A Brief History of Sci-Fi’s Love Affair With the Red Planet

It's Oh So Close, and Yet So Far

By  Mike Ashley

The first fiction about Mars arose from speculation about its moons. Although Mars was one of five planets known to the ancients (along with Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn) nothing was known about it except for its fast and often erratic movement about the heavens—the very word “planet” comes from the ancient Greek for wanderer. But no details could be discerned of any of these planets until the invention of the telescope. When Galileo focused his telescope on the planet Jupiter in 1610 he saw four attendant satellites. The first of Saturn’s moons, Titan, was discovered in 1655, with four more over the next 30 years. Astronomers suspected there were further moons to find, many of which, as the natural philosopher William Derham surmised in Astro-Theology (1714), would be too small to see with the strength of the telescopes at the time. Nevertheless, at the time he was writing, it was known that since the Earth had one moon, Jupiter four and Saturn five, it seemed logical that Mars must have at least one and more likely two. So while it seemed remarkable when Jonathan Swift revealed in Gulliver’s Travels in 1726 that the astronomers of Laputa had discovered the two moons of Mars, Swift was only repeating what many already suspected.

Just 18 years after Gulliver’s Travels, in July 1744, the German astronomer Eberhard Christian Kindermann believed he had discovered at least one Martian moon, though quite what he saw remains uncertain, as his description of it was far too large. Kindermann’s study of the skies, Vollständige Astronomie (“Complete Astronomy”, 1744), had just been published so, in order to proclaim his discovery, he speculated upon it in a story, “Der Geschwinde Reise” (“The Speedy Journey”), which he issued before the end of the year. Although Kindermann presented the story as fiction, almost like a fairy tale, he nevertheless endeavored to root it in as scientific a basis as contemporary knowledge allowed, making it a genuine science-fiction story. Five individuals (with the names of the five senses) create an airship based on the design proposed in 1670 by the Italian Jesuit mathematician Francesco Lana de Terzi. He believed that a ship with a sail could fly through the air supported by four globes from which the air had been evacuated. Kindermann’s ship has six globes, just to be sure, and is equipped with oars so it can be rowed through the air.

Kindermann was aware that Mars was at least 30 million miles distant and, as the airship was travelling at around 460 miles per hour, the journey would have taken over seven years, yet it seems to happen in an instant. Moreover, while the travelers believe they have been away from Earth for only a short period they learn their adventure had lasted well over 20 years, rather like “time-in-faery”.

With the help of an angelic spirit guide, the five travelers make their way to the Martian moon. The inhabitants are humanoid and the travelers present themselves as gods. Much of the discussion with the natives is about religion. It transpires that this moon was the first object created by God. Indeed, the natives seem to have a special relationship with God. At the time Kindermann was writing there was much speculation about the plurality of worlds, a subject given considerable attention by the French philosopher Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle in Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (“Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds”) in 1686, and widely translated, including a German edition in 1725. In this highly influential work, Fontenelle discusses in a friendly, open style the nature of the heavens and the possibility of life elsewhere. He was, alas, rather dismissive of Mars, saying “it contains nothing calculated to arrest our attention”, though he did wonder if the planet had phosphorescent rocks that lit up at night. He also speculated that Mars had vast seas that periodically washed over all of the land.

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“Mars became an ideal location for speculating on whether an advanced civilization might have overcome its base instincts and developed a near-perfect society.”

Others followed in Fontenelle’s wake. In De Telluribus in Mundo Nostro Solari (“Concerning the Earths in Our Solar System”, 1758) the Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg believed that all the planets in our solar system were variants of Earth and that the Martian inhabitants were among the best and most honest, with no central government. There had been a similar idyllic planet in the anonymous A Voyage to the World in the Center of the Earth (1755), where Mars is portrayed like ancient Greece, with the spirits of heroes, lawgivers, musicians and poets. A more war-ravaged Mars, in keeping with being named after the Roman god of war, is envisaged in both Marie-Anne de Roumier-Robert’s Voyages de Milord Céton dans les sept planètes (“The Voyages of Lord Seaton to the Seven Planets”, 1765), where the planet is the home of reincarnated soldiers, and the anonymous A Fantastical Excursion into the Planets (1839), in which Mars is depicted as the location of an industrial holocaust, with weapon-making and slaughter. In Benjamin Lumley’s Another World (1873), Mars is shown as having once been war-torn, but with its population later controlled through a close monitoring of children.

None of these works seeks to explore Mars in any scientific sense, making Kindermann’s early work all the more remarkable, but an explosion of interest came after the conjunction of Mars in 1877, when the planet was some 35 million miles from Earth. It was at that time that Asaph Hall discovered the two tiny moons, soon named Phobos and Deimos, and it was also when Giovanni Schiaparelli believed he had observed straight lines on the surface, his so-called canali or channels. His findings, amplified by further observations, were discussed in the scientific community, but Schiaparelli did not claim that these channels had been constructed artificially, and even when the news leaked to the press in 1882 it did not cause an immediate stir. The London-born astronomer Richard A. Proctor, who had just relocated to the United States, had been studying Mars for nearly 20 years and had published his own map of the surface in 1867. He had noticed no such straight lines, and wrote to The Times in London in April 1882 exercising caution and noting that they could be an optical illusion.

