The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Mars in fiction

The dramatic red color and rapid apparent motion of the planet Mars as seen in the sky of Earth has always made it an object of interest, and this was only increased by early scientific speculations that its surface conditions might be capable of supporting life.

The standard depiction of Mars in fiction until the arrival of planetary probes derives from the astronomers Percival Lowell and Giovanni Schiaparelli. Schiaparelli had observed (or thought he had seen) 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. This of course, was the origin for a large number of science fiction scenarios.

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 by the natives Barsoom) 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:

Mars is the scene of the last of three recent Space Operas by John Barnes: In the Hall of the Martin King , 2003. The previous two novels were The Duke of Uranium , 2002, and A Princess of the Aerie , 2003.

Many of Robert A. Heinlein's works share a recurring Martian theme. His teenage fiction Red Planet includes some very intelligent Martians that closely resemble the (offstage) 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 happens on Mars, although this Mars has been thoroughly colonized by humans.

Philip K. Dick's Mars adopts the common scenario, but is just used 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 don't 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:

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 and Robinson's 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

Film and television

Other media

  • 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.
Last updated: 05-07-2005 02:12:47
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04