Mars in Pop Culture: Literature

Why is it that people tend to talk of "Martians," rather than, say, "Saturnians" or "Jovians," when the topic of extraterrestrial life is broached? Historically, Mars was thought to be the most likely of the planets to harbor life. Popular culture in the form of literature, and then later radio and film, reflected such beliefs.

Public fascination with Martians began in the late 19th century when, in 1877, astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported observations of large canali (meaning "channels") on Mars. Unfortunately, the term "canali" was mistranslated as "canals" in English. The Suez Canal, an engineering marvel of its time, had been completed in 1869, suggesting to some people that innovative Martians must have built the martian canals.

In 1897, H. G. Wells’s "The War of the Worlds" was the first major work to explore the concept of the extraterrestrial invader. This concept exerted a considerable influence on the public psyche, and consequently, Mars began to take a special place in popular culture around the turn of the 20th century. Even astronomers such as Percival Lowell seriously countenanced the possibility of advanced lifeforms as described in his book, "Mars as the Abode of Life" (1910).

Of course, this is not to belittle the unique role Mars has played in the history of science. In particular, the recorded movement of Mars in the night sky led Johannes Kepler to formulate his three laws of planetary motion (two in 1609 and the third in 1618). These laws shattered medieval, anthropocentric notions of astronomy, and laid the foundations for the discoveries of Isaac Newton.

By looking at how Mars is represented in literature, radio and film, we can see how it has inspired human imagination, sometimes in rather peculiar ways.

The following is a review of Mars in the history of literature.


Gulliver’s Travel, by J.Swift

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726)

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), the great Irish writer and satirist, makes a curious reference to Mars’s satellites in Gulliver’s Travels. In the book, astronomers on the fictional island of Laputa (whose king is fond of solving mathematical problems) are said to have discovered two satellites around Mars. Swift details the orbital mechanics with reference to Kepler’s laws.

Part III, Chapter 3:
"[The astronomers] have likewise discovered two lesser stars, or satellites, which revolve about Mars, whereof the innermost is distant from the center of the primary planet exactly three of his diameters, and the outermost five; the former revolves in the space of ten hours, and the latter in twenty-one and a half; so that the squares of their periodical times are very near in the same proportion with the cubes of their distance from the center of Mars, which evidently shows them to be governed by the same law of gravitation that influences the other heavenly bodies."

Mars does have two moons – Phobos, the inner satellite, and Deimos, the outer one. By they were not discovered until 1877, by the American astronomer Asaph Hall. Was the assumption of two satellites just a lucky guess on Swift’s part? And was it also coincidental that he correctly guessed that the inner satellite orbited Mars in less than a day? (Phobos has an orbital period of 0.32 of a day; Deimos 1.26 of a day).

Kepler had speculated that Mars had two moons, and Swift was almost certainly aware of this. Kepler based his speculation on naive mathematical intuition: because Venus had no moon and Earth had one moon, Mars must have two moons as an outwards progression from the sun.

Read Gulliver’s Travels online.

Herbert G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (serialized: 1897; book: 1898)

"The Wars of the Worlds" is the story of the invasion of Earth by technologically-advanced Martians. The Martians flee their dying planet and descend in ten immense rocket capsules in southern England. Their plan, to take over the Earth and its resources, begins with an attack on London. People flee in panic, helpless against the superior weaponry of the Martians, which includes a Heat Ray and poisonous Black Smoke. Victory seems secure when suddenly the Martians succumb to a fatal infection by terrestrial germs.

The 1890s were unhappy times for Wells as a struggling writer but fortunate ones for his literature. "The Wars of the Worlds" is a classic of English literature and much unlike the tawdry, sensationalist sci-fi writing and films that have imitated and recapitulated Wells’s ideas. In the novel, a Wells-like writer on philosophy and science narrates the story. The book reflects a period when a transition was occurring in Wells’s thinking from the entirely pessimistic worldview of his earlier "The Time Machine" (1895) to a more optimistic vision for future mankind evident in Wells’s later writing.

