By Bud Webster
Mars — the Amply Read Planet
(I will preface my remarks here by admitting freely that my primary expertise is in written sf and not other media. Were I to more than merely mention the titles of a representative number of the innumerable sf movies set on Mars, good and bad, this essay would go on forever — and you would all have logged out hours before. So take it for granted that there are plenty of them out there, perhaps fodder for another article at another time.)
In 1877, Giovanni Schiaparelli looked through his telescope at Mars and saw...STUFF. He didn't know what it was, although he sketched out what appeared to be (and which he described as) an elaborate system of "canali," or channels. What were they? Well, it would be wonderful to be able to confirm that they were, in fact, canals, or vegetation, or anything else that would put some kind of life above the level of the microbial on the fourth planet, but the fact is that he probably saw some craters, a few shadows, and the combination of excitement and not terribly good optics by our standards naturally turned them into a pattern his brain could accept.
And thus it began, really. 20 years later, Percival Lowell was pretty sure that Mars was hot and dry, but certainly able to sustain life. With that kind of build-up by astronomical heavy-hitters, was it any wonder why writers glommed onto the Red Planet as a stage on which to place their actors? Mars was romantic, it was mysterious, it was right up there in the sky where we could see it. I mean, who knew what was going on up there, right?
Of course, speculation about what was going on up there had happened before this: Athanasius Kircher, a German priest and scientist, speculated about Mars in his Itinerarium Exstaticum back in 1656; Emanuel Swedenborg went all mystic in 1744 or so and wrote about Mars in The Earths In Our Solar System in 1787; and Anglican clergyman Wladislaw Lach-Szyrma wrote about a winged Venusian named Aleriel who traveled to Mars (among other planets) in 1874 in Aleriel, or A Voyage to Other Worlds.
And it went on after Schiaparelli, if anything at an even more heightened pace. Percy Greg wrote one of the first interplanetary novels, Across the Zodiac: The Story of a Wrecked Record, in 1880, in which the hero uses antigravity to send his spaceship to Mars where he finds a scientifically advanced society that nevertheless has its dark side: "wrong thoughts" are against the law, and women are bought and sold. Sort of like Cleveland.
UK writer Hugh McColl wrote Mr. Stranger's Sealed Packet in 1889, which tells of two Martian races, both originating on Earth, and of the Utopia created by one of them. This book may very well have been a major influence on HG Wells.
Antigravity shows up again in Irish author Robert Cromie's A Plunge Into Space from 1890, where we find yet another Utopia and a fatal romance. The 1891 edition of this book, by the way, had a preface by Jules Verne.
1894 saw the publication of Gustavus W. Pope's Romances of the Planets No. 1: Journey to Mars, where his Army officer hero falls in love with the Princess of an advanced Martian race. This was almost 20 years before Burroughs's A Princess of Mars, by the way.
In 1897, Kurd Lasswitz, who is to the Germans what Verne was to the French and Wells was to the English, wrote his best and longest novel, Auf zwei Planeten, which starts with the discovery of a Martian outpost in the Arctic. Humanity is placed under the benign protection of the superior Martians and begins to improve while the Martians (at least the ones here on Earth) get more and more decadent. Finally we throw off the yoke, rebel against our repressors, and equality is established between the two planets. We're given the feeling that a Utopia will ensue. There were lots of Utopias in those days.
But of course, the Big Daddy of them all, the one we keep going back to (and back to and back to, it seems) is Wells's The War of the Worlds, which burst on the scene in 1889 and hasn't had more than a couple of weeks vacation since. Wells really managed to tear it up in this book, utterly destroying several English towns including Wimbledon (apparently, the Martians weren't tennis fans), thus bringing his Interplanetary War right smack dab into the laps of his British readers. As many of you may know from having read the book yourselves, we humans don't fare too well in the battle, at least until someone sneezes. At that point, it's just a matter of time.
It's impossible to overstate the importance of The War of the Worlds and the influence it's had over the years. Not only has it been filmed several times, and a TV series based on it, but it entered the non-reading public's psyche in 1938 when another guy named Welles did it as a radio play and scared a significant number of his listeners into near-hysteria. Along with Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Wells's own The Invisible Man, it's probably the single best-known science fiction novel ever published.
