Mars in fiction

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The depiction of Mars in fiction has been stimulated by the dramatic red color and rapid apparent motion of the planet Mars as seen in the sky of Earth, and this was only increased by early scientific speculations that its surface conditions might be capable of supporting life.

Until the arrival of planetary probes, the traditional view of Mars derives from the astronomers Percival Lowell and Giovanni Schiaparelli. Schiaparelli observed what he took to be linear features on the face of Mars, which he thought might be water channels. However, since the Italian word he used for channels was canali, the accounts of his work in English tended to translate that as "canals"; with attendant implications of artificial construction. Lowell's books on Mars expanded on this notion of canals on Mars, and the standard model of Mars as a drying, cooling, dying world was established, with ancient Martian civilizations having constructed irrigation works that spanned the planet. Thus originated a large number of science fiction scenarios.

H.G. Wells' conception of a Martian walking on its home planet

Some of these concerned the attempts by the Martian race(s) to take the desirable warmer wetter world of Earth:

This was spoofed by Fredric Brown in Martians, Go Home.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, true to form, was more concerned with writing adventure stories, so his novels featuring earthman John Carter on Mars (called Barsoom by the natives) are space opera, with princesses, energy weapons and swords, and exotic animals. Leigh Brackett's The Sword of Rhiannon (1953) is another example of the type.

Other approaches to the planet feature intelligent Martians who are much older and wiser than humans:

  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, in which the humanlike Martians have copper-colored skin, human emotions, and the ability to read minds. They are a dying race whose culture is quite advanced.
  • Stanley G. Weinbaum's A Martian Odyssey, in which alien intelligent beings are described who really don't think or act like humans (a rare feature for pulp science fiction of the time).
  • C.S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet (1938) is an interesting example of theological science fiction. It is the first book of the Space Trilogy and features a philologist named Ransom who is forced to travel to Mars (called Malacandra by the natives).
  • H. Beam Piper's short story "Omnilingual", in which archaeologists excavating the remains of a humanoid Martian civilization find an entire library: but the problem is, what can they use for a Rosetta Stone?
  • A.N. Tolstoy's novel Aelita in 1922—one of the first in Soviet science fiction—describes a Soviet expedition headed by engineer Los arrives there. Los falls in love with the beautiful Aelita, daughter of the Martian Supreme Ruler, while Los' companion is trying to organise a communist revolution which is supposed to bring happiness and progress to the ancient and stagnating civilisation.
    A 1927 Soviet poster advertising the 1924 movie Aelita: Queen of Mars, based on the novel by Aleksey Tolstoy.
  • H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos depicts Mars is the home of the Aihai people; Yog-Sothoth's son Vulthoom dwells in the cavern of Ravornos there (Clark Ashton Smith's Vulthoom, 1935).

Mars is the scene of the last of three recent Space Operas by John Barnes: In the Hall of the Martian King (2003). The previous two novels were The Duke of Uranium 2002) and A Princess of the Aerie (2003). He also sets one of the two Meme Wars novels on Mars: The Sky So Big and Black (2002).

Many of Robert A. Heinlein's works share a recurring Martian setting. His teenage fiction Red Planet includes some very intelligent Martians that closely resemble the (off-stage) Martians of his better known philosophical work Stranger in a Strange Land. Other stories featuring Mars, however, take no notice of native Martians. In The Number of the Beast, the heroes flee Earth in a car capable of flight in six dimensions and find Mars colonized by the British. Podkayne of Mars also takes place on Mars, although this Mars has been thoroughly colonized by humans. Other Heinlein novels featuring Mars are: The Rolling Stones and Double Star.

Philip K. Dick adopts the common scenario, but merely uses it as a backdrop for the interactions of his characters; his Mars is an almost empty, dry land, with isolated communities and individuals, most of whom do not want to be there. (The Days of Perky Pat, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Martian Time Slip). The characters in these stories could be in small communities in the Arizona desert, but placing them on Mars emphasises their isolation, both from one another and from Earth.

After the Mariner and Viking spacecraft had returned pictures of Mars as it really is in 1965, the canals and ancient civilizations had to be abandoned. Roger Zelazny's "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" was the exception to this: knowing the true conditions of Mars, Zelazny deliberately set the story in farewell to the old conception of Mars, complete with canals and an ancient, dying Martian race. (Just as his story "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth" was a farewell to the old science fictional Venus).

Authors soon began writing stories based on the new Mars (frequently treating it as a desert planet):

A common theme, particularly amongst American writers, is of a Martian colony in revolt for independence from Earth. This is a major plot element in Bear's, Robinson's and Sykes' books, and was part of the plot of the movie Total Recall and the television series Babylon 5. Many video games also use this element, such as the Red Faction and Zone of the Enders series.

Not taking itself at all seriously was Larry Niven's Rainbow Mars — the title seems to be a lampoon upon Robinson's three-colored Mars trilogy — in which a time machine is used to visit ancient Mars. The only problem being that time travel is impossible, and the machine actually travels back to a fictitious Mars. The protagonist meets a wide variety of different Martians, including most of those from the pre-spaceprobe novels listed above.

  • Don't be mislead by another of Niven's novels co-written with Stephen Barnes, the Barsoom Project - despite its title, there is at best a tenuous connection to Mars.

Other stories

  • Ananke by Stanisław Lem (a story in More Tales of Pirx the Pilot)
  • Outpost Mars by "Cyril Judd" (C.M. Kornbluth and Judith Merril)
  • No Man Friday by Rex Gordon
  • The Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke involves a reporter who makes the long voyage to a post-Mariner desert Mars to write about the human colonists and along the way discovers there is life on Mars after all.
  • Voyage by Stephen Baxter
  • Birth of Fire by Jerry Pournelle is the story of a troubled youth transported to Mars as a convict laborer who becomes involved with a rebellion by independent farmers and tradesmen who want to terraform Mars and break the stranglehold by the corporations and domed cities sponsored by Earth govenrments.
  • In Police Your Planet by Lester Del Rey a disgraced, embittered Earth cop is exiled to a Mars that has been thoroughly corrupted by domed city life -- he who controls the air machinery makes the rules. The local police and city government are utterly corrupt, Chicago style. At first he tries to fit in, then his contact with other downtrodden outsiders renews his old idealism. More violent Mickey Spillane than noble American Revolution.

Film and television

Other media

  • The 1962 card series Mars Attacks! depicts an invasion of Earth by hideous, skeletal Martians. The exaggerated, satirical violence of the series made it a cult favorite.
  • The pop song "Life on Mars?" by David Bowie (which isn't really about life on Mars).
  • The classic first-person shooter computer game Doom begins on the moons of Mars.
  • The successful first-person shooter Red Faction tells the story of a Martian mining colony that leads a revolt to take control of the autocratic government.
  • The computer game Elite 2 starts on Mars in one scenario.
  • The role-playing game Space: 1889 features an alternate history in which a heroic Mars, complete with natives, is being colonized by the European empires of the 19th century.
  • In the DC Universe, the Martian Manhunter (J'onn J'onzz) (1955) is a superhero and member of the Justice League. In at least some variations, he is believed to be the last of his race.
  • Mars was the home planet of the Biker Mice from Mars (1993): Throttle, Modo & Vinnie. Other Martian Mice include Carbine, Stoker, and Rimfire.
  • In the video game Destroy All Humans! (2005), the Martians were wiped out by the Furons.
  • In the 1993 video game Doom, game events took place on military bases on both of Mars's moons, Phobos and Deimos. The 2004 sequel Doom 3 is set on Mars itself.

See also

Mars (mythology)