Brian Aldiss

White Mars

As a break from all this debate, which I was not alone in finding exhausting, I did the morning rounds with Arnold Poulsen, the domes’ chief computer technician, after the day’s communal t’ai chi session.

Poulsen was one of the early arrivals on Mars. I regarded him with interest. He was of ectomorphic build, with a slight stoop. A flowing mop of pale yellowish hair was swept back from a high brow. Although his face was lined, he seemed neither young nor old. He spoke in a high tenor. His gestures were slow, rather vague; or perhaps they might be construed as thoughtful. I found myself impressed by him.

We walked among the machines. Poulsen casually checked readings here and there. These machines maintained atmospheric pressure within the domes, and monitored air content, signalling if CO2 or moisture levels climbed unacceptably high.

‘They are perfectly reliable, my computers. They perform miracles of analysis in microseconds which would otherwise take us years — possibly centuries,’ Poulsen said. ‘Yet they don’t know they’re on Mars!’ if you tell them — what then?’

He gave a high-pitched snort. ‘They would be about as emotionally moved as the sands of Mars . . . These machines can compute but not create. They have no imagination, Nor have we yet created a program for imagination,’ he added thoughtfully. ‘It is because of their lack of imagination that we are able completely to rely on them.’

They could arrive swiftly at the solution of any problem set for them, but had no notion what to do with the solution.

They never argued among themselves. They were perfectly happy, conforming to Aristotle’s ancient dictum, as quoted by May Porter, that happiness was activity in accordance with excellence — whereas I felt myself that morning to be baffled and cloudy.

Should I not have allowed myself to mourn in solitude the death of my beloved Antonia, rather than embark on the substitute activity of instigating a suitable Martian way of life?

Against one wall of the computer room stood three androids. The computers would activate them when necessary. They were sent out every morning to polish the surfaces of the photovoltaic plates on which we relied for electricity. They had completed their task for the morning to stand there like butlers, mindlessly awaiting fresh orders.

I remarked on them. to Poulsen. ‘Androids? A waste of energy and materials,’ he said. ‘We had to discover how to create a mechanical that could walk with reasonable grace on two legs — thus emulating one of mankind’s earliest achievements! — but once we’ve done it . . .’

Pausing, he stood confronting one of the figures. ‘You see, Tom, they give off no CPS, no CPS. Like the dead . . . Do you realise how greatly we humans depend on each other’s signals of life? It emanates from our basic consciousness. A sort of mental nutrition, you might say.’

I shook my head. ‘Sorry, Arnold, you’ve lost me. What is a CPS?’

Poulsen looked at me suspiciously, to see if I was joking. ‘Well, you give one off. So do I. CPS is Clear Physical Signal. We can now pick up CPSs on what we call a savvyometer. Try it on these androids: zilch!’

When I asked him what the androids were here for, he told me they had been intended to maintain the integrity of the airtight structures in which we lived. ‘But I will not trust them. In theory they’re on lease from EUPACUS. You see, Tom, they’re biotech androids, with integrated organic and inorganic components. I ordered BJA Mark XI — the Euripedes. The EUPACUS agent swindled us and sent these Euclids, Mark VIII, obsolete rubbish. I wouldn’t entrust our lives to a mindless thing, would you?’

The androids regarded us with their pleasant sexless faces.

Turning to one of the androids, Poulsen asked it, ‘Where are you, Bravo?’

The android replied without hesitation, ‘I am on the planet Mars, mean distance from the Sun, 1.523691 AUs.’

‘I see. And how do you feel about being on Mars as opposed to Earth?’

The android answered, ‘The mean distance of Mars from the Sun is 1.523691 AUs. Earth’s mean distance is 1 AU.’

‘Feel. I said feel. Do you think life’s dangerous on Mars?’

‘Dangerous things are life-threatening. Plagues, for instance. Or an earthquake. An earthquake can be very dangerous. There are no earthquakes on Mars. So Mars tacks danger.’

‘Sleep mode,’ Poulsen ordered, snapping his fingers. As we turned away, he said, ‘You see what I mean? These androids have halitosis instead of CPS. They create hydroxyls. I rate certain plants higher than these androids plants mop up airborne hydroxyl radicals and protect us from sick-building syndrome . . .’

When I asked which plants he recommended, Poulsen said that it was necessary to maintain a clean atmospheric environment. Ozone emissions from electronic systems mixed with the chemicals humans gave off to form what he called ‘sass’ — sick air soups. Mary Fangold’s hospital was handling too many cases of sore throats and irritated eyes for comfort. Selected plants were the things to swallow up the harmful sass.

