In 1986, Geraldo Rivera hosted a live TV special promising to show viewers what was inside a secret vault owned by iconic gangster Al Capone. The vault, hidden inside the Lexington Hotel, was believed to be where Capone hid part of his vast wealth. Members of the IRS stood by to collect any money that was found, as well as medical examiners in case there were dead bodies stashed inside.
On live TV as 30 million viewers watched, Rivera opened the vault to reveal … absolutely nothing. After tons of hype and endless speculation, it turned out to be a huge disappointment. All the mystery was gone and all the audience was left with was a douchey guy with a bad mustache standing in front of an empty room.
As NASA’s Curiosity Rover explores the rocky red terrain of Mars, I can’t help feeling that we are in for another “Al Capone’s Vault” situation.
Don’t get me wrong, I think this project is great. The data that NASA scientists collect could be invaluable. This could lead to human colonization on Mars or amazing scientific breakthroughs that we can’t possibly fathom right now. In that sense, the possibilities are endless.
But in comic books, movies and science fiction writing, Mars has been a go to for strange happenings and alien adventures. It has been an inspiration for some truly enjoyable bits of fiction. And I can’t help but feel like those days are now at an end, which is a bit disappointing.
In the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Mars is really Barsoom, a once great planet slowly dying as its inhabitants fight over limited resources. John Carter, a Civil War captain, is continually called upon to go to Barsoom to save the day.
In DC Comics, it is home to J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, a powerful shapeshifting alien with a fondness for wearing capes with no shirt. He is the last remaining member of his species, leaving his desolate planet behind to – at times – fight alongside the Justice League.
(Random sidenote: J’onzz kind of got screwed in the genetic sweepstakes. He has a ton of awesome powers, similar to Superman. But despite being from the very distant planet of Krypton, the Man of Steel can seamlessly blend in with society by simply putting on a pair of glasses. J’onzz, meanwhile, is green-skinned and freakish, thus having to constantly disguise himself to walk among the humans.)
In Total Recall, Mars is home to a wide variety of colorful mutants, including a three-breasted woman and a wise cracking cab driver with a weird tentacle hand. In addition to the humans who have set up camp on the Red Planet, there are references to a lost alien species who once lived there.
For over 100 years, writers, scientists and interested observers have looked out at the night sky and speculated on what wonders Mars might contain. Carl Sagan once said: “Mars has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears.” From Ray Bradbury to Chuck Jones, creative types have used the mysterious planet as inspiration in their work.
This year’s John Carter movie (which dropped the “of Mars” from its title) tanked at the box office. Len Wiseman’s Total Recall remake did away with the Mars setting altogether, deciding instead to keep things on Earth. In the New 52 reboot, Martian Manhunter is no longer part of the Justice League, instead relegated to obscurity in a lesser title.
Perhaps our fascination with Mars is coming to an end. The Curiosity Rover’s findings will ultimately just be the final nail in the coffin. What was once a great inspiration will simply become an unremarkable red orb floating around the Solar System.
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Like I said, it could lead to untold scientific advances. Perhaps it will lead to colonies on Mars and a real life version of all of those wonderful sci-fi stories.
But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a small part of me that was hoping that this all went horribly wrong some how. My inner 12-year-old is hoping that the scientists get back grainy footage of a blurry shape and an audio recording of some rhythmic chanting before Curiosity’s signal goes dark, never to be heard from again.
Until that happens though, I’ll be hard at work on my new sci-fi story about an alien race from Pluto.
Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.