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

It's Oh So Close, and Yet So Far

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.

“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).

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.

Meanwhile in Germany the physicist and educator Kurd Lasswitz published his profound novel Auf Zwei Planeten (“Of Two Planets”, 1897). Here humanoid Martians (identifiable only by their huge eyes) have recently created bases at Earth’s North and South Poles, unbeknown to humans until explorers stumble across them. The Martians have space stations hovering above both Poles, powered by an antigravity device. The Martians are benign and are scientifically far superior to Earth’s inhabitants, and want to help educate humanity in exchange for air and energy to supplement their own planet’s diminishing supplies. Alas, the crass stubbornness of the English results in hostilities erupting. The Martians did not want a war, and their superior power soon overwhelms Earth and they establish a protectorate over the planet. Despite their efforts to improve Earth, problems arise and further hostilities erupt. Lasswitz’s message demonstrated the corrupting consequences of colonialism, despite the improving potential of science and technology.

Lasswitz was not the first to envisage Martians colonizing Earth’s polar regions. In Journey to Mars (1894) the American physician Gustavus W. Pope had a sailor discover a Martian colony at the South Pole. He is taken back to Mars where he falls in love with a young princess and finds himself embroiled in a power struggle over the throne. Mars, it transpires, has three different races—red-, blue-and yellow-skinned—and Pope suggests that on Mars, which is very Earth-like, life developed much as it had on Earth by parallel evolution.

The idea that life on Mars would evolve along similar lines to Earth was one way in which Victorian writers could reconcile their religious views with Darwinism. It also proved a useful convenience to have humanoid Martians speaking English. That’s how they appear in some of the more absurd novels of the late Victorian period, such as Bellona’s Bridegroom (1887) by the American William James Roe (writing as Hudor Genone) and Mr. Stranger’s Sealed Packet (1889) by the Scottish mathematician Hugh MacColl. Interestingly this last work also has blue-and red-skinned Martians, which might have influenced Pope, and more significantly, it might have influenced H. G. Wells. A Martian female who returns to Earth succumbs to Earth’s diseases, just as the Martians did in The War of the Worlds. The antigravity device featured in MacColl’s novel is also similar to that used by Professor Cavor in Wells’s The First Men in the Moon, as is the way in which the spaceship is lost at the end.

The American insurance broker Elmer Dwiggins (writing as Ellsworth Douglass) used his business knowledge for the plot of Pharaoh’s Broker (1899), where parallel evolution has brought Martian history to the equivalent period of the ancient Egyptian civilization on Earth. As its history exactly parallels that of Earth, the wily explorers who have financed a journey to Mars (using antigravity) have a foreknowledge of the Martian future, with the pharaoh’s dream of the 12 fat years and 12 lean years (as recorded in Genesis 41:1–13), and use this to their initial advantage. Dwiggins see Mars as another example of God’s wisdom in how life has developed according to its environment.

“The idea that life on Mars would evolve along similar lines to Earth was one way in which Victorian writers could reconcile their religious views with Darwinism.”

The blending of Martian civilization with religion continued into the 20th century, with probably two of the best-known books about Mars: Out of the Silent Planet (1938), the first book in what became known as the Cosmic Trilogy by C. S. Lewis, and Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert A. Heinlein. Lewis’s novel could be seen as an allegory, with the lead character, Ransom, representing the “ransom sacrifice” that God made of Jesus on behalf of mankind. Ransom is kidnapped and taken to Mars as a sacrifice so that mankind, which has proved so evil and warlike, can live again on Mars and other planets. Mars has remained in a state of godliness, and Lewis contrasts the spiritual outlook of the Martians with that of the humans. In Heinlein’s novel a young boy, the only survivor of an early expedition, is raised by Martians, and when he returns to Earth he acts with the religious and psychic belief s of the Martians. He is regarded as a messiah by certain religious zealots on Earth and, like Lewis, Heinlein is able to show how human traits will inevitably contaminate Martian ideals. These and other novels continue a concept that dates back almost to the dawn of space fiction: that Mars remains in a state of grace, from which Earth has fallen.

It is evident by now that the wealth of Martian material in novels was creating a stream of influence, and many of the ideas reappeared in later works. Of particular interest is Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation (1905) by the British writer Edwin Lester Arnold. This is more fantasy than science fiction, since our hero, a lieutenant in the United States Navy, is whisked off to Mars on a magic carpet. He discovers an Earth-like environment and humanoid Martians, and falls in love with a beautiful princess whom he rescues. The Martian names are Egyptian, though the civilization is not. The rest of the novel is primarily a romance that takes place against various cultural, physical and dynastic odds, and on its own is of little significance. Yet various authorities have speculated that this novel could have inspired Edgar Rice Burroughs with his own Martian novels.

