With the recent landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, interest in our planetary neighbor has never been greater. And why not? Mars has long been believed the most viable planet to support life, and if we ever send mankind to another planet, it makes sense that we see what's next door. In fact, the purpose of the Curiosity mission is to investigate whether Mars is, or ever was, capable of hosting microbial life.

If they find it, let me be the first to welcome our Martian microbial overlords. In the meantime, let's take a look at how Mars was seen through the imaginative lens of science fiction.

Read the last SF Signal on science fiction works on floods.

The Early Works

Continue reading >


Would you have guessed that Mars has been the subject of science fiction stories for more than a century? One of the first is Melbourne and Mars: My Mysterious Life on Two Planets (1889) by Joseph Fraser, about a man who forms a telepathic link with a child on Mars. In that story, Mars was portrayed as a technological Utopia. But it wasn't until nine years later, when Mars was seen as the enemy, that the Red Planet made its mark in science fiction. The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898) sees England coming under attack by Martians hell-bent on destruction. The book has remained popular because it serves not only a gripping alien invasion spectacle, but also as social commentary on British Imperialism and evolution.

In 1905, Edwin Lester Linden Arnold wrote Gullivar of Mars, an imaginative take on Gulliver's Travels in which Gullivar Jones travels to Mars on a magic carpet. (Is this science fiction's first mashup?) Another classic of early science fiction, and one of the definitive science fiction book involving Mars, is Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, a planetary romance where our hero, John Carter, must rescue Princess Dejah Thoris on Barsoom (the local name for Mars). Burroughs' imagined Mars as home to races of many colors and thus offered an interesting look at social and class dynamics...not to mention an action-heavy plot. A Princess of Mars originally appeared in serial form in 1912 (under the title Under the Moons of Mars) but it was later published as a novel that Burroughs followed up with nine more Barsoom books.

Henlein Does Mars

Science Fiction grandmaster Robert A. Heinlein wrote several novels that use Mars in some way as a setting for his science fiction stories. Red Planet (1949) features a boarding school on Mars and a group of colonists trying to free themselves from tyrannical Earth authorities with the help of aliens. In 1952's The Rolling Stones, a family of Lunar residents (Loonies) purchase a used spaceship, fix it up, and explore the solar system. Their first stop: Mars, where they accidentally violate import regulations. In Podkayne of Mars (1962), a teenage girl who lives on Mars, her younger brother and their uncle encounter trouble on their way to Earth. It's worth noting here another one of Heinlein's classics, Stranger in a Strange Land, which involves a Martian-born man, Valentine Michael Smith, who returns to Earth and experiences our Earthly culture through his alien eyes.

benbovamars A Handful of Martian Trilogies

Perhaps the go-to novels of modern Mars fiction is The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson (1990s). Across its three volumes (Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars), it chronicles the establishment of a Mars settlement and the subsequent terraforming of the planet to make it suitable for human life, a response to the overpopulation and ecological problems of Earth.

Ben Bova features Mars as three-part subseries of his Grand Tour, a series that focuses on the search for extraterrestrial life in different parts of our solar system. Mars (1992), Return to Mars (1999) and Mars Life (2008) deal with the exploration of Mars and the consequences of some fascinating discoveries made there, underscored by the subsequent clash between science and politics. Marsbound by Joe Haldeman (2008) is an adventure story about a young Mars colonist who discovers that humans are not the Red Planet's first inhabitants. The implications of this discovery are also examined in the sequels Starbound (2010) and Earthbound (2011). Meanwhile, Michael Moorcock's Kane of Old Mars trilogy (1960s, comprised of Warrior of Mars, Blades of Mars and Barbarians of Mars) is a tribute to Burroughs' Barsoom books in which its hero, like John Carter, leads the life of adventure.

Stay Tuned!

There are lots more stories involving the Red Planet. If you're curious to know more, tune in next week for Part 2!

John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a Hugo-nominated group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. He also like bagels.