On July 27th, 2018, Mars will enter opposition. It will be the closest it has been to our pale blue dot in fifteen years. Right now, unfortunately for us, there appears to be a planet-wide dust-storm that obscures planetary detail through a scope. But without any optical aid, Mars appears as a sanguine orb in the constellation Capricornus. Mars, like the other four planets visible to the naked eye – Mercury, Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter, stuck out to ancient societies. Not only were these celestial objects remarkably bright, unlike the stars, they sometimes appear to move backward. Our word planet derives from the Greek planetai, literally wandering star. Mars is unique in how it has captured our attention in both antiquity and modern times. From its striking appearance to tales of canals and dreams of colonization, Mars has been a staple in our collective cultural conscience for as long as we have looked to the skies. What follows is a whirlwind tour of the stories we tell about Mars.
The planet’s distinct red appearance led many cultures to attribute it to war or pestilence. The Sumerians named it Nergul, after their god of war and plague. The Romans knew it as Mars, adopted from the Greek Ares and even had a day named after it – dies Martis. Around the 1st Century AD, the Germanic tribes worked to identify and associate Roman gods with their deities, a process we call interpretatio germanica. The day of Tyr, which we now know as Tuesday, was their analog to Mars. Mars was significant for reasons beyond cultural stories, some of the earliest astronomical observations involved the planets. The Chinese were aware of Mars from at least the 4th century BC. Around the same time, Aristotle observed the occultation of Mars by the moon and deduced that Mars was further away. The Egyptians were familiar with retrograde motion, naming Mars “Shining Horus, the star of the east in heaven that runs its course backward.” But it is with the advent of the telescopic viewing of Mars that gave birth to many of our science fiction stories today.
The Italian astronomer Giovani Schiaparelli observed Mars in 1877 and noted unusual formations he called canelli or channels. We know now that what Giovani saw were optical illusions. Unfortunately, translations into English led the word to transform into “canal” – something that implies an artificial heritage. Percival Lowell, an eccentric American businessman and polymath, took the idea and ran with it. He published a series of books detailing his various theories about intelligent life on Mars, starting with Mars in 1895. Even at the time, the books were controversial, but science fiction authors loved the concept and began incorporating it into their works.
The earliest science fiction writers to take advantage of supposed life on Mars was HG Wells’ War of the Worlds in 1898 and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series in 1912. Alien invaders greedy for Earth’s resources is a familiar trope, but it was Burroughs’ tales of John Carter’s escapades on a dying Martian planet that influenced the next generation of authors during the golden age of science fiction. There are, of course, many other beautiful stories about Mars, and it is unfortunately impossible to cover all of them.
John Campbell was the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, and he ushered in a new style of science fiction. The focus shifted from pulp super-science to a more grounded view of the possible, to characters and ideas instead of gadgets. Many of the luminaries of science fiction had their start writing for Campbell – Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and many others. During that time, Ray Bradbury wrote Martian Chronicles (1950), a series of short stories telling how humans traveled to Mars, met its inhabitants, and the aftermath of what happens after catastrophe befalls both species. The idea of Martians and Mars as an old and dying race is something that appears as a genre staple throughout the pulp and golden age eras. Robert Heinlein’s Martians in Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and The Red Planet (1949) are decidedly more alien but still exist as an ancient species on an old and dying planet. All that changed in 1965 with Mariner 4’s arrival to the Red Planet.
The Mariner 4 mission came at a tumultuous time for the country, with the Cuban Missile Crisis and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination happening only a few years earlier. Mariner 4 found no canals. It found a planet with a thin atmosphere with no surface water whatsoever. Mars was not an older, slowly dying analog to Earth. It was a dead and desolate planet. Science fiction was also changing. The belief that technology was the solution to all our problems seemed hopelessly naïve in the face of nuclear annihilation. Stories like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) by Philip K. Dick (which later became the movie Blade Runner) depict Mars as a penal colony. The theme of Martian colonists rebelling against rule by Earthlings became popular, and in general, the tales took on a more dystopian hue.
Fast forward to today. For a time, it seemed the age of exploration is over. Next year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of humanity landing on the moon, and we have never been beyond it. But now people are talking unironically of one-way trips to Mars. Billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are plowing their resources into developing rockets for space missions. Books and movies like The Martian portray human habitation on Mars not just as a technical marvel, but as something heroic in and of itself. Mars lures us with a sense of adventure we thought gone, and the hope of immortality in a form. Carl Sagan said, “Mars has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears.” Thus has it been, thus shall it ever be.