"War of the Worlds" has shaped the popular view of the red planet. Is Mars the planet of war?

Historically, "The Wars of the Worlds" followed a series of semi-documentary novels that predicted war in Europe following the unification and militarization of Germany beginning with George Chesney’s "The Battle of Dorking" (1871). In addition, "The War of the Worlds" is very much a product of ideas that were at the forefront of Wells’s nineteenth century mind. These include Darwinism, i.e. cumulative selection in biological systems, and a growing awareness of the unpleasant side effects of technology such as industrial slums, instruments of war, and irresponsible power. The monstrous Martians, the narrator tells us, have mutated with the help of technology from their once humanoid form to a disgusting, vampire-like state — they are a possible future for mankind. Apparent progress has somehow led to decline.

Indeed, this idea is inherent in the vulnerability of the Martians: "Micro-organisms…have either never appeared on Mars or Martian sanitary science eliminated them ages ago". So it is biology that ultimately defeats the Martians:

"These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things – taken toll of our pre-human ancestors since life began here…By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all-comers…For neither do men live nor die in vain."

The last sentence, which ordinarily would be a cliché of Victorian sentimentality, is a Darwinist insight in this context. The moral, perhaps, to Wells’s story is that technology will not defeat us or turn us into the nightmare Martians as long as we hold fast to our diverse biological heritage — a moral which is just as relevant to our environmentally-threatened world today as it was to Victorian England.

Famous opening paragraph: (note how the ubiquitous micro-organisms which prove crucial later in the plot are mentioned here at the very beginning of the novel)

"No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment."

The whole text of "The War of the Worlds" is available online.

Edgar Rice Burroughs – The Martian Tales

Perhaps better known as the creator of "Tarzan of the Apes," Edgar Rice Burroughs also wrote westerns and science fiction – a total of 97 stories. Burroughs’s series of Mars novels, also known as "The Martian Tales," is comprised of eleven novels which describe the adventures of a nineteenth century Confederate Civil War veteran (like Burroughs’s father) named John Carter who is transported to Mars, where he must adapt to its strange cultures.

Was Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan’s creator, thinking of a martian jungle?

Carter, as a classic fictional hero, frequently encounters life-threatening situations which he only narrowly escapes. Carter marries, has children, rises to the top of Martian politics, and there fights for justice. His noble actions reflect Burroughs’s personal moral beliefs. Burroughs, like many other writers, envisions a dying Mars with oceans that are drying up and constantly warring kingdoms fighting desperately against the peril of a vanishing atmosphere and against each other.

From "A Princess on Mars" (written in 1911, first published hardback in 1917):

"I opened my eyes upon a strange and weird landscape. I knew that I was on Mars; not once did I question either my sanity or my wakefulness. I was not asleep, no need for pinching here; my inner consciousness told me as plainly that I was upon Mars as your conscious mind tells you that you are upon Earth. You do not question the fact; neither did I."

The often used phrase "little green men" to refer to aliens may have come from Burroughs’s first book on Mars, "A Princess on Mars." He describes the "green men of Mars," and they reappear frequently in his other Martian novels. Still, he never uses the exact phrase.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first reference for "little green man" is from Kipling’s "Puck of Pook’s Hill" (1906). Its use here refers to an actual person who has been tattooed green, and so although it coins the phrase "little green man," it does not appear to be a reference to aliens. The next OED reference to "little green men" is not until 1961, from Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang: "Little green men, mysterious beings alleged to have been seen emerging from flying saucers."

Burroughs’s works can be accessed online.

Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles (1951, also published as "The Silver Locusts")

Ray Bradbury’s thought-provoking science fiction, written in highly literate prose, arguably makes him one of the world’s best science fiction authors. "The Martian Chronicles" is a collection of loosely tied short stories, which together comprise the story of man’s conquest of Mars. Many of the chapters in "The Martian Chronicles" were published separately, sometimes with minor changes, sometimes with different titles; these include "There Will Come Soft Rains," "The Fire Balloons," and others.

Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury.

In early science fiction, Martians are the most common culprits for invasions of Earth – a trend that started with "The War of the Worlds" by H.G. Wells. In Bradbury’s "The Martian Chronicles," it is the other way around: humans are the alien invaders on Mars. As in H. G. Wells’s seminal novel, the Martians are killed by terrestrial bacteria. But this time the Martians are a beautiful, wise and ancient civilization. The book raises important questions about human behavior, and how people should react when they encounter alien races. It is a study of man’s selfishness, in particular, the destruction of culture by ignorant politicians and businessmen.

"…The Men of Earth came to Mars. They came because they were afraid or unafraid, because they were happy or unhappy, because they felt like Pilgrims or did not feel like Pilgrims. There was a reason for each man. They were leaving bad wives or bad towns; they were coming to find something or leave something or get something, to dig up something or bury something or leave something alone. They were coming with small dreams or large dreams or none at all….it was not unusual that the first men were few. The numbers grew steadily in proportion to the census of Earth Men already on Mars. There was comfort in numbers. But the first Lonely Ones had to stand by themselves…"

For further information, see: The Martian Chronicles Study Guide and The Ray Bradbury Page.

Robert Heinlein – Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)

"I have been a stranger in a strange land," Exodus 2:22, gave the title to Robert Heinlein’s "Stranger in a Strange Land." This book tends to be a favorite amongst sci-fi fans — it won a Hugo award in 1962. It was the first book by a devoted science-fiction writer to reach the New York Times best-seller list.

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein.

Valentine Michael Smith, born on Mars, is the sole survivor of the first manned mission to the planet. Subsequently, he is raised and educated by Martians. When Smith visits Earth as a young man, he has human instincts but an alien perspective and superhuman psychic powers.

The time is roughly the 1990s, as written from the 1960s, and terrestrial society is envisioned to be highly commercialized and corrupt ("He’s an honest politician. He stays bought."). Smith progresses from a total ignorance of this (essentially western) culture to an understanding of human psychology. Eventually, his efforts to reconcile human and Martian sensibilities give rise to a new "free love" religion through which people achieve spiritual transformation. There is a tragic but unsurprising ending.

Kim Stanley Robinson – Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1995), Blue Mars (1997).

This trilogy is a thought-provoking story of terraforming Mars that stretches more than three centuries into the future. What distinguishes Kim Stanley Robinson’s books from other science fiction is the sheer array of socio-economic issues that is confronted: post-corporate governance, environmental ethics, population growth, human longevity, and natural capital issues. On the other hand, the trilogy does suffer from the intransigent assumptions of a "technological optimist" worldview. (Is terraforming Mars really possible, I ask?)

Blue Mars, from Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Red Mars describes the colonization efforts of the first hundred settlers on Mars. Splits develop between colonists favoring rapid terraforming to a "Green Mars" and a minority of "Reds" who want to see Mars preserved in its present state. Issues of corporate control versus democracy eventually culminate in an attempt by the Martians to gain independence from Earth and its transnationals.

The second book, "Green Mars," deals with the transition of Mars to an Earth-like world with a breathable atmosphere in the late 21st century. Meanwhile Earth itself is undergoing severe environmental catastrophes due to environmental degradation by the cumulative effects of industrial pollution.

"Blue Mars" describes the resolution of conflicts in terrestrial and Martian societies.

This discussion of books about Mars is by no means exhaustive, but merely presents some highlights. Other contemporary Mars novels worth mentioning include Ben Bova’s "Mars" and "Return to Mars," Greg Bear’s "Moving Mars," Geoffrey Landis’s "Mars Crossing," and C. K. Anderson’s "A Step Beyond."

Related Web Pages

Mars Rovers/JPL
Mars Movie Guide
Giving Mars Back its Heartbeat
Looking for Martian Life
Should We Terraform?
Walking Naked on the Red Planet
United Nations of Mars
Living on Mars
The Martian Future