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February, 2004 : Essay:

Mars and the Scientific Revolutions

the fears, the hopes, the dreams, the adventures, and the sad reality

"... And beyond that lay the vast zen rock garden of Mars.
The land was more subtly alien than the cold white dust of Diemos, warmer, more like the deserts of northern New Mexico or Arizona. But the sand was too red, the rocks too dark and porous, the horizon closer but without promise, a desolation that went on endlesssly beyond the reach of his eyes.
For the first time he understood, not just intellectually, but viscerally, that this was all there was. No ancient races and lost civilizations, no canals, no hidden valleys with jungles and perpetual clouds. Just the dry, empty husk of a planet and the few fragile lives clustered under the dome."
Frontera (1984) by Lewis Shiner

Our closest neighbor in space resembles the color of blood. Mars, The Red Planet, has been a source of fascination since the ancient cultures named the planet. Many have speculated about what could be found there, and others have fantasized about the life and adventure that awaited us there. In the tales that were written about the red planet over the last century we have had to reconcile our fears and hopes with the reality that science revealed.

Mars, space exploration, and our dreams of encountering a creature from another planet have been some of the biggest disappointments of the 20th century. Mars was discovered late in the last century to be a frozen rock garden without life, water or the remnants of alien civilizations in evidence. We have only been able to afford to send people to the moon, and we learned the rest of the solar system is inhospitable. We have yet to encounter visitors from another planet, or find signs they are out there. We have also yet to discover a Star Trek "warp drive" or a "worm hole" which will allow us to travel to other stars. But the science fantasists still remembered the Mars of old, living out the dream till well beyond the middle of the 20th century. The space probes (now including Spirit and Opportunity) continue to confirm the disappointing news, but the dreams of encountering the extraterrestrial live on. Science fiction writers still produced stories about the face on Mars and city on Mars, despite growing proof to the contrary, till the end of the 20th Century.

But not all the works about Mars were divorced from scientific reality. Sir Arthur C. Clarke provided a rationale for speculative science fiction with his Clarke's Law which argued that we didn't have all the answers yet, that future technology would probably still be amazing, and that we should think twice about saying that something was not possible. Embracing Clarke's philosophy, which buoyed the "maybe", many Mars sci fi books reflected scientific discoveries and historical trends. The exploration of scientific ideas developed in jumps and spurts. It is hard to put the books in a chronological order reacting to scientific discoveries because different authors addressed scientific ideas at different times and in different ways. But one can find trends and insights by exploring the history of the works written about our closest neighbor in space. Science became a part of social history, not always addressed immediately in the chronology of these works. The authors carried the hopes and dreams with them, trying to reconcile them with disappointing (but in some ways comforting) scientific discoveries.

The War of the Worlds and Colonialism

At the turn of the 20th Century, Mars was distant and unknown. Angry red, and named after the Roman god of war, when it became popularized that "canals" were discovered, H.G. Wells would write his timeless science fiction in The Wars of the Worlds. One may still read the work with the possibility that maybe the invaders came from somewhere farther than Mars. But Mars in the imagination was different then, and The Wars of the Worlds has been celebrated in both humorous and serious literary endeavors since. It was speculative when written and provided a catalyst for what would follow.

Before the end of the 19th century, Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli announced that he had seen "canali" on the surface of Mars. In Italian he meant grooves or channels, but when translated into English the word "canal" was used, suggesting that life was present on Mars. Astronomer Percival Lowell noticed and spread the word about dead sea bottoms, canals on a desert planet, dying civilizations, and other features of Mars as an "Abode of Life." Maybe people really continued to believe such things through most of the century or maybe the truth was less important than that we consider Mars important.

Though far away by our standards, Mars was too important to neglect as a scientific endeavor or military concern. Half an Astronomical Unit from Earth at its closest, how sure could we be in 1900 of what we could find there. By arguing that there could be a civilization there, Lowell motivated the public to take Mars seriously. When one contemplates the distances between the planets and the age of the universe, one cannot but be humbled by how much there is left to know and discover. Science perpetuated itself by reminding that there could be something of interest on the Red Planet.

