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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 attending implications of artificial construction. Lowell's books on Mars expanded on this notion, 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:

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 pure primitive 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.

More thoughtful approaches to the planet, generally featuring intelligent Martians much older and wiser than the upstart humans included:

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, 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.

Not taking itself at all seriously was Larry Niven's Rainbow Mars; 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.

Other stories

Film and television

Other media

  • The pop song Life on Mars by David Bowie
  • The game Doom, the classic first-person shooter game, begins on mars.
  • The computer game Elite 2 starts on Mars too in one scenario.



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