Life on Mars

Escapism: it’s no longer a godawful small affair. In May this year, at the cost of around $300 million, NASA will launch its Insight Lander to Mars to (hopefully) land an deploy a probe to test for, amongst other things, evidence of life.

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The possibility of life on Mars has, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, for a long time been one of humanity’s “known unknowns”. Cultural theorists often speak of the underlying motivations for the deluge of sci-fi films in 1950s American cinema – linking this to the Cold War, existential angst, an emerging space programme. The films may have tapped an underlying sociopolitical Zeitgeist, but they did so in a specific way: they offered a palliative for an underlying need for escape, diagnosed by a particular pulse. Public fascination with possibility of extraterrestrial life endures even though what exists out there might be so unknown that what ends up counting as “life” requires us to redefine and re-imagine the parameters.

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Escape, fantasy, is as necessary condition for reality in the same way that the impossible is required for the possible. Impossibility has to be possible. And if anyone ever tells you “nothing is impossible” tell them a triangle with four sides is impossible, and so is a machine that would give a true/false answer to every statement. The laws of maths define a triangle and the machine couldn’t give an answer to the statement, “This machine will not say that this sentence is true”. (Warning: there is a danger you might get punched in the head if you actually try this… or break Alexa). Similarly, we need the unknown to reassure us about the known, to help us stay clear from the precipice of Cartesian doubt…

Of course, you can convince yourself, or choose to believe that a triangle with four sides is possible. Just like Andrew Neil can (allegedly) deny climate change, or Lady Elizabeth Blount can choose to believe that the earth is flat. You can be wrong without being delusional. Positive escapism, like a good conspiracy theory, sits somewhere in between the possible and the impossible, between reality and fantasy.

And there are positive sides to escapism. At its best, escapism is a helpful coping strategy and we indulge in many different types of it every day. It is flight rather than fight, and if you can fly to your happy place all the better. Escapism is a kind of drug and if you learn how to administer the dose safely and effectively, and recognise that it’s a panacea, not a cure, why not?

There’s no doubt that there is a positive escapism. But there’s a negative one too. It can atrophy your ability to pursue purpose. Getting out-of-your-head gives a hangover in the morning. A curious but lovely Japanese study into adolescents’ internet escapism – splitting your life into real vs online versions – found, over time, that those who had experienced some distress had increased internet addiction and problems in daily functioning. The escape, the flight path, did not lead to a sucessful recovery.

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Worse, it can lead to a kind of cycle of mental self-harm. You see it in relationships where, regardless of the levels of psychological abuse, individuals remain with a damaging partner regardless. That negative escapism inevitably damages not only themselves, but their relationships with others and prevents meaningful personal development. If you stay on an escape route for too long you may not end up in prison, but you are permanently on the run; you are Jean Valjean.

And if you don’t descend into a more permanent state of psychosis, the best you can hope for is that the next morning reality invariably shows up to wreck the party. In a worst case scenario that’s coming back from a great night out to find that someone recorded over The League of Gentlemen with the Mrs Brown’s Boys 2015 Christmas Special. There’s reality right there – suck it up. For NASA’s Mars Insight Lander, which touches down in November, reality for now is discovering that alongside the scientific equipment will be two silicon microchips containing the names of over a million people who requested “boarding passes” for the journey. On the face of it, boarding passes are a great way to engage children, others, and inspire them to dream. But if the chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, and somehow Toby Young managed to inveigle a pass, you have to ask if that is a level of risk you can tolerate. It might be just the motivation needed for any primordial soup lingering under the Martian ice caps to get it’s act together, evolve and weaponize.

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