H.G. Wells captured the fear of the Red Planet and that vastness out there in The War of the Worlds. In classic prose he reminded that there could be something out there that was observing us as we could observe microscopic life in a test tube: "intellects vast cool and unsympathetic". In H.G. Wells's classic the Martians attack England reminding us of what it would be like to be the victims of colonialism. If we would be imperialistic within our own species, it is not hard to imagine that alien civilizations would be as lacking in sympathy as we have been. Instilling this fear, the classic was still poignant in Orson Welles's broadcast of "The War of the Worlds" forty years later, causing Americans to run for cover to escape the "invading" Martians. This paranoia was healthy because for all we knew, if they weren't coming from Mars, they could have been coming from somewhere else out there.

The World Wars

But we would soon be able to visit Mars in fantastical literary works like Edwin L. Arnold's Gulliver of Mars, the possible predecessor to Edgar Rice Burroughs. Many professional astronomers grew up reading Burroughs now fantastical stories of Barsoom. Later Stanley Weinbaum would popularize the potentially wild and crazy creatures of Mars in his "A Martian Odyssey". Strange and wild and definitely alien the Martians were, and many works in this vein would follow. In the absence of proof, the science fiction writers created compelling inhabitants of the red planet.

Some would argue World Wars I and II were the work of technology: science's child. C.S. Lewis in his famous Space Trilogy seems to have reacted to these developments. The villain in his series is Weston, a scientist who would sacrifice one of his own species for experimentation, and whose ideas would contaminate Perelandra, a planet before The Fall that sent Adam and Eve out of the garden of Eden. Lewis voiced his concern over "scientism" and possible space imperialism in his space trilogy. In Out of the Silent Planet the symbolic invaders are chased off Mars by the Oyarsa, the reigning spiritual presence there.

So the tides had turned: in Lewis's work and later Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, the invaders were no longer the Martians. Instead it would be the humans who were the offspring of the god of war, invading and pillaging the red planet.

Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles is particularly superb because his Martians are both alien and also like us. Instead of Mars being run by warlords with their armies, Bradbury's Mars has towns and streets. Martians are married and attend concerts. The alien Martians avoid the human settlers who bring with them disease and American culture. It is the emptiness of Mars and the desire to meet the Martians who are strangely like us, yet different, that makes the work so compelling. Bradbury's Martians, unlike the Martians described by some others, are civilized. Bradbury was also reacting to the war and future war with scenes of human settlers on Mars watching the Earth blow up, and a mechanical house still running despite being damaged in the war.

Published at roughly the same time as The Martian Chronicles was Arthur C. Clarke's The Sands of Mars (1951), which though speculative, does not put canals or alien civilizations on Mars. There are also no advanced civilizations, only alien birds. The settlers of Mars turn one of the moons into a sun to make the planet more livable, and nobody seems to object. This was before Earth Day.

Earth Day

The Environmental Movement ushered in a new perspective on how we should live on planet Earth. Rachel Carson popularized the discovery that pesticides and herbicides would travel up the food chain into the food we ate, as would the pollution we dumped into the rivers and ocean. We discovered that we were damaging the ozone layer which protected us from ultra-violet radiation, and that the temperature of the planet was rising due to the release of greenhouse gasses. Space Exploration was revealing how special the Earth was in our solar system, just as we were busy driving many creatures to extinction. We needed to change the way we lived in order to protect Spaceship Earth and its inhabitants.

These concerns would be incorporated into some of the science fiction about Mars later in the century, but it would take time. Environmentalism was devoted to saving Earth, but some would later apply the values of environmentalism to developments in space exploration, militarization, and commercialization.