‘What can we do to ease the problem?’ I asked.

Poulsen replied that he was getting suitable plants into the domes. A consciousness-raising exercise would he the rechristening of streets and alleys with plant names. K. S. Robinson Avenue could become Poinsettia, and K. Tsiolkovski Place Philodendron.

‘Come on,’ I said. ‘Who could pronounce Philodendron?’

We both chuckled.

Using my Ambient, I spoke to the YEA from Hobart, Kathi Skadmorr. Her manner was defensive. She looked straight at me and said, ‘I happened to be viewing Professor Hawkwood’s Living Without Knowing It.’

‘I’m sorry to have interrupted you. What do you make of his theory of the coming of consciousness?’

Without replying to my question, she said, ‘I love learning — particularly hard unquestionable science. Only it is difficult to know what is actually unquestionable. I have so much to take in.’

‘There are good technical vids about Mars. I can give you references.’

‘So where is the dateline on Mars? Has that been established?’

‘We have yet to place it. The question is not important yet.’

‘It will be, though. If God wills it.’

I gave a laugh. ‘God hasn’t got much to do with it.’

I thought I detected contempt in her voice when she replied, ‘I was speaking loosely. I suppose I meant some higher consciousness, which might well seem like a god to us, mightn’t it?

‘Okay, but what higher consciousness? Where? We have no proof of any such thing.’

‘Proof!’ she echoed contemptuously. ‘Of course you can’t feet it ii you close your mind to it. We’re awash here with electromagnetic radiation, but you don’t sense it. We’re also awash with each other’s CPS signals, isn’t that so? Maybe consciousness, a greater consciousness supposing that here on Mars — oh, forget it. Why are you logging me?’

The question somehow embarrassed me. I said, ’1 was interested in the way you spoke up in our debates. I wondered if I could help in any way?’

‘I know you have been of great help to Cang Hai. But thanks, Dr Jefferies, I must help myself, and stop myself being so ignorant.’

Before she switched off, a ghost of a sweet smile appeared on her face.

A mystery woman, I said to myself, feeling vexed. Mysterious and spikey.

At one time, a woman called Elsa Lamont, a slip of a person with dyed-blonde hair cut short, came to my office, accompanied by a sullen-looking man I recognised as Dick Harrison. I had marked him out as a possible troublemaker, although on this occasion he was civil enough.

Lamont came to the point immediately. She said that my talk of terrestrial discomforts had ignored consumerism. It was well known that consumerism was responsible for much greed and injustice. She had worked for a big advertising agency with world-wide affiliations, and had been responsible for a successful campaign to sell the public Sunlite Roofs, at one time very fashionable, though scarcely necessary.

She explained that their TV commercials had been aimed at everyone, although only 20 per cent of viewers could afford such a distinctive luxury item. However the remaining 50 per cent, knowing they could never afford such a roof, respected and envied the 20 per cent, while the 20 per cent understood this very well and felt their status increased by the clever commercial.

Behind Lamont lay a period of art training. She woke one morning realising she disliked the nature of her advertising job, which was to make people feel greedy or ashamed, so she left the agency and worked to become a YEA and visit anĀ ad-free world. Now she asked, would not people on Mars miss commercials, which had become almost an art form?

We talked this over. She argued that we needed commercials to dramatise the concept of unity. She had been trained as an orthogonist at art school, and using orthogonal projection she could create figures on the walkways that would appear to be erect — amusing figures, dancing, walking, holding hands.

At this point she introduced Dick Harrison, saying that he had studied art and would assist her.

It seemed to me that the idea had possibilities. If anyone volunteered to do anything, it was sensible to let them try. She was given Bova Boulevard to experiment on. Soon she and Harrison had covered the street with amusing Chirico-like figures, without faces, dancing, jumping, cheering. From a distance, they did seem to stand up from the horizontal.

It was clever. But no pedestrian could bring themselves to walk on the figures, which meant the boulevard was virtually closed. It was clever, but it was a failure.

However I liked Elsa Lamont’s energy and ideas, and later appointed her to be secretary of Adminex.

Dick Harrison’s future was less distinguished.

In the space we used for our debating hall, many people were already assembled, discussing, arguing or laughing among themselves.