Alongside Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs must be ranked as one of the most influential of all pioneers of science fiction.

His first Martian novel was serialized as “Under the Moons of Mars” in 1912, and published in book form as A Princess of Mars in 1917. Captain John Carter, a Confederate Civil War veteran fleeing from American Indians, hides in a cave and is overcome by strange fumes. He has an out-of-body experience and his astral self travels to Mars. Mostly a desert land, irrigated by canals, and with a thin atmosphere, Carter finds he has great strength and agility because of the lesser gravity. He learns that there are essentially two types of Martian: a green-skinned race with two sets of arms, who are warriors, apparently the product of a failed genetic experiment; and the more scientifically inclined red-skinned race, a co-mingling of other races. They are scientifically advanced and telepathic, but still prefer swords over their other weapons in battle. Carter rescues a beautiful princess, Dejah Thoris, but they are separated, and most of the first novel concerns Carter’s efforts to rescue her from various warring factions and technological disasters. It’s an exciting adventure story, which set the trend for the planetary romance. There have been many imitators since, most notably Otis Adelbert Kline, Robert E. Howard, Lin Carter, Philip José Farmer, Michael Moorcock (as Edward P. Bradbury), C. L. Moore and Marion Zimmer Bradley, though the real Queen of the Planetary Romance was Leigh Brackett—who, while relishing the freedom of the planetary romance, nevertheless introduced a more rigid scientific rationale.

“These and other novels continue a concept that dates back almost to the dawn of space fiction: that Mars remains in a state of grace, from which Earth has fallen.”

While the planetary romance theme was developing there were other explorations of Martian culture. The Red Planet became an obvious setting for a communist state in Krasnaia Zvezda (“Red Star”, 1908) and its sequel Inzhener Menni (“Engineer Menni”, 1912) by Alexander Bogdanov. Although reasonably well known in Russia, especially at the time of the revolution in 1917, and notoriously because of its reference to free love on Mars, it was not translated into English until 1984. Kim Stanley Robinson claimed it served as an influence for his own novel, Red Mars (1992), the first of his trilogy about terraforming the planet. Although the emphasis in Bogdanov’s stories is on the benefits of socialism, he took trouble to make the science as realistic as possible. The egg-shaped rocket to Mars is powered by atomic energy. His Mars is Schiaparellian, with canals that have forests planted along their full length, explaining why they are visible from Earth. He also went to great lengths to explain how the topography of Mars, and the fact that it was twice as old as Earth, allowed social evolution to develop gradually and more effectively, with planet-wide communication and thus a single language.

The American clergyman William Shuler Harris emphasized the class divide in Life in a Thousand Worlds (1905). Once all Martians lived together, he tells us, but then “a few schemers” used their “inventive genius” to build curtains from mountain ridge to ridge, allowing the privileged to live on the mountain tops, in the sun, while the toilers lived in the valleys, did all the work, and had to pay a fee to the rich. The toilers rebelled, which led to them becoming isolated, and eventually the slaves had no idea there were others living on the mountains above.

The great pulpster Homer Eon Flint, whose imagination was way beyond most writers of his brief heyday, also used Mars to explore his ideas of social inequality in “The Planeteer” (1918). In the future Earth is overpopulated and facing famine, and one entrepreneurial scientist believes the only way ahead is to colonize the other planets. The Martians have a similar idea, as their world is dying. Martian society is portrayed as having a small elitist upper class, with all others being oppressed workers who are executed once they can no longer perform. Elsewhere in the solar system, cosmic events have already turned Saturn into a small sun, and although the Martians believe they will benefit by moving Mars closer to Saturn, their plan fails and Mars is destroyed.

Flint’s story was an early example of the super-science that would dominate the pulps in the 1920s and 1930s. In “The Man Who Saved the Earth” (1919) Flint’s erstwhile collaborator, Austin Hall, has Martians trying to draw up the Earth’s water into giant globes and transport it back to a dying Mars, but a super-scientist uses the power of the Sun to disrupt the Martian’s plans. In “Across Space” (1926), Edmond Hamilton reveals that Martians have long been based on Earth (on Easter Island) and have produced a ray that will draw Mars towards Earth and allow the surviving Martians to fly across. Their plans are thwarted, however, and Mars is left to drift through the solar system.

It was necessary for writers to refocus and consider the realistic nature of Mars and any possible native life. In 1926 Hugo Gernsback launched the first science-fiction magazine, Amazing Stories. In the previous two decades he had published some science fiction in his technical magazine The Electrical Experimenter, including his series “The Scientific Adventures of Baron Münchausen” (1915–17).