Years later some science fiction writers and critics would strive to save the Red Planet. Others have written fascinating works about adapting to live on Mars. Though Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic may not fully apply to fostering preservationistic concerns for Mars, because it strives to preserve a living ecology, Deep Ecology can provide an ethic and an argument to preserve Mars. Frederick Pohl in this vein wrote some of the most enjoyable books about Mars with some of the best twist endings. Pohl's characters in Man Plus and Mars Plus are made into cyborgs to adapt to the red planet, but it is not always clear who is in charge: the people or the technology. Kim Stanley Robinson in his award winning Mars series would envision that astrogeologists would battle to prevent Mars from being fully terraformed. Brian W. Aldiss would later become president of APIUM: Association for the Protection and Integrity of an Unspoilt Mars. Ben Bova would express his anger about the "tourists" in Mars and Return to Mars.

The Space Probes

But these astroenvironmental concerns would be of less concern until the turn of the century. First would come the Viking Probes that landed on Mars in the early 1970s and searched the nearby terrain for life. Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke were invited to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory one day before Mariner 9 arrived at Mars. They observed that one could no longer write fantastical stories about Mars unless they were willing to have them categorized as fantasy. Some had already believed that Mars was barren, such as Michael Moorcock in his 1965 Mars adventure series which takes place in Mars past. But in light of photographic proof, some authors moved the Martians underground. Others would continue to believe that a face and city could be seen on Mars at Cydonia.

Subsequently, the space probes revealed Mars to be a frozen red-rocked wilderness, and possibly sterile. But how confident could one be in the findings of a space probe sending messages across millions of miles. Some scientists still think life was found by the Viking space probe. Science fiction writers weren't willing to give up their dreams so easily. Gone was the fear of invasion from Mars, but the subject wasn't closed in the minds of many science fiction writers. But there was a change in the works about Mars. No longer would we feel the same about the many fantastical works about the former adventure wonderland, instead there would be more gritty claustrophobic tales about how hard it would be to explore Mars.

As character Eileen in Kim Stanley Robinson's brilliant Mars story "Exploring Fossil Canyon" (1982), who goes too far, reasons:

They would never find remnants of Martian life; no one ever would. She knew that was true in every cell of her. All the so-called discoveries, all the Martians in her books-they were all part of a simple case of projection, nothing more. Humans wanted Martians, that was all there was to it. But there were not, and never had been, any canal-builders; no lamppost creatures with heat-beam eyes, no brilliant lizards or grasshoppers, no manta ray intelligences, no angels and no devils; there were no four-armed races battling in blue jungles, no big-headed skinny thirsty folk, no sloe-eyed dusky beauties dying for Terran sperm, no wise little Bleekman wandering stunned in the desert, no golden-eyed golden-skinned telepaths, no doppelganger race--not a fun-house mirror image of any kind; there weren't any ruined adobe palaces, no dried-oasis castles, no mysterious cliff dwellings packed like a museum, no hologrammatic towers waiting to drive humans mad, no intricate canal systems with their locks all filled with sand, no not a single canal; there were not even any mosses creeping down from the polar caps every summer, nor any rabbitlike animals living far underground; no plastic windmill-creatures, no lichen capable of casting dangerous electrical fields, no lichen of any kind; no algae in the hot springs, no microbes in the soil, no microbacteria in the regolith, no stromatolites, no nanobacteria in the deep bedrock ... no primeval soup.
All so many dreams. Mars was a dead planet. Eileen scuffed the freeze-dried dirt and watched through damp eyes as the pinkish sand lofted away from her boot. All dead. That was her home: dead Mars. Not even dead, which implied a life and a dying. Just ... nothing. A red void." (The Martians, p. 45-46)

Before the Mariner space probes there was Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom and Lewis's reigning spiritual presence the Oyarsa, Bradbury's Martian society. Heinlein's Red Planet (1949) with Willis, "a bouncer, a Martian roundhead who looked for all the world like a hairy medicine ball and who could--and often did--function as a complex recorder of what went on around him." Lester Del Ray in Marooned On Mars (1962) describes menacing rodent-like Martian creatures, and Russ Winterbotham in his The Red Planet (1962) imagines "grotesque Martians who used electrical energy as a weapon of war."

