Though Venus is more like Earth in size, Mars is the planet that regularly makes headlines. New ice under its sandy cliffs has been caught on camera, causing more hope that life may have been present at some point in the past. Prominent people like Elon Musk are talking about going to Mars in the near future.
Scientists are once again planning sustainable living quarters for the colonization of the fourth planet from our sun. This is not the first time humanity has endeavored to send a manned mission there. For more than a century this planet has been popularized in the news as well as in pop culture. Mars has especially held a rich place in world literature.
In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli said he saw channel-like structures in his observations of the Martian surface. Partially through mistranslation, some scientists further thought these were actually canals built by intelligent life-forms. A few years later, American astronomer Percival Lowell agreed wholeheartedly with Schiaparelli’s so-called findings. Years later, when better telescopes were more readily available, the scientific community for the most part dismissed the concept of the channels for they were not present on the planet’s surface. However, Lowell was no fool. He predicted that another planet in our solar system existed outside Neptune’s orbit.
This extraterrestrial body was indeed discovered (it was called Pluto). But despite their brilliance, Lowell and Schiaparelli (and others) saw things in their telescopes that weren’t really there. It has been suggested that the optics or even tired eyesight brought on the effect that tricked these astronomers. This is still a bit of a mystery.
Prior to the scientific community’s brushing-off of this concept, another French astronomer, Camille Flammarion, wrote several works that would today be considered sci-fi novels. In one of these, Les Terres du Ciel (1884), Flammarion describes the scenery of bodies such as the moon and Mars to his readers. Flammarion’s interest in the moon may have been sparked by the 1865 novel by his fellow countryman Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon.
Percival Lowell was also able to write and have published a number of lengthy essays about the proposed life on the Red Planet. His first was a book that was simply called Mars, originally published in 1895. Two more followed: Mars and Its Canals (1906) and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908). Lowell died in 1916, and Pluto would be discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh.
Around 1898, a mere three years after the publication of Percival Lowell’s first Martian book, H.G. Wells’s epic sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds was published. The story he tells is one of invaders from Mars coming to Earth and leveling cities with their destructive lasers. Humanity retaliates with what it can, but the Martians’ tech is too advanced and efficient. It is fitting that the Earth finds itself in a desperate fight with the inhabitants of Mars, the name for the ancient god of war. The War of the Worlds enjoyed a host of Hollywood film adaptations. It was also converted into a radio play in 1938, late in the Great Depression, and was broadcast and narrated by Orson Welles. His realistic rendition and delivery of the script famously caused a panic throughout the U.S. (although, this historic aspect has been disputed in recent years).
In 1917, the year after Percival Lowell’s death, a novelization entitled A Princess of Mars was published. This book was the first in the Barsoom series; its author was the renowned Edgar Rice Burroughs. Apart from the Barsoom series, Burroughs other famous story was that of Tarzan. Ten sequels were produced, most of them being attributed to Edgar Rice Burroughs. The last of these was John Carter of Mars, which was published in the early 1940s. Barsoom is the Martian word for Mars itself. Thus, the series is referred to as the “Barsoom series.” (It was the basis for the 2012 film John Carter.)
Sci-fi was a new and rising genre in the 1930s. Stanley G. Weinbaum’s short story “A Martian Odyssey” was published around this time. Many stories of the same caliber were being published in that decade. In 1938 (the year Orson Welles made the renowned radio broadcast), a book called Out of the Silent Planet was published. It is often overlooked by sci-fi fans, and yet is was created and penned by one of the greatest fantasy authors of the 20th century. Its author was none other than British professor C.S. Lewis, a good friend of J.R.R. Tolkien. Out of the Silent Planet was the first installment of Lewis’s sci-fi trilogy. The alien planet on which much of the story takes place is Malacandra, which is meant to be Mars.
The next notable literary work is Robert A. Heinlein’s 1949 novel Red Planet. The Martian Chronicles, a collection of short stories about the colonization of Mars by Ray Bradbury, was published the year later. Then in 1951, Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars was published. This whole period was filled with Martian literature. The 1950s and ’60s were the golden era of sci-fi, and so Mars appeared frequently in much of the pop culture of the day. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) also takes the reader to Mars.
It was really not until the ’90s when quality literature about Mars and Martians became popular again. This is because it was in the 1990s that high-tech probes like Mars Global Surveyor, Pathfinder, and Sojourner landed on the planet, giving us new, more detailed imagery of the Martian surface. The Mars Society was also founded in the late 1990s. In this decade, astronomer and astrobiologist Carl Sagan said, “Because of the historic romance of the general public with Mars (consider even today the associations of the word ‘martian’), the exploration of Mars has a public resonance and support that probably no other goal of the space program can claim.”