The subject that arose from the chatter and had to be formally addressed was how we should govern ourselves. Beau Stephens, who had long been released from his pillar together with his associates, suggested that he should be in command. His argument was that he remained a EUPACUS official and, when EUPACUS returned in strength, he would have to hand over affairs in an orderly and accountable manner.

Amid boos, his bid was turned down.

An argument broke out. The YEA faction did much shouting. Finally the tall bearded Muslim with whom I had already spoken, Aktau Badawi, rose to speak. He was born in the holy city of Qom, as he reminded us. It seemed that already his English was improving. Later I found that he was taking lessons from a fellow Muslim, Youssef Choihosla.

Badawi said that shouting was never to be trusted. In the Muslim faith there was a saying: ‘Do not walk on the Earth in insolence’. By and large, the Muslim nations rejected the present way of getting to any other planet; he was here only because he had been elected as a DOP. But he would not walk on Mars in insolence. He was content to be governed, if he could be governed wisely, by people who did not shout. But, he asked, how could they be governed if there was no money? If there was no money, then no taxes could he raised. Hence there could be no government.

A thoughtful silence fell. This point had not been made before.

I said that we needed an ad hoc government. It need only rule for a transitional period, until our new way of life was established. It would quietly wither away when everyone had ‘got the message’.

What did I mean by that? I was asked.

‘All must understand that our limitations hold within them great possibilities for constructive life modes. We are operating in a radically new psychological calculus.’

Rather to my surprise, this was accepted. Then came the question of what the government should be called. After a number of suggestions, some ribald, we settled for Administration Executive’, or Adminex for short.

We talked about the question of incentives. Not everyone could be expected to work for good will alone. Something had to replace money by way of incentive.

Not on that momentous day but later, when Adminex held its first meeting, we drew up a rough schedule. Men and women could not be idle. To flavour the pot, incentives were necessary, at least at first. The degree of participation in work for the common good would be rewarded by so many square yards of floor living space. Status could be enhanced. Plants had scarcity value, and would serve as rewards for minor effort.

A common Teaching Experience should be established. We had already seen how separation from the mother planet downstairs had engendered a general wish to stand back and consider the trajectory of one’s own life. Personal life could itself be improved — which was surely one of the aims of a just and decent society.

Benazir Bahudur, the sculptor and teacher, spoke up shyly. ‘Excuse me, hut for our own protection we must establish clear prescriptions. Such as the rules governing water consumption. Increase of personal water consumption must not be on offer as a reward for anything; it would lead only to quarrels and corruption.

‘All the same, my suggestion is that we women require a larger water ration than men because of our periods. Men and women are not the same, whatever is claimed. Washing is sometimes a priority with us.

‘With none of the terrestrial laws in effect, and no money in circulation, education could play a greater role, provided education was itself overhauled. It must include current information. For instance, how much water exactly remains on this terrible planet.’

As I was to learn later, this vital question of water resources was already being investigated by the science unit. Involved in these investigations was our lady from Hobart, Kathi Skadmorr. I had noted Dreiser Hawkwood’s interest in her. He too had spoken to her by Ambient, and received a better reception than I had done.

Dreiser had offered to coach her in science — in what he was now calling ‘Martian science’. When he questioned her about her work with International Water Resources, Kathi had told him she had been employed at one time in Sarawak. 1 later turned up the record and heard her voice.

‘My bosses sent me to Sarawak, where work was being done on the caves in Mulu National Park.’

‘What are these caves?’ Dreiser asked.

‘You don’t know them? Shame on you. They are vast. Great chains of interconnected caves. Over 150 kilometres have been explored. The Malaysians who own that part of the world are piping water to Japan.’

‘What was your role in the project?’

‘I was considered expendable. I did the dangerous bit. I did the scuba work, swimming down hitherto unexplored submerged passageways. With faulty equipment. Little they cared.’

Dreiser gave a snort. ‘You do see yourself as a victim, don’t you, Ms Skadmorr?’

She replied sharply. ‘I’m Kathi. That’s how I’m called. You must have some knowledge of the mysterious workings of the authoritarian mind.

‘Anyhow, the fact is that I loved that work. The caves formed a wonderful hidden environment, extensive, beautiful, cathedrals in rock, with the water — sometimes still, sometimes racing — as their bloodstream. It was like being inside the Earth’s brain. So you’d expect it to be dangerous. What’s your interest in all this, anyhow?’

He said, ‘I want to help you. Come and live in the science unit.’