After the space probes, the cold zen rock garden of Lewis Shiner's Frontera, the dangerous terrain of Geoffrey Landis's Mars Crossing and Jack Williamson's Beachhead. (The critics would celebrate Beachhead for being realistic, and Landis would win points at The California Academy of Sciences because he engineered a scientific instrument that was used for Mars exploration.) Most of the older works about Mars were now fantasies about some other planet out there. But there was still "maybe". "Maybe" Barsoom was really somewhere else in space? "Maybe" Bradbury's poetic Mars was really somewhere else in time? If one was looking for adventure, books about the Red fantastical Planet were still a breath of fresh air in-between reading a dozen realistic books about exploring the real Mars: cold, empty, and maybe sterile and never inhabited. The opposite was true as well. The tales about the fantastical Mars would not disappear in book or movie form, a Red Planet would continue to exist in the realm of science fantasy.

Terraforming Mars

Though terraforming was not a new idea, confronted with a barren Mars, some now dreamt of bringing the Red Planet to life. Those who dreamed of going to Mars in the past could now hope that it could be hospitable again. There was the terraformed Mars of the future, which some scientists are developing plans for. Within the restraints of telling a "realistic" tale, science fiction writers could again create. Fascinating multicultural works like Paul McAuley's Red Dust, Donald Moffitt's Crescent in the Sky, and Ian McDonald's Desolation Road emerged, and many authors would still write works in the fantastical tradition. Now there could be adventures on the Mars of the future, and the citizens would not all be from Western Society.

Kim Stanley Robinson would win many science fiction awards for writing the dry social tale of actually terraforming Mars. Gone are the imaginary Martians. Shockingly there is no thorough search for life before the terraforming begins, but forces arise to combat the altering of the planet. What was disturbing about Robinson's series was that the plans to colonize Mars didn't safeguard against the military free for all that results when the multinational corporations get to Mars. Robinson's trilogy motivated people (myself included) to be concerned about the fate of Mars. The work reminds that people need to know there is a body of benign and idealistic international space law that has emerged to safeguard against the scenario he presented. A book about the fate of Mars being decided in the courts, before we get there, now that would also be fascinating.

Robinson's trilogy was brilliant, but infuriating for those who hope that we might do better by the next planet we have access to. Many writers reacted to Robinson's work arguing that all the answers about Mars weren't in yet. Artifacts are found on Mars in The Mars Underground by William K. Hartmann, The Forge of Mars by Bruce Balfour, and in Ian Douglas's Heritage Trilogy. Even Ben Bova in Mars and Return To Mars was unwilling to give up the dream, unwilling to lay down the old hopes of encountering something alien on Mars. Though they weren't breaking ground like Robinson, Benford, and Aldiss with Penrose, also reminded us that we didn't have all the answers yet: that terraforming might be premature. Mars has geological features we have yet to closely explore. Robinson's Anne Claybourne, the astrogeologist who rallies forces to protect a pristine Mars, failed in her mission, and scientists could mutter: SETI has proven that there no extraterrestrial civilizations out there. Robinson was prophetic and his preservationists take the risks, but gone are the rewards of finding alien life.

Finally, Martians?

Science fiction authors such as James Lovelock with Michael Allaby (The Greening of Mars), Benford, and Robert L. Forward argued that the discovery of life may upset deeply entrenched ideas about evolution. Rather than speciation being the sole result of survival of the fittest, maybe there are other scenarios that would explain what we have observed. Lovelock and Allaby suggest that rather than adapting to living conditions, life recreates or alters living situations to make them more suitable. The terraforming alien Martians in Forward's Martian Rainbow argue that terraforming is "natural" because they desire to do so. Rather than confirming that life evolves due to competition, Benford's explorers discover life on Mars in The Martian Race, concluding that life can evolve and survive through to cooperation as well as competition.