In 1993, Greg Bear published his award-winning novel Moving Mars, a futuristic story that discusses many political themes. Kim Stanley Robinson also published numerous Martian novels throughout this decade. Dr. John Gray published a book entitled Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992), which covered topics about the psychological differences between men and women. It employed the metaphor of the title to get its point across, picturing that the two sexes originated from two different planets of drastically different societies. Apparently, it was the longest-running nonfiction bestseller of the ’90s. And in 1999, bringing the decade to a close, the novel The Martian Race by Gregory Benford was released.
The most popular Martian-related literary tale next to the classical War of the Worlds did not reach its readers until 2011. This of course is Andy Weir’s widely acclaimed The Martian which, unlike The War of the Worlds, actually takes place on Mars itself. It was adapted for the silver screen and released to theaters in 2015. This obviously helped in popularizing the novel itself.
It was also in 2011 that the poetry collection Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith was first published. The work features creative pieces that include imagery of numerous objects seen throughout the cosmos. Smith was likely inspired by the life of her father, a scientist involved with the development of the Hubble Space Telescope. Even more recently, Martian anthologies such as Old Mars which was edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois have been published.
Even music writers have shown a great fascination with the Red Planet. For instance, English composer Gustav Holst wrote the classical suite “The Planets” between 1914 and 1916. Mars is given tribute in its own section entitled, “Mars—Bringer of War.” In hearing it, it can easily remind the listener of various John Williams soundtracks such as that of Star Wars. Nearly a century after Holst’s composition, in 2012, the singer, voice actor, and songwriter will.i.am had his piece “Reach for the Stars” broadcast from Earth to Mars and back again.
We are entering a new age of Martian exploration in both science and science fiction. Our efforts are being directed at colonizing the sandy celestial body. As humanity strives to reach out toward the Red Planet, more imaginations will be sparked, more pens put to work. Someday soon, writers may find themselves living on a red planet, writing even more far-fetched fantasies than those of their forebears.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
There was something in the air during the 1950s in America that bred an especially grand strain of science fiction whose like was never witnessed before and hasn’t been since. It was a heady concoction: postwar triumph and trauma, unprecedented technological advances, the true advent of mass media swamping the atmosphere, that psuedo-fascistic hum of nationalistic propaganda and blacklisting, and the incessant reminder that a mushroom cloud could end it all… like that.
Because our national memory consigns the decade to a cultural-studies netherworld of Eisenhower conformity whose only pinpricks of creative greatness could be found in the Beats’ scrappy secondhand Whitmanisms, the science fiction of the 1950s is somewhat neglected. Many anthologies and studies that cover the genre’s supposed “Golden Age” content themselves with the 1930s and 1940s, when the pulps were churning out stiff-jawed space operas and riffs on gleaming cities of the future. The science fiction of the 1960s, with its narrative-busting experimentations is seen as being more daringly au courant and thus worthier of critical attention. Somewhere between the spacesuited squares like E.E. Doc Smith and countercultural innovators like Harlan Ellison, though, lies a golden seam that contains some of the century’s most thoughtful, jazzy, and dazzling literature.
The new Library of America two-volume collection, American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, edited by Gary K. Wolfe, dusts off nine lesser-known novels that illustrate the breadth and depth of what was happening in science fiction during that decade. With its crisply typeset cloth volumes totaling almost 3,000 pages, the sturdy box is a welcome reminder of past joys for some readers and a striking introduction to fresh futuristic wonders and Cold War chills for others.
What American Science Fiction first does right is tacking immediately to lesser-known waters. Note that the collection’s title and subtitle say nothing about the “Greatest” and just calls its material “Classic.” By removing himself from the need to quantify the cream of the era’s crop (like the Library’s near-definitive 2009 Jonathan Lethem-edited set of Philip K. Dick novels), Wolfe avoids putting together a decade’s greatest-hits package that would have made for phenomenal reading — Fahrenheit 451, Foundation, Time Out of Joint, Childhood’s End, and Canticle for Leibowitz, would be a few obvious inclusions — but held fewer surprises. This makes for a less-than-perfect set, with at least two of the nine novels (Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time and Algis Burdys’s Who?) not quite deserving classic status, fun as they are. Many of the others, though, are long-overdue for reappraisal.
