. Holder crashlands on Mars and survives there in a Crusoe-like condition for15 years before being rescued by the first US expedition, which is in fact rather disgruntled to find itself preceded, especially given what Holder has to tell them of the indigenous inhabitants of the planet.

      Holder is clear about his relation to Robinson Crusoe. He uses it to argue out where he stands, as a modern man:

      That was the first time I ever consciously thought of Robinson Crusoe in relation to myself. I thought of that incident after he was wrecked on the island. He is in despair about his prospects but he makes a raft of some sort to get out to the wreck. A current gets him and threatens to carry him out to sea. Instantly the island, which he had hated, becomes the object of all his thoughts and strivings. If he can get back there, he thinks, what an escape it will be from immediate death.

      Me and Mars, just the same. Only I, born three hundred years later, could see it coming. The human race had had enough experience since then to give me foresight. […] In Crusoe’s day people did not know how skilled they were. […]

      You might say that I had been born with a spanner in one hand and a blueprint in the other. (4: 26)2

      First on Mars is a thoughtful, carefully exploratory text, its style varied only by a rather hasty narration of the later, and vital, incidents in Holder’s stay: but this shift in the narration has its own significance, as will be suggested below. The extrapolation and explanation probably isn’t perfectly accurate, even by what was known of Mars in 1957. Gordon needs there to be a little oxygen in the atmosphere (then we hear how Holder ingeniously makes more, and also distils water for himself); he needs some very skimpy vegetation which produces the fruit Holder survives on for a while. Finally he needs some living organisms (a kind of ‘insect’; a kind of mindless vegetarian hominid; and finally the aliens Holder meets), all of them elongated or gigantic because of Mars’s low gravity, but very slow because of its lack of oxygen. All this gives the place minimum furnishing for a Crusoe adventure, in contrast to the abundance that overflows such stories of confident domestication and colonization as The Swiss Family Robinson and, as regards its first part, The Mysterious Island.

      In going even this far, Gordon is probably departing step by step from his original emphasis on how utterly dead, flat and inhospitable Mars is, but he is also shearing away lots of the accretions that later stories have attached to Robinson Crusoe. We are back to numbering the castaway’s resources, reasoning how to use them, and working at this latter in a hands-on fashion: where The Martian also starts, though with more knowledge and more elaborate explanation for the reader. Holder has no general or abstract skills. He’s an engineer not a scientist; after he has been cast away and his survival is still in question, he wakes up one morning with a spanner in his hand (10: 57). So we return to practical reasoning and working for the first half of the story, but under a great deal more difficulty than Robinson Crusoe experienced. Holder has what is on his crash-landed ship, but almost all the water has drained away and there is little in the way of general supplies, such as Robinson salvaged in such abundance. Mainly he makes use of pumps and pipes and gears and wheels from the fittings of the rocket — he makes an elaborate kind of bicycle for instance.

      In all this there is a convergence between Robinson’s values and those of a great deal of SF of the so-called ‘Golden Age’. What is interesting is that Gordon proceeds to test and critique these values, and to do this explicitly against the model provided by Robinson Crusoe. Is it the glory of Man (sic) to be a reasoning maker and worker, an active improviser and explorer? It would seem so.3 This is the challenge and standard Holder sets himself in his moments of loneliness and despair, on a planet without or almost without water and air and food, and from which he cannot hope to depart. He succeeds pretty well; his reasonings are plausible, he makes water and supplements his air supply (the oxygen from the ship), he makes a vehicle and explores. He stays sane.

Then things start to unravel. This happens when he encounters true alienness. This alienness will enable Gordon to revise his Friday, as do Tournier and Fernández Cubas and Coetzee in very different generic settings, discussed in chapter 3 of Castaway Tales. Holder can understand the plants, the creatures like insects that feed on and presumably pollinate the plants; he sees this as minimal life, perhaps all that has survived or devolved from a richer variety in the extraordinarily harsh environment of Mars. The plants are skimpy and low-growing, the creatures are slow-moving. Soon afterwards there appear humanoids or what seem thus, tall two-legged creatures that feed off the fruit the plants produce, and appear in waves, evidently following the progress of the fruiting as the Martian season advances. But he discovers these creatures are quite mindless, like locusts –- he electrifies a fence so as to enclose his ship and the nearby plants4 in order to keep some fruit for himself, but the hominids walk blindly into it and expire, and keep mindlessly doing so. He is mistaken in his notion that they will have some primitive intelligence and avoid him after first contact with the fence.

      Next, he encounters a yet bigger creature, nocturnal, feeding off the hominids and therefore also following the seasonal migration, but intelligent; this creature communicates by means of lights. His first impression is of something horrifying (22: 115). These creatures don’t have anything like the same organic basis as humans or the other organisms Holder has encountered so far on Mars. They don’t appear to need anything other than what they get from their prey.

He is going to discover that their intelligence is alien but formidable, and their experience of life, completely authoritative for them, is a kind of refutation of his own activist exploring (chapter 35). This is the point of the original, British title, No Man Friday. It’s the twist that Gordon works in the castaway tale. The aliens don’t become Holder’s servants, he becomes theirs, or more accurately he becomes a kind of pet that they tolerate:

Far from making him my Man Friday in that desert world, it was he who was keeping me as a kind of pet. (33: 160)

He realises that their way of communicating expresses nuances of feeling and thinking beyond his capacity to understand. They don’t need him and don’t feel they can learn from him, except that what he tells them shapes their response to the Americans, when the Americans land and Holder acts as intermediary.