After hundreds of Mars stories, numerous books and movies we finally encountered what could be "Martians" in 1996. In a meteor found in Antarctica, Allan Hills 84001, we found what many believe are fossil microbes from Mars. No big spaceship, no humorous science fiction creation, no invader from the beyond, the "Martians" were just microscopic fossils, things which may have once been alive. Not all were convinced that the rock indicated life, but some suggested that maybe Martian life through Panspermia fertilized the Earth. Robinson only a few years earlier won the major science fiction awards for writing about a Mars that the colonizers considered sterile and began to terraform. Paul McAuley in The Secret Of Life responded to the Martian meteor by imagining an infection of Earth by Martian microbes. In his work, the strange "slick" growing in the ocean of unearthly origins is from the red planet. Others encounter life on Mars, but it seems almost meaningless to the characters in Geoffrey Landis's Mars Crossing where the explorers notice life as they are trying to escape from the harsh Martian terrain.

The discovery of life and what it could teach us seems to interfere with the plans to terraform the Red Planet in the works of a number of science fiction writers who at the turn of the century absorbed the Utopian, New Age and Millennial fever.

Mars Direct and the Millennium

Science fiction stories about Mars are experienced differently now that we have engineered the way to get there. To constitute hard science fiction, one may not write about fantastical extraterrestrial creatures. Realistic tales are limited to taking place on a dull husk of a planet. Some write about the terraformed Mars of the future, others remind that we could still find life there. But it is easy to be blasť about NASA's discoveries considering all the science fiction that most of us have encountered.

One recurring theme is the human interaction on expeditions to Mars, which is usually problematic. Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society, in his sci fi book First Landing reminds that the technology is present to send us to Mars, but in reality the societal will and finances have not emerged yet. Zubrin tries to convince us by also detailing the prizes and rewards that are available for those who choose to go. First Landing has an almost fairy tale ending, in which those willing to take the risks are rewarded. Ray Bradbury's story the "The Strawberry Window" comes to mind where a character reflects "But all the while, inside, something else is ticking along the way it ticks in salmon or whales, the way it ticks, oh, Lord, in the smallest microbe you want to name. And that little clock that ticks in everything living, you know what it says? It says get away, spread out, move along, keep swimming. Run to so many worlds and build so many towns that nothing can ever kill man."

Zubrin sends a historian to Mars because the historical meaning of such an accomplishment is more fascinating than the acknowledgment that the engineering is now possible. When Bradbury wrote "The Strawberry Window" published in 1962, we hadn't worked out the technology already. Zubrin reminds that we are more prepared now to send people to Mars than we were to send people to the moon thirty years ago. Some would disagree, and others would remind that it is presently too expensive.

But when faced with the distances and time frames involved in describing the universe, it is very compelling to want to go forward, to explore the vast unknown that space represents. Going to Mars is a step in the direction of preparing us for what we may someday encounter in space. When confronted with decisions makers who have not allowed us to continue our exploration of space, especially when we cannot send people in person, we want to remind that we may be vulnerable to something out there. As we grow in spacefaring capability the less worried we will need to be. History suggests that the societies that do not have the advanced technology may be at a disadvantage to the technologically superior society. Zubrin has reminded that there is a whole universe out there, that we can take steps out into the solar system, and there will probably be rewards.