Gernsback wanted to keep scientific rigor to the forefront when he launched Amazing Stories, but he found that difficult as readers wanted more action-oriented fiction. This was evident when Gernsback published a new novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, “The Master Mind of Mars”, complete in the Amazing Stories Annual for 1927. It has a degree of hard science at its core—the matter of brain transplants and body regeneration—but it is still essentially a sword-and-ray-gun adventure. Cosmic super-science took over in the pulps, and it was some years, and a change of magazines, before Gernsback was able to rein in his writers and encourage them to write more realistic fiction, taking account of the hazards of space travel and the consequences of colonization. In addition to “The Forgotten Man of Space”, Gernsback ran such stories as “A Conquest of Two Worlds” (1932) by Edmond Hamilton, which showed how Mars needed to be protected against the excesses of colonialism, and Laurence Manning’s serial “The Wreck of the Asteroid” (1933), in which pioneer explorers who crash on Mars struggle to survive its harsh environment.

The romantic image of Mars, though, was tenacious, and few writers could resist its charms. Leigh Brackett took on the mantle of Edgar Rice Burroughs as the Queen of the Planetary Romance, but whereas Burroughs went for unbridled adventure and heroics, Brackett brought to the field both a mystical depth and a sense of dislocation that made her stories, which began with “Martian Quest” (1940), alien yet sentimental. Brackett’s close friend and one-time collaborator, Ray Bradbury, also brought a sentimental view to the planet in a series of stories, most of which were collected as The Martian Chronicles (1950). Bradbury charted the human colonization of Mars, which results in the passing of the true Martians in much the same way as the American continent was overrun by European colonists. Bradbury succeeds admirably in considering the tragedy of this alongside the hope. By the end of the book it is the humans who have become Martians.

“Gernsback wanted to keep scientific rigor to the forefront when he launched Amazing Stories, but he found that difficult as readers wanted more action-oriented fiction.”

The years after the Second World War, which ushered in the Atomic Age, brought a more realistic treatment of Martian colonization—as demonstrated in this anthology by the stories by Walter M. Miller and E. C. Tubb—but it also brought a new hope, that maybe there was still a romantic aspect to Mars. Arthur C. Clarke managed to blend the two objectives in The Sands of Mars (1951), which looks at a balanced and appropriate way to develop a Martian colony, while in Outpost Mars (1952), Judith Merril and Cyril Kornbluth (writing as Cyril Judd) contrast the dilemma between trying to establish a suitable colony and the determination to make it pay through plundering the planet’s resources. My own childhood memories of the BBC radio series Journey Into Space by Charles Chilton (particularly the 1954 serial The Red Planet) impressed on me how the Martians might be struggling to survive and would turn to Earth for salvation.

Despite recognizing the hostile environment of Mars, most writers still clung to the idea that there was some form of native life, such as the Bleekmen in Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip (1964) or the Amsirs in Algis Budrys’s The Iron Thorn (1967), the origins of which introduce another fascination among writers, of an ancient colonization of Mars.

So even as the Mariner and Viking probes began to dismantle our romantic vision of Mars, authors continued to provide hope. In Welcome to Mars (1967) James Blish even turned back the clock to the good old days to have a young boy discover antigravity and fly to Mars followed by his girlfriend, and between them work out how to survive on the planet and make some remarkable discoveries. Authors also explored how humans would adapt to Mars, such as in Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus (1976), or how the planet would adapt to humanity, as in Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road (1988) or Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy starting with Red Mars (1992). Maybe the Chinese will colonize Mars first, as Paul J. McAuley explored in Red Dust (1993). Authors have looked back into the Martian past to see if it ever was inhabited, as in Ben Bova’s Mars (1992) or whether it houses secrets that will reveal more about our place in the universe, as in Allen M. Steele’s Labyrinth of Night (1992). As many books—if not more—are being set on Mars as ever, showing how the ingenuity of humans can combat whatever Mars throws at them, as in Geoffrey A. Landis’s Mars Crossing (2000) or Andy Weir’s The Martian (2011).

The realization that Mars might not host life has not diminished our desire to reach the planet, despite the overwhelming challenges of the journey and the environment. Mars will continue to exert its fascination as much as it has for the last century, and the stories selected here are a reflection of that desire to explore those hopes and dreams.


Reprinted with permission from Lost Mars: Stories from the Golden Age of the Red Planet, edited by Mike Ashley, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2018 by Mike Ashley. All rights reserved.

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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