The opening novel is Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1953). It’s a spry satire on consumerist manias, groupthink, and advertising, in which an ad man working on the account to convince the people of Earth to emigrate to faraway Venus gets caught up in a plot that sees him stripped of his wealth and identity and plunged down the socioeconomic ladder (much more slippery in this starkly Malthusian future). The sly jabs at the inner workings of Madison Avenue feel spot-on due to Pohl’s work as an ad man after the war and could have been easily used in a non-genre novel of the time. But more ingeniously subversive is the book’s scabrous view of that unholy nexus of propaganda where consumerism almost becomes equated with patriotism; a dark shadow of the modern era that Pohl and Kornbluth could well see growing already in postwar America.
The only woman among these nine authors, Leigh Brackett was an anomaly in her field for other reasons. The classic image of the twentieth century science fiction writer is one barely removed from the Parisian garret, a writer churning out stories and novels that quickly disappear from print for extremely meager rewards. Brackett, however, was a respected Hollywood institution who knocked out scripts like Rio Bravo and The Long Goodbye when she wasn’t writing for the pulps. (The wit that she honed on films like The Big Sleep also showed up in her late-career work on The Empire Strikes Back.)
The characters in Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow (1955) are far removed from her fast-talking smartass movie stars, though it contains many elements familiar from her Westerns. Interestingly the only post-apocalyptic novel in the collection, it’s set a couple generations after a nuclear war has decimated America and left behind a bone-deep aversion to technology. Her teenage protagonist Esau lives in a straight-laced Ohio village of the so-called New Mennonites, whose quasi-Amish ways had once been thought “quaint and queer because they held to the old simple handcraft ways” but proved an evolutionary success after the destruction. Because of fears that any technological progress or urbanization will put humanity back on the ladder to nuclear war, settlements over a certain size are prohibited. Young Esau is, of course, curious about the outside world, particularly the long-rumored Bartorstown, a secret city where pre-war technology is supposedly still used. Brackett uses Esau’s Western-style adventures away from his little village (complete with torch-wielding mobs, wagon trains, and threatening bands of wanderers on the high plains) as a kind of cautionary tale of a cautionary tale. Fear loops back in on itself in her story where dreams are systematically dashed and a perfectly logical cautionary principle turns quickly into stifling conformity and lynch-prone crowds. Society’s inherently contradictory impulses have rarely been more stark.
While Brackett put her humor on hold for more serious things, for the quick-witted Double Star (1956) Robert Heinlein shelved the half-baked philosophical ponderings that can make works like Stranger in a Strange Land such strenuous undertakings. The novel is a brisk adventure about a jumped-up actor (“The Great” Lorenzo Smythe) who gets hired by some mysterious operatives to pretend to be a famous politician. It’s all told from Smythe’s preening point-of-view, which veers from arrogance (“If a man walks in dressed like a hick and acting as if he owned the place, he’s a spaceman”) to the prideful reflections of a man who considers himself the next coming of John Barrymore. Although the story is set in a future where the solar system is ruled by a Moon-based parliament presided over by a ceremonial Emperor and includes a race of curious, Ent-like Martians, Heinlein’s more interested in snap-crackle-pop political comedy and thespian satire. Like most of the best science-fiction, he keeps the futurisms working in the background and lets his characters move the story. According to the editor’s notes, Heinlein had actually hoped the novel (originally titled Star Role) would “finally crack Collier’s, the Post, or some other adult and not-SF-specialized market.” It’s a sign of how cut off from mainstream literature science fiction was at the time that even a swift-paced story like this with such a rousing the-show-must-go-on vibe couldn’t vault the genre barrier.
A book that was more successful at breaking through into the mainstream market was Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man (1956). Later made into the film The Incredible Shrinking Man, and sometimes republished under that title, it takes a stupendously simple premise — a man named Scott starts shrinking one day; nothing the doctors do can stop it — and investigates all of its physical and emotional effects with precise and empathic acuity. Like many of the novels in this set, Matheson’s story focuses on people trying to adapt to impossible circumstances. Most of the novel is set in the basement of Scott’s house, where he has been lost ever since shrinking down to a few inches in height. While he battles each day to survive — trying to avoid drowning in tiny drops of water, nibbling on giant cracker crumbs, evading a monstrous spider — Matheson weaves in flashbacks about his descent from husband and father to curiosity, annoyance, and finally mystery. Matheson’s best work, like I Am Legend, has always had a depressive, existential quality to it, and this is no different. There’s very little of that stereotypical gee-whiz factor here that one would associate with science fiction of the era, and quite a bit more horror about losing one’s humanity.