It is inspiring to read these works now that we know they are very likely possible. One can confuse history with scientific history, but certain events motivate us to reconsider entrenched ideas and ways of living. Many on Earth, especially those in the Third World have to catch up with scientific revolutions. Being able to send people to another planet is also a scientific revolution, the potentialities of which have been explored in depth in science fiction. The Millennium motivated us to reflect and look forward. New Age idioms informed and expressed how far we had come along in the last century. War and famine are now no longer the results of our lack of knowledge or wealth, but rather the failures of our political systems. Brian Aldiss with Roger Penrose in White Mars capstoned the century of science fiction books written about Mars by arguing that Mars could be a Utopia, that the political setup we create on Mars could be an improvement over the arrangements we had made in the past, and that though barren, Mars was still special. Benford's message in The Martian Race is equally heartwarming, underscoring our need to cooperate in order to survive.

Scientific Priorities

But what should we do when we finally, in reality, go to Mars? Science fiction writers have explored many scenarios, and there are more to come. Should we terraform the planet so it is easier to live there? Should we agree with the terraforming aliens in Robert L. Forward's Rainbow Mars, and Lovelock and Allaby who argue that our wildness, our desire to change, is also natural? It is questionable whether this subject will be explored further in the 21st Century science fiction about Mars. But we need to be reminded that we have a history of spoiling Nature and protecting only pieces of it. If we choose to terraform should we consider ourselves scientists? Benford showed that the insights that we can gain from studying extraterrestrial life are profound. We could have descended from Martian microbes. Survival of the fittest may not be the whole story.

Survival by cooperation may not be a new idea, and bringing the barren planet to life may show what science can do--but it is better science, I believe, to explore and study Mars before we drastically alter it. Realistic science fiction writers have also described how Mars is special over the last half of the 20th Century. I believe it shows knowledge of the history of science to bring with us the values espoused by the environmental movement and Utopian values, so we can avoid creating environmental and territorial dispute problems in space. International Space Law and Environmental Law require us to do so. The many science fiction books written about the Red Planet suggest that we will need to take precautions so we behave favorably when we get there.

Mars may never be the red planet of our dreams, but going there will still be an adventure. What was science fiction will someday become reality. Going green and in tandem with other nations would show that we have learned from history, that we are interested in going as citizens of the Earth, that we want to do better by the next planet we have access to, perhaps following the vision set forth in White Mars, which argues that we should create an Ecotopia on Mars. This would show that we have learned from our past. I believe in the best interest of science we should explore the planet and search for life before we plan to terraform Mars, but this decision is still in the future. The Mars Societies plans for Mars exploration have been delayed. President George Bush has recently decided to go to the moon again before we go to Mars in 2025.

It appears that many early 21st Century science fiction books will get to Mars before us. The dream of the privatization of space travel seems unlikely for the time being, but it makes exciting sci fi reading. For a world that doesn't take science fiction seriously enough, the future may depend upon what many of us are reminded of when we finally arrive on Mars.

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Copyright © 2004, Ryder W. Miller. All Rights Reserved.

About Ryder W. Miller

Ryder W. Miller edited From Narnia to a Space Odyssey: The War of Ideas Between Arthur C. Clarke and C.S. Lewis. He is also the co-writer of San Francisco: A Natural History. He has published stories at Myth Circle and the Lost Souls website. He is currently working on an anthology of constructive environmental science fiction stories called Green Visions. He can be reached at


Feb 21, 20:44 by John Frost
Share your thoughts on Mars, Science Fiction or Science Fact, right here.
Feb 22, 11:39 by Elizabeth Thomas
I think the first Mars stories I ever read were Bradbury's <i>The Martian Chronicles</i>. I'm afraid I haven't read too many since then--it is just so intimidating to know where to start. I really appreciate these lists that John Joseph Adams is putting together here.
Aug 19, 21:21 by Ryder W. Miller
The place to start is The War of the Worlds, then Burrough's John Carter Warlord of Mars series, then The Martian Chronicles and then the newer books published recently. In this way you will see that we conquored the Martians of our imagination only to take up their aggression. Of the newer Mars books written before the Millenium I would recommend The Martian Race by Gregory Benford and White Mars by Aldiss and .... Greg Bear and Kim Stanley Robinson recent Mars books are not that bad either.

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