Hard on the heels of this one — almost literally, it was published six weeks later — was the supposed sequel to the Wells, Garrett P. Serviss's Edison's Conquest of Mars, the first non-juvenile edisonade†. Seemingly a precursor to the radio play (while predating it by almost half a century), it deals with the destruction the Tripods rained down on America, specifically New York and New Jersey, thus allowing Thomas Edison to get involved, along with Lord Kelvin and Herr Roentgen. Edison figures out how the heat-ray works, finds a way to counteract it, then develops a "Ship of Space," and a disintegrator, all through the clever application of electricity, which, if Serviss's fervor is taken at face value, was also invented by Edison.
I'll quote just a bit here to give you some idea about both Serviss's enthusiasm about the wizard of Menlo Park and his skills as a writer:
"'Let the Martians come,' was the cry. 'If necessary, we can quit the earth as the Athenians fled from Athens before the advancing host of Xerxes, and like them, take refuge on our ships — these new ships of space, with which American inventiveness has furnished us.' [So much for Kepler and Roentgen.]
And then, like a flash, some genius struck out an idea that fired the world.
'Why should we wait? Why should we run the risk of having our cities destroyed and our lands desolated a second time? Let us go to Mars. We have the means. Let us beard the lion in his den. Let us ourselves turn conquerors and take possession of that detestable planet, and if necessary, destroy it in order to relieve the earth of this perpetual threat which now hangs over us like the sword of Damocles.'"
Hugo Gernsback couldn't have said it better. Seriously.
Moving into the 20th Century, Louis Pope Gratacap published his best-known novel, The Certainty of Future Life on Mars: Being the Posthumous Papers of Bradford Torrey Dodd in 1903. The narrator theorizes that dying humans here on Earth are reincarnated on Mars as embodied spirits, and radio communication with his late father from the Fourth Planet proves it. And here we have another Utopia, in which the native Martians are servants to the reincarnated humans. Schiapiarelli himself wrote the afterword for this one.
1905 saw Edwin Lester Arnold's Lieut. Gulliver Jones: His Vacation, in which yet another military officer, this one a sailor, falls in love with yet another Martian princess, although he has a fiancée at home, so being an officer and a gentleman, he does the Right Thing. By the way, Jones's transportation, far from being a "ship of space," is a flying carpet. Well, I guess anti-gravity is anti-gravity.
Finally, we come to someone who could have made a career of writing just about an army guy having Martian adventures, had he not already been too busy writing about white ape-men, civilizations at the center of the Earth, and guys having Venusian adventures: Edgar Rice Burroughs. The first of the Barsoom stories, A Princess of Mars, was published in 1912 in ALL-STORY MAGAZINE with the title "Under the Moons of Mars" and under the pseudonym of "Norman Bean." In it we first meet the intrepid Capt. John Carter, the lovely (if red-skinned and egg-laying) Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, the brave, four-armed Tars Tarkas, and banths and thoats and zitidars and all the other utterly impossible things that Burroughs populated Barsoom with.
And you know? It doesn't matter that John Carter got to Mars magically, or that the Mars depicted by Burroughs didn't make any sense even by 1912 scientific standards, or that he could never quite keep all the details straight. It's Barsoom, the stories are terrific, and what else matters? There would be ten more Barsoom novels by Burroughs's hand, and all of them would be read avidly and passionately by his fans.
Over the next 20 years, Mars became something of a cliché in the pulps. Austin Hall's 1923 story, "The Man Who Saved the Earth," was reprinted in the first issue of Amazing Stories three years later; space operatic maestro Edmond Hamilton published "Monsters of Mars" in the April 1931 Astounding; there were many others. Mars is, after all, an obvious choice: it's next in line, it's more or less visible with the naked eye, and there were all those "canals;" it's no wonder it was at the top of the list for sf writers. It's the Alter-Earth, in many cases the Über- Earth, and at times when it's impossible to think of Earth as romantic, Mars still beckons.