The what-is-human? question gets gnawed over in a couple other novels here. The lesser of the two is Algis Burdys’s Who?. It’s a comparatively straightforward Cold War-styled story that translates Le Carre’s Smiley / Karla dialectic into a slightly futuristic setting where the worldwide conflict of stasis is being waged between the Allied Nations Government and Soviet Socialist Sphere. An Allied scientist, Lucas Martino, who was horribly wounded in a lab explosion and somehow ended up in Soviet hands, is returned to the Allies as a heavily metalized cyborg creation. Theoretically he’s Martino, but nobody quite buys it. There are plentiful possibilities for exploration here, but they’re hampered by some square-jawed dialogue (“Aren’t we all human beings?”) and a less-than-thrilling plot.
Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (1953) also digs into this investigative conundrum, but with many novels’ worth of imagination. With the care of the true master and the audacity of a magician, Sturgeon weaves together the stories of several young people who discover they have some form of telekinetic abilities and then merge into a unit that’s part-family and part post-homo sapiens multi-unit being. Together, the near-silent idiot savant, the developmentally disabled baby who can’t speak but mentally communicates like a genius, and the teleporting twins must both fight to survive in a threatening world and also understand the limits of their awesome powers. What thrills in the novel isn’t the wow factor of what they can do (teleportation and the like), it’s the dark chill of Sturgeon’s prose. It careens from gothic, Shelley-esque views of the monster-at-loose to the anguished Steinbeck-ian trauma of the outsider, cockeyed humor, fairytale wonder, and some potent examinations of morality (it’s easy here to see the influence the book must have had on Thomas Disch’s work), this is very simply a marvelously resonant and haunting work that can stand easily among the other great novels of the decade.
In A Case of Conscience (1958), James Blish also tackles themes as weighty as Sturgeon, but with much less impact. One of the few books here that spends any substantial time off-Earth, Blish’s novel has a scientific commission studying whether the distant planet of Lithia is good for colonization and whether its twelve-foot reptilian natives are safe for human contact. A potentially dynamic plot about the first Lithian coming to a crowded Earth — moved mostly underground after pollution and war — and fomenting revolution gets lost in knotty theological arguments put forward by a Jesuit member of the commission. It all ends in an anarchic and potentially xenocidic muddle, but Blish at least keeps his prose passionately engaged throughout.
More of a muddle is Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time (serialized 1958, published as novel 1961). One of his “Change War” stories about an epic conflict being waged across all time periods by two vaguely delineated groups (the Spiders and the Snakes), it takes place in a so-called “Recuperation Station” for soldiers returning from their hopscotch missions. Narrated by Greta, a former Chicago girl who works there as an entertainer, the novel begins with high promise:
Our Soldiers fight by going back to change the past, or even ahead to change the future, in ways to help our side win the final victory a billion or more years from now. A long killing business, believe me.
Leiber brings the fast-talking brio of his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser tales to this high-concept piece, using Greta to give it a raggedly funny and sad voice. But as the story progresses, with concerns rising over the increasingly shredded fabric of time and the possibility of deeply cynical manipulations behind the scenes, Leiber’s volleying dialogue tends to spiral out of control and blur his already tangled narrative. There’s almost more vision here than Leiber know what to do with; there are worse problems.
The jewel of this collection is Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956). A rocketing fantasia alight with apocalyptic Blakean visions and flights of fancy (it was published in England as Tiger! Tiger!), it’s the “vengeful history” of one Gulliver Foyle. Sole survivor of an attack on his spaceship, he is spotted and then left for dead by another ship that happens to come by. Burning with supernova rage, he becomes a singleminded machine for revenge, a spaceshifting precursor to Donald E. Westlake’s Parker. Tearing through Bester’s kaleidoscopic vision of a future where now-commonplace teleporting, or “jaunting,” has fundamentally altered society (in one instance: nobody bothers building fences anymore), Foyle is one of the great science-fiction antiheros. Around him, Bester crafts one of science fiction’s most memorable worlds, a gilded time of corporate clans (Sherwin-Williams, Esso, Greyhound), disappearing racial differences (again, jaunting), and outlawed religion. It’s a baroque style unusual for science fiction of the time, but instead of weighing down the story, Bester’s decorative lines help it sing. His opening lines seem just as fresh now as then:
This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying… but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice … but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks, but nobody loved it.
At its best, science fiction is always considering history, where we stand in it, where it’s taking us, how we’re mangling or ignoring it. This is a collection that does all of that, and delivers some of the American century’s most sparkling fiction, to boot.