At this point, I felt I must pay homage to the short story that inspired me to write ‘On Venusian Cloud Colony Number Nine’. There will be a slight sense of déjà vu, as the author of the short story has been mentioned previously. Have a read of my story review below, and see if you can identify any similarities or variations. While some details of the story shows its age, there are some aspects that remain pertinent even to the modern day.
– Su –
Story: Survey Team
Source: Second Variety (Volume 2, ‘The Collected Short Stories of Philip K Dick’)
Pages: 367 to 377
First Published: Fantastic Universe, May 1954
We meet our focal character, known only as Halloway, as he comes to the surface somewhere in Colorado, North America. He has come to observe the arrival of a rocket, returning from a planetary reconnaissance mission. We are told that Earth’s surface is now unliveable, and likely to remain so for around fifty years due to an ‘Enemy’ that is kept at plot device level. The hope is that Mars will be the new home for Earthlings, as Venus has been ruled out due to there being ‘nothing there but lava and steam’.
As Halloway and others prepare to make the trip to Mars, they note that every other planet is the Solar System has being ruled out as a new habitat. The view on Venus is reiterated, Mercury is noted as ‘nothing but liquid metal’, while Jupiter to Pluto are struck off without explanation.
Beginning their descent to Mars, Halloway and another of the team ponder the existence of life on Mars. If humanity is finding a way to live there, it is likely that some other method of life will have found a way to make the Red Planet home.
The team do not take long in discovering a city. It is deserted and dilapidated, and furthermore, there are large mining pits nearby. It seems that the Martians had exploited every natural resource that their homeland had to offer, before seemingly dying out.
The Earth team begin scouring Mars for any hint of natural resource that humanity would be able to use in order to survive. The surface is described as ‘pocked with great gaping sores’, and the interior ‘termite-ridden’ with underground mines. As Halloway curses the former inhabitants for their selfishness, records that they had kept are found.
It is discovered that the Martians did not die out after all. One of their ‘scout ships’ had managed to find a suitable new world, to which they fled. The immigrants to the new world had some difficulty adapting, and degraded into barbarism. The records noted that it was better for the Martians ‘to live as savages on a strange world than to stay here and die’. With humanity’s last hope in the Solar System for colonisation no longer a viable option, they are forced to track where this ‘new world’ is. Outrage is expressed by some at suggestions that the Earthlings destroy the Martians, and take their place on the new world.
While others are analysing the schematics of the Martian space ship, some towers used to analyse the skies are found. Halloway and another named Carmichael see that these automated towers supervised the loading of raw materials onto the space ships, and then sent them off to follow the departing population. The automated sighting system upon the towers had not moved, and kept the destination in sight. Much to the disbelief of both men, they realise a full circle has taken place.
Six hundred thousand years earlier, the Martians had departed their depleted planet for Earth.
The story ends with the Earthlings, who we now see are the descendants of spacefaring Martians in the very distant past, pondering the skies, visualising an unspoiled world that they can colonise. The author describes their analysis of space in foreboding terms:
“They were already holding on to the new world, clutching it with all their strength. Tearing it apart, atom by atom…
– Su –
The idea of life having landed on Earth, instead of having evolved, would have been quite a shocking assertion to make back in the early 1950’s.
Through the many years of tireless work of the various space agencies around the world, we know that there are chances for life to exist on the moons of other planets. This information came to light many years after the author passed away, and I believe the information would have amazed him had he lived to know of it.
That Philip K. Dick made a point of focusing on how mining on Mars played a part in its demise as a life-supporting planet is telling, as it is still a prominent issue to this day. We are doing our best to exploit every possible mineral resource Earth has to offer, from oil to iron ore to precious metals to the various forms of natural gas. The story serves as a kind of cautionary tale, with the author showing the potential humanity has to destroy the world it lives in.