But Stanley Weinbaum's magnificent and seminal "A Martian Odyssey" in the July 1934 Wonder Stories put paid to those clichés. Oh, there had been a few stories that challenged what had become just another formula: P. Schuyler Miller's "The Forgotten Man of Space" with its sad, put-upon Martians, and C. L. Moore's wonderful "Shambleau" just to mention two. But the Weinbaum stepped outside almost all bounds. Told in an airy, brash style quite different from the stiffness of lesser pulpsters, "A Martian Odyssey" features the first really alien aliens in sf. Up until then, Martians were monsters or thinly disguised human. Weinbaum gave us weird stuff that he made little or no attempt to explain or justify. Hey, this is an alien planet, right?
Tweel, the first alien our hero meets, is vaguely bird-like and travels by leaping 100 feet at a jump, then landing on his "beak" in the ground. There's a creature, thousands of years old, that builds a series of pyramids to house itself, each one slightly larger than the other. Why? Because it's a Martian, and apparently that's one of the things Martians do. Weinbaum died at an early age, but not before his easy-going story-telling style would influence a whole generation of sf writers.
Clive Staples Lewis created a decidedly spiritual mythology for Mars in the first book of his Space Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, in 1938, supplanting Darwinism with Christian ethics as the basis for his version of the inevitable Utopia. Scientifically it's not much more accurate than the Burroughs stories, but as an allegory it works just fine.
Eight years later, something important happened: Ray Bradbury, a writer of some reputation even then, published "The Million Year Picnic" in Planet Stories. It was the first of his Martian stories, and would lead to his career outside the pulps. His 1950 collection, The Martian Chronicles, may very well be the single most important single-author collection in the field. Hugely popular, it not only influenced the writers who came after, but generations of readers as well. If your school library only had a single sf book in it, it was almost certainly The Martian Chronicles.
No more accurate scientifically than any of the others I've mentioned, and quite likely much less so, it remains a true classic. It doesn't matter whether or not the events in "Mars is Heaven" or "Way Up In the Middle of the Air" could happen, they did happen each and every time we opened the book. Such is the power of genius.
In 1949, Robert Heinlein began making notes on a novel based on the idea of a human raised from infancy by aliens. Six years later, he set aside the 54,000 words of A Martian Named Smith as unsalvageable. Five years after that, in 1960, Heinlein's agent submitted the final draft — all 160,000 words! — of The Man From Mars to Putnam. It wouldn't be until 1961 that it would acquire the title Stranger in a Strange Land. The rest is history. Nobody, including its author, was prepared for the response the book garnered over the years. Chapters of the Church of All Worlds popped up everywhere, and the book was a campus favorite for decades. Had he written nothing else after that, Heinlein would had lived quite comfortably off the royalties for the rest of his life.
Of course, this wasn't the only book he wrote about Mars, not even the first. The Red Planet, a juvenile, was published in 1949. Mars and its political interests were central to 1956's Double Star, as was the case in 1951's Between Planets to a somewhat lesser extent, and would be central to the classic Podkayne of Mars from 1962. But like Burroughs, there's a definite lack of consistency in Heinlein's Martians — they keep changing shape, size, and spiritual make-up from book to book. This always confused me as a kid.
Moving ahead a couple of years, the then-little known Roger Zelazny, only a year after publishing his first sf story, made his mark indelibly with the exquisite "A Rose for Ecclesiastes." Seemingly reversing the idea of Heinlein's Stranger, a poet-turned-preacher leads a decadent Martian race to a cultural revival. It would not be the last time Zelazny would take on religious themes, but it was certainly one of his finest.
Philip K. Dick went to Mars twice in the same year: Martian Time-Slip and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, both 1964, deal with human colonies in typical Dickian fashion, with reality shifts running more or less rampant. Much has been said by better than I about the seemingly perfect juxtaposition of the dry Martian desert environment and Dick's bleak psychological landscaping, so I'll merely mention it here and, for the sake of brevity, move on. He would, of course, return to Mars in "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," which I understand was made into a movie starring some politician guy.
Fred Pohl's 1976 Nebula winner, Man Plus, concerns not Terra-forming but terran-forming. A human is cybernetically enhanced to survive in the Martian environment, but not for the reasons he thinks. It's a grim story, with little romance.
