It was 100 years ago last month that author Edgar Rice Burroughs introduced the character of John Carter — an ornery Confederate soldier, mysteriously transported to Mars, who tangles with green men, and then red ones, from an ancient civilization. Over that century, Mars has been rivaled only by our moon when it comes to off-planet fantasies, and it’s maintained a mystique with no heavenly rivals.
On the page and on the screen, our cosmic neighbor has been spun every way imaginable: “The Martian Chronicles,” “My Favorite Martian” and “Total Recall.” The list is growing in another direction as video games such as Red Faction and Doom draw audiences into the Red Planet’s gravitational pull.
Disney’s just-released “John Carter” film, a tale of epic fantasy directed by Andrew Stanton at considerable expense, comes after centuries of Martian fascination. “Mars has this secret, sneaky, almost mystical pull on people’s imagination,” says Kim Stanley Robinson, the Central California science-fiction writer who’s penned several important Mars novels.
For thousands of years, Mars has stood out: It’s one of the brightest objects in the night sky, and its orbit seems, from Earth’s point of view, eccentric. (It goes into what’s called retrograde, in which it appears to go backward, every two years.) And, after all, it’s red.
But in the last century and a half or so, fascination with Mars has taken on a very specific cast: It’s been deemed a sister planet where we daydream about a friendly, industrious populace, as well as the place from which we’re most likely to dread invasion. Carl Sagan called it “a kind of mythic arena, onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears.”
The Red Planet has provoked countless movies. In some of the best — and worst — it doesn’t show up at all, or only fleetingly, serving instead as the launching pad for belligerent aliens who invade Earth. That’s the case with the “War of the Worlds” films — both the ’53 Byron Haskin original and Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation — as well as numerous Cold War-inspired B-movies such as “Invaders From Mars,” the kind of film that inspired Tim Burton’s parody “Mars Attacks!”
Similarly, while Mars-themed movies from “The Three Stooges in Orbit” to John Carpenter’s “Ghosts of Mars” have their fans, many of the best Martian adaptations originate in the scientific or literary worlds. Why has Mars — rather than, say, Venus or Neptune — become the place we dream about?
Much of the early fascination with Mars, it turns out, came from a mistake. Or rather, a series of them. In the 1870s, the Milanese astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, poring over his telescope, thought he saw grooves on the Red Planet. “When he wrote about them he called them ‘canali,’ which means channels,” says Dan Lewis, a historian of science at the Huntington Library. “But it was mistranslated as ‘canals,’ which implies something designed. So all these incorrect assumptions took over.”
Some of those assumptions led to H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel, “The War of the Worlds,” in which an older, insect-like race used its superior technology to gaze enviously at “our own warmer planet, green with vegetation and grey with water, with a cloudy atmosphere eloquent of fertility.” With Mars cooling, and its oceans shrinking, they had no choice but to come here and crush us.
As often with science fiction, the issues of the day were refracted in works of the imagination: Charles Darwin had described nature as driven by struggle between rival species, and the British were poised for an invasion by a united Germany.
Into these dislocated times stepped the man who created the Mars we see in “John Carter”: astronomer and self-promoter Percival Lowell, who opened a vanity observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. Lewis calls him “a whack job … a well-to-do Bostonian with enough money to pursue his idiosyncrasies.” Lowell turned out bogus “discoveries” of water and atmosphere and well-circulated reports of Martians communicating with Earth.
One of those who believed the hype was Edgar Rice Burroughs, a Midwesterner who once sold pencil sharpeners. He would go on to write the Tarzan novels and settle on a ranch in the San Fernando Valley that would be called, in his honor, Tarzana. But at this point he was close to desperate.
The first story of John Carter was “Under the Moons of Mars,” published in installments in All-Story magazine in 1912, and collected, five years later, as the novel “A Princess of Mars.” Written before the term “science fiction” existed, the book and those that followed showed Carter immersed in the battles of several races on what inhabitants call Barsoom. He is originally captured by a group of tusked, four-armed Green Martians and protected by the warlord Tars Tarkas, and then becomes obsessed with an almost-human Red Martian princess. Parched and fragile, the planet and its various inhabitants, with their ancient rivalries and codes of honor, clearly need this vigorous, chivalric American to wake them up.
“The books were incredibly popular and influential,” says Annalee Newitz, editor of science-fiction and futurism website io9.com. “The iconography of the story has left its mark on our consciousness — steampunk owes a lot to this world, whether people know it or not.” Thus, Barsoom passed through pop culture: George Lucas and James Cameron were childhood fans, and the landscapes of “Stars Wars” and “Avatar” descend from it.
But as time went on, something important changed. The scientific ignorance that had made Barsoom conceivable was replaced by better telescopes and more credible astronomy. And as the West’s experience with colonialism evolved, ideas of “savage” races did too. We could not, as in many of the Burroughs-era space operas, simply land on a planet and start shooting.
“It was a zeitgeist thing,” says Robinson. “The whole science-fiction community said, ‘We have to get beyond the Lowell-Burroughs vision.’” And though a number of writers — Frederik Pohl, Philip K. Dick — rendered distinctive visions of the Red Planet, the first and most enduring was Ray Bradbury’s.
The magazine stories that were collected in “The Martian Chronicles” in 1950 were poetic and mythical and showed a planet with a graceful, tragic race on the verge of fading out, just as mankind is showing up. “As a kid he must have loved Burroughs,” says Robinson. “In ‘The Martian Chronicles,’ he realized that Martians would be ghosts inside our minds. By the ’40s, we knew there was no oxygen, almost no water…. He was saying, ‘They may be hallucinations, but they will still haunt us.’”
And these Martians, as Newitz points out, were truly alien — not even humanoid. “The Martians are unknowable. To live on Mars you will have to become a Martian.” This, and the stories’ flashes of environmentalism, showed thinking about colonial conquest maturing past the Manifest Destiny model, she says.
A little later, the dream died unambiguously. The Mariner 4 spacecraft flew by Mars in 1964 and sent back the first detailed photographs: No canals, no seas, no aliens. “This is actually a dead world,” says Newitz. “How do we cope with that? We thought these were people we could be friends with.”
It took until the ’90s for a fictional masterpiece to adjust to the idea. Robinson’s Mars trilogy — “Red Mars,” “Green Mars,” “Blue Mars” — looked at the slow process of terraforming a dry planet by an international team and kept a focus on what the planet did to the humans who transformed and settled it. The books, Newitz says, are about “the horror of meeting ourselves — all our bad qualities are transported there.”
But even after these visions of a civilization on a sister planet teeming with life died, the shimmer of Mars hasn’t entirely dimmed.
It may be hard to move forward: Robinson’s Mars trilogy will be a tough act to follow, and the writer himself has little interest in going back. “It’s a closing-down story space,” says Robinson, “compared to Earth and climate change, or Earth and overpopulation, and so on. Earth is gonna be intensely interesting. It’s also pretty clear with the space program’s budget that we’re going to be on this planet for a while.”
In fact, the Red Planet continues to compel people. “The details of the Mars Rover are absolutely riveting,” says the Huntington’s Lewis. “I think some of the fascination remains. It’s the closest thing to a habitable planet in the solar system and sometimes fairly close to us.”
Today, scientists are arguing over polar ice caps and frozen carbon dioxide, and some are investigating whether the seeds of life on Earth could have come from Mars. Our hopes and fears of finding Martians may be over, but the romance isn’t. “The people who imagine colonizing space think Mars will be one of our first stops,” says Newitz. “Sooner than the moon. The more we learn about it, the more it seems like a viable option.”
— Scott Timberg
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