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Ice on Mars is no surprise ...

June 23, 2008 |  6:00 pm

... at least not to award-winning sci-fi writer and astrophysicist Gregory Benford ("Timescape," "If the Stars Are Gods," "The Sunborn").

Mars ice

When the UC Irvine professor and his (uncredited) coauthor, biologist Elisabeth Malartre, were researching their bestselling 1999 novel, "The Martian Race," they were "fairly certain" that ice eventually would be found on Mars, especially near the poles.

"Since 1999, NASA has found caves (large, identified from orbit) and plenty of signs of recent fluid flows down slopes, from momentary melting," Benford wrote in an e-mail after NASA announced that the substance uncovered by the Phoenix lander was most probably ice.

The before and after images -- of white stuff uncovered in a trench dug by Phoenix's robotic claw that disappears over a few days -- are spectacular in their simplicity. They underscore, for me at least, the Red Planet's grip on the human imagination. Why is that?

Maybe because it means we might not be alone in this vast universe. "Mars is the most Earthlike world we know -- and the best bet for finding life," says the prolific scientist. "A separate origin [of life] on Mars would greatly enhance odds that life is common in the universe."

While we wait for more news from that fourth stone from our sun, maybe cracking open some of those great books on Mars is in order. Benford's recommendations:

"The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must," by Robert Zubrin and Richard Wagner. The 1996 book, Benford explains, "details how to go there soon, economically. The deep issue of Mars life -- its origin, survival to now, etc. -- simply can't be explored well in the foreseeable future by robots."

"Mapping Mars: Science, Imagination, and the Birth of a World" is Oliver Morton's 2002 look at everything that is known about the planet, "a look at the culture of Mars fandom, among scientists and writers alike."

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy ("Red Mars," "Green Mars," Blue Mars") offers a "sweeping analysis of terraforming Mars over centuries, politically correct all the way," Benford says.

And of course, Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles" -- "Still the founding text!" Benford exclaims.

The professor's own "The Martian Race" -- which resulted in a marriage between Malartre and Benford and may one day be made into a movie -- is "still selling nicely nine years later," proof, he says, that  "Mars has appeal."

Kristina Lindgren