It’s a God awful small affair to the girl with the mousy hair.
So begins David Bowie’s classic “Life on Mars?,” a tune with surprisingly little to do with the red planet, except that it insightfully equates the question with a restless creative drive and a yearning towards flights of storytelling fancy. Insightful because the fourth planet from our sun has long held an important place in the human imagination. As early as 1877, when Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli began mapping its geography, Earth’s sister world was ripe as a source of stories about extraterrestrial life. Schiaparelli observed what he thought were channels across the Martian surface. Written as canali in the Italian, they were mistranslated as “canals” in English accounts of his work. This gave rise to a misconception that the lines were artificial in nature. This concept was picked up and expanded by the American astronomer Percival Lowell. In three books, Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), and Mars as the Abode Of Life (1908), Lowell espoused the view that the canals were created by a race of intelligent Martians who were diverting water from their polar ice caps in an effort to irregate a dying world.
This notion of inhabited Mars came into its own with the classic H.G. Wells novel The War of the Wars (1898). Wells’ tale of an inhuman Martian race invading the earth was a thoughtful meditation on the fragile nature of life on this planet and the inevitable downfall of its would-be rulers, alien or terrestrial. Half a decade later, Louis Pope Gratacap’s The Certainty of a Future Life In Mars: Being the Posthumous Papers of Bradford Torrey Dodd (1903) depicted a very Schiaparellian Mars in the writings of a man reincarnated on the red planet and relaying messages back to his son.
One of the most entertaining and enduring accounts is the Martian series begun by Edgar Rice Burroughs with A Princess of Mars, which first appeared in serial form as “Under the Moons of Mars” in ALL-STORY magazine in 1912. This swashbuckling space opera was echoed in Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon (1953), while both it and the Burroughs were the inspiration for the loving pastiche that was Michael Moorcock’s Kane of Old Mars trilogy, The City of the Beast (1970), Lord of the Spiders (1971), and Masters of the Pit (1971).
Perhaps the most famous and most literate of all Martian fantasies was Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950). A “fix-up” collection of short stories originally published separately, this classic work depicts the slow colonization of the planet by earthmen with a story that interweaves nostalgia for a vanished Martian race with longing for our own notions of a simpler time.
Sadly, the Viking Probe’s landing on Mars of June 19, 1976 put the last nail in the coffin lid of this fanciful image of the red planet. As the previous Mariner satellite images had already hinted, Mars was a dead world with no water and no canals. After a deliberately nostalgic farewell in Roger Zelazny’s “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” Martian-themed science fiction shifted from Mars as a harbor of past life to Mars as a haven for future life. Works like Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus (1976) dealt with men bio-engineered to survive the harsh conditions of Mars as science revealed it to be. Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy of Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993), and Blue Mars (1996) took a different tact, depicting the centuries-long process of re-engineering a dead environment into a hospitable one suitable for normal humans. This excruciatingly scientifically-accurate trilogy has yet to be surpassed as a veritable blue print of the process of terraforming. Supposedly, the title of Larry Niven’s light-hearted Rainbow Mars (2000) was a deliberate attempt to lampoon the color scheme theme of Robinson’s work. Geoffrey A. Landis’ Mars Crossing (2000) was written with particular authority. A scientist with the NASA John Glen Research Center, Dr. Landis worked on both the Mars Pathfinder and Rover missions. Peter Crowther’s anthology Mars Probes (2002) chose to celebrate the entire history of Mars in fiction, with stories ranging from the cutting edge frontier of “hard” science fiction to retro tales of swashbuckling adventure ripped straight from the spirit of the old pulps.
More recently, Kage Baker’s The Empress of Mars (2003) seems to hearken back to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first work with its title, though its subject matter is about a frontier homesteader’s attempt to survive the exploitation that a big corporation’s terraforming effort brings. While on the real Mars, NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers have beamed back tantalizing indications that the planet may not always have been as dead as once supposed and indeed possibly teamed with water sometime in its past. Once again, the search for life on Mars continues, though now the focus has shifted to finding microbial lifeforms, alive or fossilized, hiding in the Martian soil.
All of which means that while Percival Lowell may have been offbase when he claimed evidence for a Martian irrigation system, there is another sense in which the pioneer astronomer saw clearly indeed. Though his canals were optical illusions, Lowell gazed straight through the limitations of his instrument to that other Mars of the Imagination, the Mars that has inspired the human soul since Time Immemorial, and which will continue to do so for centuries to come.