‘I’ve had male help before. It always carries a price tag.’ She raised her hands to her face to cover a naughty grin.

‘Not this time, Kathi. There’s no money here, so no price tags. I’ll send a vehicle for you.’

‘If I come to your unit, I want to walk. I need to feel the presence of Mars.’

The first I knew of all this was when Kathi paid me a personal visit Her claws were not in evidence. She needed my support. She was eager to see science in action and wished to go to the science unit but also to remain a member of the domes and retain her cabin with us.

She had far more eyelashes, above and below her eyes, than most women. I agreed to her request without even consulting the other members of Adminex.

‘Wouldn’t it be simpler for you to remain in the science unit?’

‘I have friends here, believe it or not.’

She went. Although I do not wish to get ahead of my narrative, it makes sense to set down here what happened when Kathi came under Dreiser’s wing.

Our overhead satellite had revealed what looked like entrances to caves in the vast stretches of the Valles Marineris, a kind of Rift Valley. This formidable feature stretches across the Martian equator for a total of some 34,500 square kilometres, almost a quarter of the surface of Mars, so that one sector can be in daylight while the rest is in night. For this reason, ferocious winds scour the valley.

Marineris is like no physical feature on Earth. It is 100 kilometres wide in places and up to 7 kilometres deep. Mists roll down its length at daybreak. It is not a good place to be.

This enormous rift was probably caused by graben events, when the relatively brittle crust fractured. Analysis shows that lakes had once existed along the base of Marineris.

So Hawkwood decided that what seemed like cave entrances would be worth inspecting. He hoped to find reservoirs of underground water. This was in the third month of 2064. However, when assembling his expedition, he found he could muster only one speleologist, a nervous young low-temperature physicist called Chad Chester. To Dreiser’s way of thinking, Kathi Skadmorr was much the more foolhardy of the two.

Two buggies containing six people as well as equipment and supplies made the difficult journey overland. Dreiser had insisted on being present. He could strike up no conversation with the Hobart woman, who had retreated into an all-embracing silence.

Kathi stared unspeaking at the Marscape. She had known not dissimilar landscapes hack home, long ago. Her intuition was that the very antiquity of these empty vistas had rendered them sacred, as she told me later. She experienced a longing to jump out and paint religious symbols on the boulders they passed.

At last they gained the comparatively smooth floor of the great rift valley. Its high wall towered above them. Of the cliff on the far side they could see nothing; it was lost in distance.

They made slow progress against a strong wind and, when they came to the first three caves, found them blind. The fourth they were able to enter further. Kathi and Chester wore scuba gear. Chester had allowed Kathi to go ahead. Her headlamp showed that the passage was going to narrow rapidly. Suddenly, the floor beneath her caved in and she fell. She disappeared from sight of the others. They cried with alarm before advancing cautiously on the hole.

Kathi was sprawling 2 metres below. ‘I’m okay,’ she said. ‘It was a false floor. Things get more interesting here. Come on down, Chad.’

She stood up and went ahead without waiting for the others.

The rock in her path was tumbled and treacherous. She climbed down with the roof overhead narrowing, until she was moving within a chimney and in danger of snagging her suit. She called up to the rest of the expedition not to follow, else she would have been struck by falling rock.

At last she reached the end of the chimney. Slipping amid scree, she was able to stand again — to find herself in a large cave, which she described over the radio as the size of a cottage — contemptible by the dimensions of caves in the Mulu Park area’.

The floor of the cave contained a small pool of ice.

The test of the team cheered when they heard of this.

Skirting the ice, Kathi explored the cave and reached a narrow cleft at the fat end. Squeezing through it, she entered a small dark hole. She was forced to crawl on hands and knees to cross it, where she found a kind of natural staircase, leading down. This she reported to Dreiser.

‘Take care, damn it,’ he said.

The staircase widened. She squeezed past a boulder and found herself in a larger cavern, in cross-section resembling a half-open clam. The roof was scalloped elaborately, as if by hand, the ancient product of swirling water, And the floor of this cavern held a pool of water, unfrozen. She lobbed a small rock into it. Ripples flowed to the sides in perfect circles.
Her heart was beating fast. She knew she was the first person ever to see extensive water in its free state on the Red Planet.

She waded into it. The ripples stirred by her entry caused light patterns to play on the roof above.

