A modified post, originally posted in August 2012.
I can’t think of any planet (to which we have sent probes) that has received more attention than Mars. Since a time even before HG Wells, it has captured our imagination. Wells may have been the first, but since then it has only gone on to fuel imagination further. With a manned mission planned for the next few decades, I feel The Red Planet is about to move into a new phase.
It’s a God Awful Small Affair
Around half the diameter and circumference of our own planet, Mars was discovered during the ancient world and received much attention from the Egyptians. A thousand years later, it drew the attention of both Ptolemy and Aristotle who commented on its peculiar motions, theorising that the body was farther away from Earth than the moon. This is something we take for granted today, but at the time when we did not have the understanding of stellar bodies, it was a peculiarity. It would take until the 19th century before we would be able to observe the planet and it was during that century that the “canals” were identified. A mistranslation of “channels” it fuelled speculation about the existence of life, of which Percy Greg’s Across the Zodiac was the first novel. Artists and writers alike got carried away with themselves about the nature of life and ecology on a planet we now know to be barren rock, but clearly once had flowing water along its surface.
Could There Be Life On Maaaaars?
HG Wells The War of the Worlds was not the first, but it is the most famous of the early works. Like many late colonial era novels, it focused on the damage of an immeasurably superior force’s impact on society. Amongst Wells’ predictions were chemical warfare, the damage of invasive plant species and a native population unable to win anything more than a handful of superficial victories. In the end, the Martian invaders are defeated by evolution – an Earthly virus against which they had no defence.
The next big title in Mars literary history was Ray Bradbury who wrote The Martian Chronicles, published in 1950. This is a very different fair. Humans can now afford individual space travel and millions of people leave Earth for Mars. Amongst them are black Americans. The action kick starts a kind of Civil Rights Movement (which at the time of write was still at least another five to ten years away). It is a collection of stories featuring colonists arriving at and then leaving Mars.
The Planet That Helps You Work, Rest and Play
I am going to skip over all the other wonderful and diverse fictional portrayals of Mars and go straight to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Colours Mars. It is is one of if not the best of the modern novels set on the red planet.
I love this trilogy; I particularly love the way the planet itself is portrayed in Red Mars. It is a completely alien landscape yet rather than focus on how barren, bleak and ugly it is, Robinson makes it feel very much alive with its own ecology – albeit free of organic life until the end of the first book.
In the second book Green Mars, the old Martian landscape is changing as the terraforming is well under way. Plants are growing but the atmosphere is not quite breathable yet and it is still bitterly and dangerously cold. It is toward the end of this book that science gives way to politics, once again giving this trilogy life. As the first borns of Mars and their subsequent generations start to ask questions about their place in humanity, they begin to question why they should have any loyalty to Earth – a planet they never visited.
Perhaps reminiscent of American independence, this is at the forefront of the story for the final part Blue Mars. The Mars natural borns are looking to create a new society away from the old values of Earth. Mars is a new planet, a new society for a new future, not just a colony of Earth through which humanity exploits its resources.
Mars is our nearest neighbour and as such it has always held a fascination for scientists and fiction writers alike. Back in the 19th century, people speculated about the life that might have existed there and the nature of its environments. From H.G. Wells to the present day, we continue to speculate about the planet.
“I’m Going To Have to Science The Shit Out of This”
We have learnt more about Mars in the last 20 years than in so many decades before that. No matter how much we learn, we continue to speculate. Each new discovery wows us even more. The information has become so broad and in-depth, that Andy Weir was able to use what we know to write a novel about an astronaut stranded on Mars. A film version of The Martian starring Matt Damon was released in 2015.
The book was praised for its technical detail and strong focus on survival. This translates very well on film, although some have commented that it is a lot less in depth in the film than in the book – perhaps understandably. Sometimes, books don’t translate well to film.
With a planned mission to Mars and the first manned landing expected in the next 10-20 years, I suspect that although we will have a great many more answers about our nearest neighbour, that it will only pose even more questions. We still do not know everything about our own planet and maybe the greatest mysterious that Mars has to offer is yet to be explored in science and in science fiction.
Your turn: do you have any favourite Mars-set fiction not mentioned above?