However, Terra-forming is exactly what Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy is all about, or rather, to Terra-form or NOT to Terra-form. Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1996) are perhaps the most important books on the subject in a good thirty years, and certainly the most important work to date by the author. Described as "...the most detailed and impressive portrayal of the exploration and colonization of another planet ever published," this is Robinson's masterwork. His fellow writers agreed, as did his readers: the first of the trio won the Nebula for best novel, and the other two won Hugos in the same category.
Its scope is impressive. The story begins 21 years from now, but by the end, some of the characters are two centuries old. In the beginning, a collection of 100 scientists (many of whom don't survive the story) are carefully chosen to be the first human colonists. After a "trial by ice" — a year spent together in Antarctica — they're sent on, Earth authorities having been convinced that they're compatible and stable as a group.
Except, of course, that they're people, and they form secret alliances, factions, schisms, and generally blow apart when they hit dirt. Divided into those who want to make Mars like Earth and those who just as passionately want it to remain as pristine as possible, and further into those who want to remain independent and those still loyal to Earth, feuds erupt into terrorism, and the Center can no longer hold. Things fall apart.
In the second book, the Original Hundred are hunted by Earth's corporate "metanations." They scatter, go underground, and otherwise rebel against what they see as Earth trying to turn the fourth planet into just another resource to exploit. Reluctantly re-joining, and teaming up with a corporate metanat who seems to be the least of many evils, they do what they can to influence the new colonists to view Mars as an independent planet, not just a corporate enclave. In the last book, Mars has oceans and — pace, Schiaparelli — canals. It also has an increasing dichotomy between the Reds, who want it to return to its original state (or as close as can still sustain life) and the Greens, who want it as Earth-like as possible. No Utopia here.
I will not go into further detail about this story. If you've read it, you already know; if you haven't, I wouldn't want to take the surprises away from you. But I will urge each and every one of you with any love for hard sf to find these books and read them. It's a high-water mark for the genre, one that isn't going to be equaled by anyone anytime soon. In a very real way, it restores much of the romanticism that our increasing knowledge of the realities of Mars takes away. If you like science fiction, you owe it to yourself to read the Mars Trilogy.
1999 saw the publication of a truly bizarre Mars tale: Larry Niven's Rainbow Mars. Originally planned as a collaboration between Niven and Terry Pratchett, it features Niven's hapless time-traveler, Hanville Svetz, and his journey to Mars to bring back the builder of the Martian canals. What he finds is, as usual, decidedly not what he was sent for. Instead, he finds elements from the Burroughsian, Wellsish, Bradbury-ite, and Heinleinian Marses, along with a Princess (who learns to surf!) and enough recursive science fictional in-jokes to float a largish thing that otherwise wouldn't float. It's his best in years, and even if you don't get all the jokes, it's fun to hunt for them.
So, how has science fiction treated Mars? Quite well, I'd say. Leaving aside importing Menlo Park inventors to wreak havoc, I think we've done pretty well by Ol' Red. And, of course, it's been very, very good to us. We've stayed pretty well up with the facts as they became known, and if we didn't, well, call it poetic license. Face it, facts should never be allowed to get in the way of a good yarn. It's still up there, of course, waiting for us to send something it can really use, and not just all these crawlers and probes and stuff. Mars wants us, just as much as we want it, and it's waited a long, long time for us to be ready.
Now, I realize I've left many, many books and stories out, and if I've missed your favorite, I apologize. Chalk it up to the limits of time, both in preparation and in presentation. Believe me, if I could have, I'd have mentioned every single one of them, and everybody but me would have been bored toothless. To help make up for that, and just for giggles, I've made a list of what I consider to be the 100 best story titles that mention Mars, and here they are:
†Ah, the edisonade, that most basic and American sub-genre, in which a (usually) young, (always) American inventor uses his (never her) ingenuity to save his country, and the world if necessary, from alien invaders, evil superscientists, Chinese dacoits, women of loose morals, and anything else the author can think of to throw at him. The Skylark books by Doc Smith are edisonades, as are, of course, the Tom Swift books.
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