The water came up to her breasts and no further. She plunged and swam below the surface. Her light revealed a dark plug hole on the stony bed. She swam vertically down it, to find herself in a chimney with smooth sides. As it narrowed, she had to push against the sides rather than swim. The fit became tighter and tighter. She could not turn to go back, Her light failed.

The team were calling her on the radio. She did not reply. She could hear her own labouring breath. She squeezed forward with great effort, her arms stretched out in front of her.

The tube seemed to go on for ever as she moved, head down. She thought there was a dim light ahead, or else her sight was failing.

She found herself shooting from the tube like a cork from a bottle. She was floundering upward in a milky sea. Her head emerged into the open. Breathing heavily, she managed to haul herself on to a dry ledge. She was in some sort of a natural underground reservoir. The ceiling was only 2 feet above her. She thought, ‘What if it rains?’ But that thought came from back in Sarawak, where even a distant shower of rain might cause water levels to rise dramatically and drown an unwary speleologist. On Mars there was no danger of rain.

As her pulse steadied, she stared across the phosphorescent pool, whose depth she estimated to he at least 12 metres. Kathi knew that humble classes of aquatic animals emitted light without heat. But was there not also a mere chemical phosphorescence? Had she stumbled on the first traces of Martian life? She could not tell. But lying on the shelf of rock, unsure of how she would ever emerge again to the surface, she told herself that she was detecting a Martian consciousness. She looked about in the dimness: there was nothing, only the solemn slap of water against rock, reflected and magnified by the low roof overhead. Was she not in the very throat of the monster?

She lay completely still, switching off her radio to listen, there, at least a kilometre beneath the surface of the planet. If it had a heart, she was now a part of it.

The situation was somewhat to her liking.

When she switched on her radio, the babble of humanity came to her. They were going to rescue her. Chad was possibly in an adjacent chamber. She was to stay put. Was she okay?

Without deigning to answer that, she reported that the temperature reading was 2 degrees above zero Celsius and that she had taken a water sample. She still had a reserve of 3.6 hours of air. Sure, she would stay where she was. And she would keep the radio on.

She lay on the ledge, perfectly relaxed. After a while she swam in the phosphorescent reservoir. At one corner, water fell from the roof in a slow drip, every drop measuring out a minute.

Raising herself in the water, her fingers detected a crevice in the rock overhead. Hauling herself up, she found she could thrust her arm into a niche. With this leverage she could also wedge a foot in the niche, and so cling, dripping, above the water. By slow exploration, she was able to ease herself into the rock. She cursed the lack of light, and cursed her failed headlight. Inch by painful inch, she dragged herself through the broken rock fissures. She was in total darkness, apart from an occasional glint of falling water drops. She struck her head on rock.

The one way forward was to twist over on her back and propel herself by hands and feet. She worked like that for ten minutes, sweating inside her suit. Then she was able to get on to her hands and knees.

Gingerly she stood up. Hands stretched before her, she took a step forward. Something crackled beneath the flippers of her suit. She felt and brought up a fragment of ice. In so doing, she clipped her headlamp against rock. Feeling forward, she came on sharp rock everywhere. She stood in the darkness, nonplussed. When she stretched her arms out sideways, she touched rock on either side. As far as she could determine, she was trapped in a narrow fissure. In the pitch dark, the fallen rocks were too dangerous to negotiate. So she stood there, unable to move.

At length, with what seemed to her like unutterable slyness, the dimmest of lights began to glow. Slowly the illumination brightened. Coming from a distant point, it showed Kathi that she was indeed standing in the merest crack between two rough shoulders of rock. The floor of this crack was littered with debris. She recognised a vadose passage, formed by a flow of water cutting into the rock.

She summoned up all her courage. With her awe came a cold excitement. She was convinced that she had intruded into a lofty consciousness and that some part of it — whether physical or mental — was now approaching her. Her upbringing had accustomed her to sacred places. Now she must face the wrath or at best the curiosity of something, some ancient unknown thing. She felt her lower jaw tremble as the light increased. There was nowhere she could run to.

The light became a dazzle.

‘Oh, there you are! Why did you rush off like that?’ said Chad Chester, in an annoyed voice. ‘You could have been in deep shit.’

She was back in the buggy, sipping hot coffdrink. Dreiser put an arm protectively about her shoulders. ‘You gave us all quite a scare.’

‘Why wasn’t your lousy headlamp maintained? You’re as bad as the slavedrivers in Sarawak.’

‘At least we have established the existence of subterranean water, thanks to you,’ he said comfortably