      There is a striking episode when Holder first encounters the aliens. Again the text is explicit:

I needed a Man Friday. I needed some one creature that knew the land and knew the ropes. I needed a Thing that I could train and use to supplement my strength, a body that could live freely in, or be independent of, that thin atmosphere and the cold. […]

And above all, I needed to prove the dominance of the human species. (29: 143-4)

He has had to leave his base and follow the season, or else he will starve; he has arrived at a series of ridges in the hitherto entirely flat landscape, and is in some trouble because his bicycle can’t climb. He meets a family of aliens and manages to communicate with the young ones by flashing his torch and getting a simple code going. At this point, however, there is a kind of trauma in the text: a rupture. The sequential narrative comes to a stop and with it the steady explanation of each problem Holder encounters and each solution he implements — maybe a bit obvious (as in that last quotation), but usefully clear. The narrative of his first exchange with the young aliens is the last of the sequence. From now on we get a split in the narrative: alternate chapters jumping forward to his encounter with the American expedition years later and then backwards to glimpses of his early relations with the aliens. He is no longer man the maker and no longer in control of his destiny.

      He had offered to prove his value to the aliens by erecting fences so as to channel the hominids and make them easier to catch. The aliens tolerated this but were indifferent. They didn’t need it. They don’t need technology. They see Holder and, from what he tells them, other humans as trapped in frantic and endless pursuit of the means, without any hope of reaching an end. He can only acknowledge that this is so, as if it were more a fate than an ideal of active exploring and knowing such as he put forward when his survival depended on it. He reaches a dead end; he lives with the aliens but has nothing to do, nothing to give them that they want. So the narrative stops (chapter 30 is the first flash forwards).

Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961), most notably among SF novels, makes its own critique of human science and reason, in the face of the powers and opacity of the planet-sized being that is Solaris, and while Solaris remains itself, powerful but without recurrences in its life activities (that is, regularities by which it might be understood by human scientists), the humans in the novel decline or become trapped in repetitions. Having reached the brink of this ocean of issues that Solaris will explore, First on Mars stops, signifying by its abandonment of careful consecutive explanation and narration that it knows it has reached its limits, and embedding this in its revision of Robinson Crusoe. Holder has become dependent on the superior life-form, whose superiority consists in its not needing to be a civilization, rather than the reverse happening as with Man Friday.

      His remaining mission is to try to explain this to his American rescuers, who are suspicious and unhappy. The aliens offer to let Holder go in exchange for a hostage; otherwise, they don’t want to deal with the visitors. The Americans refuse, and when Holder tries to return to the aliens, who never make themselves visible to the Americans, he and the Americans are simply stopped by some unknown force, mental or physical, which the aliens can exert. The humans leave; Holder and the Americans now share the almost impossible task of explaining their failure back on Earth. The narrative that is First on Mars is Holder’s attempt to set it down on paper (37: 184). All know that humans — if not the US, then the Russians — will try again and will want to conquer or annihilate the aliens if they are resisted. On this anti-imperialist note, the novel ends.

1 First on Mars is the title of the US publication (NY: Ace, 1957) — the novel was first published in Britain as No Man Friday in 1956, but as my references are to the US edition I discuss it under the US title.

2 First on Mars mainly gives us the ideological or philosophical connection with Robinson Crusoe; but the footprint does make an appearance:

I remember another picture of my famous precursor in the art of lonely living. He stands on the empty beach of his earthly island, looking downwards and wearing an expression of fear and disconcertment. And what causes his strained attitude, he who until that moment had had nothing to hope or fear, is a naked human footprint in the sand.

(15: 78 — Holder has ‘become aware that I was not alone’.) Shortly later (82) he discovers ‘the elongated impression, as of a giant’s shoe-sole’: the alien hominid.

3 Here Gordon seems to be giving a very different answer to what Edmund Cooper gives a few years later in Transit; but the last chapters of First on Mars will undermine this. In Transit (NY: Lancer Books, 1964) two men and two women, unhappy failures in their London lives, are teleported from Earth to an island on a distant, Earth-like planet, and marooned there. Wise aliens are subjecting them to a test. The test is whether they or a group of ‘golden people’ – athletic, brutal, powerful – are fitter to succeed the aliens, who are dying out. The Earth people win, because they are capable of mutual co-operation and indeed love, as well as kindness to an injured rival. They may be neurotic (quite explicitly so – lots of sexual problems) and at times violent (the men hit the women) but the golden people are psychotic and bullying, and in the end the Earth people stand for ‘civilization’, as their spokesman Richard says; they will build ‘not just comfort on a cosy little island for four. But some damn silly compulsive abstraction called civilization.’ (159) One of the castaways gives birth; the infant dies, but its burial symbolises a kind of bonding of the castaways with their new home; 140. It’s an unusual touch in castaway novels; in most castaway stories, there are no offspring, or the settlers multiply without there being this poignant bond with the land.

4 He does this on the model of ‘the shade that was… looking over my shoulder once again’ – Robinson’s stockade. (18: 90)