Many authors use imagery to create atmosphere, and in short fiction, that efficient imagery is vital. It may be a particular environment for their characters, but in the case of science fiction, it is also an ample tool of criticism, one in this case that has a lingering bite.
Science fiction writers John Updike and Gerard Klein notably produce living alien landscapes in their short stories “The Chaste Planet” (1975) and “The Valley of Echoes” (1959). The imagery of the Minervan and Martian environments achieve a primary function in the plot. Here, imagery is not a secondary tool to forge a character’s personality or experience. The alien environs are so purposeful in fact that Updike’s Minervans cannot be separated from the character of their environment, and Mr. Klein’s Martian landscape becomes a living influential entity itself. Though each author differs—Updike merges a character, the Minervan race, into an environment, and Mr. Klein makes a character out of the Martian environment—both cause the reader to reflect upon the errors of the modern world.
Although Updike’s Minervans differ from earth humans in form and in lifestyle, they do physically resemble their environment. Minerva, for example, is described as a planet with a warm, silvery-white atmosphere. Somewhat analogous to the Minervan sky, the white-skinned Minervans are compared to “intermingled nickel and asbestos,” the very thing used in ceiling work long ago. The people are also described as personified vegetables. Really. Normally vegetation or vegetables, if you will, would be pictured as part of the lifestyle or environment. Here, Minervans are white pickles, and their ridged “pickleloid” forms are even compared to “a patch of artichokes.” Their six limbs and single neural appendage resemble trees or bushes. In such a simple way, they are their own environment. To understand the Minervans is to understand the planet Minerva and vice-versa.
Mr. Klein’s Martian landscape, however, becomes a character itself, for it not only evinces emotion in the three human explorers, but it also controls and influences their decisions. Thus, the unexplored, non-native environment is able to impact man more easily. For example, Mars influences the explorers’ manner of sleep or lack of it, their health even, as a result of the breathing apparatus. When investigating the monotony of the Martian dunes, the narrator must create stories to remain alert. And most significantly, Ferrier is brought to despondence because of the authentic barrenness of Mars. Since Mars is only distinguished from Earth by its unique atmosphere and not by its similarity to earthen deserts, Mars depicts the loss of an unknown civilization, one never to be found on Earth.
Though different in purpose, Updike’s Minervan landscape is similar to Mr. Klein’s Mars. Because of their plain barrenness, these landscapes become purely functional. For Updike, Minerva is just another planet to feature alien creatures because no extensive description is given other than the introduction of the new planet to the reader. The only sense of a different world is provided by the strange Minervans themselves who live in “elaborate burrows.” Not one reference is given to the above-ground geography, the typical human aesthetic. Without stimulating scenery, it’s no wonder that Updike’s setting parallels the sexlessness of the Minervans. Again, by human standards their dull asexual sex life is like their colorless planet with the exception of their passion for music.
For Mr. Klein, Mars is comparable to an earthen desert, a world of bleached pastel sands interrupted only by pink mountains and a black massif. Mr. Klein uses the Martian environment to illustrate that man, like the character Ferrier, cannot attain his hopes or dreams on Earth or Mars. The geologist Ferrier, for example, idealistically seeks solid artifacts of another civilization because new discoveries are improbable on earth during the “Insane Years.” Only the bleak, final emptiness in the valley, in all of Mars, discourages Ferrier. Mr. Klein seems to use Mars as a tool of abasement.
Another part of the interplanetary landscapes is Earth’s negative, lasting effect on Minerva and Mars. Though both planets receive earth explorers, only Minerva is directly affected. The naive Minervan people and their lifestyle in fact are permanently changed due to earthen man’s rude interference. No longer are the Minervans ignorant of extremes, the impact of too much music. Thus, Earth sins against Minerva by exposing her to gluttony, an overindulgence of pleasure. Updike, however, leaves his readers to guess how the Minervans survive, if they do.
Mars, too, is influenced by human explorers, though in a more subtle manner. Initially, earthen man cannot alter Mars’ seemingly dead environment. A few tiny fossils are discovered, but hints of past civilizations remain elusive to the hopeful explorers. Upon the discovery of the valley of echoes, though, all traces of artifacts, possibly sounds, are destroyed because of the explorers’ eagerness and lack of caution. What earthen man seeks is inescapably destroyed by his own effort. It is a strange sociology for Klein’s readers in 1959. But the premise is clear—man brings harm.
As both authors enmesh their characters with their environments, character itself derives meaning from its physical setting, whether it’s the description of a planet’s geography or the author’s critical intent. Updike expresses his disdain over Earth’s sexual revolution by satirizing the Minervans’ similar passion for music. Earthen man is already weakened by his lust, and ironically the Minervans are horrifically rendered sterile by the glut of Earth’s music. Mr. Klein, too, finds dissatisfaction with Earth and society. As the narrator in “The Valley of Echoes” says, “We are paradoxical.” Man cannot be satisfied on earth and so seeks futilely another planet or setting. Mr. Klein intimates that man cannot succeed wherever he runs.
These are not stories of fear and prophetic warning. Rather, Updike and Mr. Klein further the strident clarion of all science fiction—as his selfish nature, and often his selfish technology, bring consequence, man is the real alien.
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The featured image is a photograph of Earth from space taken by Alejandro Morellon, it is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and has been slightly modified for color. The photo is licensed under CC-BY 2.0 and was originally taken from the DLR German Aerospace Center Flickr account.