Imagining Life on Mars: A Reading List

Imagining Life on Mars: A Reading List

Imagining life on Mars - a reading list

Kelly and Zach Weinersmith’s A City on Mars discusses what a space colony on that planet might look like. Science fiction authors, though, have been imagining life on the Red Planet for well over a century (some coming closer to reality than others).

The concept of intelligent life on Mars was likely sparked in the late 19th century. Improved telescopes allowed scientists to notice long, straight lines on its surface (first described by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877). Some speculated that these channels or canals were engineered by some sort of native creature. Although this notion was debunked in the early 20th century, it triggered the idea that there could be intelligent life on Mars, which over the ensuing decades became a staple of science fiction.

One of the earliest novels imagining travel to Mars is Unveiling a Parallel (1893), written by Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant. The plot has their male protagonist traveling by “aeroplane” (one of the first times the word appeared in print) to the planet, which he finds inhabited. He visits two societies, one in which women have assumed male roles and habits (to their detriment), and the second in which men and women are equals, creating a true utopia. The novel is notable for being an early example of feminist fiction, as well as one of the first science fiction novels.

Another early entry in the genre was the 1908 novel Red Star, by Russian author Alexander Bogdanov. A Marxist who challenged Lenin’s prerevolutionary leadership of the Bolshevik party, Bogdanov wrote about a Mars that was more advanced than Earth. Bogdanov’s Mars had evolved into a perfect utopia developed along the lines of Soviet ideals—a metaphor for what Russia could be should Marxism prevail.

Barsoom novels by Edgar Rice BurroughsEdgar Rice Burroughs, best known for his Tarzan novels, also penned a series of books envisioning intelligent life on Mars. Rather than a harmonious culture, however, his books depicted a planet on the verge of societal collapse. The first installment of what became known as the Barsoom series (the Martians’ name for their home planet) was serialized in 1912 in The All-Story magazine as Under the Moons of Mars. Burroughs, who made his living as a pencil-sharpening salesman, wanted to protect his reputation, and so published the work under the name Norman Bean. Its instant success, however, allowed Burroughs to turn to writing full-time. Under the Moons of Mars was republished in 1917 as A Princess of Mars, followed by ten additional novels set on the planet. They were pure swashbuckling escapism that made little sense (Martian women, for example, laid eggs to reproduce, yet still had breasts and belly buttons) but were nevertheless consistently popular.

The Chronicles of Narnia author C.S. Lewis also wrote a series of well-regarded novels set on Mars, starting with Out of the Silent Planet (1938). Lewis was spurred to write the book by his close friend J.R.R. Tolkien. Debating the state of modern fiction, the men challenged each other to write either a science fiction novel or a time travel novel, and flipped a coin to decide who’d write in which genre. Lewis ended up with science fiction, while Tolkien was assigned time travel. Lewis wrote his novel (and its sequels) but Tolkien never followed through on his part of the bargain. As with the authors mentioned above, Lewis used the backdrop of a foreign planet as a metaphor for life on Earth, focusing on the spiritual rather than the sociological or political state of the world.

Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles may be the first to envision humans building settlements on Mars. Published in 1950, this collection of related short stories imagined Earth colonists arriving on the planet only to find it already inhabited, but with intelligent life mostly indifferent to the newly arrived Earthlings. By repeating many of the same actions taken by humans in similar situations on Earth, the colonists eventually wipe out the idyllic Martian culture.

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s acclaimed Mars trilogy, humans voyage to an uninhabited world and seek to make it their home. Red Mars (1992) begins with the arrival of the first one hundred colonists on the planet; Green Mars (1993) focuses on its terraforming; and Blue Mars (1996) focuses on the aftermath. Rather than adventure novels like Burroughs’ work, or a book written to advance a specific point of view, the Mars series is much more factual and practical—closer to what humanity might experience if we eventually do get around to the colonization of space. Events in the novels span about two hundred years—a realistic timeframe.

Needless to say, this is but a small sampling of science fiction about the Red Planet. Human imagination will continue to outpace technology but will also undoubtably inspire us to strive for new frontiers.

More Beyond the Book Articles

This piece by Kim Kovacs was first published as a “beyond the book” article for
A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through by Kelly Weinersmith and Zach Weinersmith.

Every time BookBrowse reviews a book, we accompany it with a “beyond the book” article. You can read thousands more in our Beyond the Book section.

A selection of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels courtesy of Paul Morgan-Witts

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