Others were more enthusiastic about their significance and there were several noted scientists who took the prospect of intelligent life on Mars seriously. Chief among these was the American astronomer Percival Lowell, who stated that he had seen these “canals” and studied them extensively. Over the next two decades he compiled three books on the subject: Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906) and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908). Lowell was inspired not only by Schiaparelli but by the French astronomer Camille Flammarion, whose detailed study, La planète Mars, was published in 1892. Flammarion had earlier written a collection of narratives, Uranie (1889), which includes a section where the astronomer visits Mars in a dream-state and is lectured by two humanoid inhabitants over Earth’s failure as a civilization because it is too warlike.

It was this growing scientific speculation on the potential for life on Mars that inspired writers and visionaries. The general view that prevailed was that the Martians were technologically advanced over humans, and might have other powers. In Percy Greg’s novel Across the Zodiac (1880), they are telepathic. In Edward Bellamy’s short story “The Blindman’s World” (1886) they have knowledge of the future. In W. S. Lach-Szyrma’s Aleriel (1883) and its sequels—a sample of which is included in this anthology—they have developed a virtuous, harmonious society. They are likewise gentle and technologically advanced in Robert Cromie’s A Plunge into Space (1890) and James Cowan’s Daybreak (1896).

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Mars became an ideal location for speculating on whether an advanced civilization might have overcome its base instincts and developed a near-perfect society. In The Man from Mars (1891) by Thomas Blot they are far advanced over inhabitants of Earth, and have built domed cities to protect themselves. In Unveiling a Parallel (1893) published as by “Two Women of the West”, the alias of Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant, we find Marsians [sic] who are handsome and intelligent, and a place in which woman are totally liberated—in short, a feminist utopia. Another feminist utopia appears in A Woman of Mars (1901) by the Australian writer Mary Moore-Bentley. In The Inhabitants of Mars (1895), inventor and electrical engineer Willis Mitchell was convinced electricity was the answer to everything and makes Mars an electrical utopia.

By the end of the 19th century the image of Martians as scientifically advanced had become standard. In most cases they were also benign, almost saintly, but one novel would change all that: H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, serialized during 1897. The Martians, desperate to colonize elsewhere because their own world is dying, invade Earth, and their advanced technology is too much for Earth’s weak military powers. On one level Wells’s novel was part of the sub-genre of future war/invasion stories prevalent at that time, demonstrating how ill-prepared Britain was against any nation with military prowess. But it did much more. Hitherto all Martians had been portrayed as humanoid, often taller than ourselves, sometimes weaker because of the lesser gravity, and sometimes with additional powers, but generally benign. However Wells depicted them as utterly alien, octopoid creatures that need the strength of their walking fighting machines to allow them to operate in Earth’s stronger gravity. They are totally merciless and devoid of feelings towards human or animal life, and are bent on conquest. There had been Martians on Earth in earlier stories, such as Thomas Blot’s The Man from Mars (1891) and Robert Braine’s Messages from Mars (1892), in which they are on a remote island in the Indian Ocean, but they were always friendly. By the late 1890s, though, this began to change.

“By the end of the 19th century the image of Martians as scientifically advanced had become standard. In most cases they were also benign, almost saintly, but one novel would change all that: H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds.

The impact of Wells’s novel was such that it immediately generated a sequel, much to the author’s annoyance. When the novel was serialized in the United States Wells had insisted it be reprinted with no change of location. However, the two newspapers that ran the story, the New York Evening Journal and the Boston Post, both changed the setting to their own locale and made other changes as suited them. To add insult to injury, the New York Evening Journal then commissioned its science reporter, Garrett P. Serviss, to write a sequel, which became “Edison’s Conquest of Mars”. Although the original Martian invaders (now giant humanoids rather than octopoid creatures) have all died there is fear the Martians will try again, and so the world’s scientists, headed by Thomas Edison, pool their brainpower to create super-weapons capable of defeating the Martians. A huge armada is built (funds are no object) and Edison leads it in the war against Mars. Eventually almost the entire Martian civilization is wiped out. It is also learned that the Martians had come to Earth centuries before and built the pyramids and the Sphinx.

At the time that Wells’s novel appeared, two other works also showed interest in Mars and Martian powers. The noted artist and novelist George du Maurier (grandfather of Daphne du Maurier), author of Trilby (1894), penned a society novel, The Martian, in which a Martian spirit, between reincarnations, becomes something of a guardian angel to an ailing British wastrel. Little is revealed about the Martians until late in the novel when we learn that they evolved from seal-like creatures, are vastly superior to humans and communicate telepathically. Du Maurier’s novel may have inspired a very successful stage play, A Message from Mars by Richard Ganthony, which ran for 16 months from 22 November 1899. Bearing similarities to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the play shows how the spirit of a scientifically advanced Martian helps reform a selfish egotist.

Mike Ashley
Mike Ashley
Mike Ashley is the author and editor of over sixty books that in total have sold over a million copies worldwide. He lives in Chatham, Kent.

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