I’ve been thinking of writing about fictional depictions of Mars for this column for a while, so when I saw a new book on the shelves at a local bookstore, it seemed like a sign that I should get on with it. The book is a non-fiction book, Destination Mars, by S K Das, who is an advisor to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
The book is well-written and informative, presenting a well-rounded and exciting picture of the red planet. Excitingly, it talks about the ISRO’s planned Mars Orbital Mission later this year. Mars is seen not only as an exciting destination for research but as a stepping stone to the rest of the universe.
Indeed, the book is dedicated to all those who have ‘striven to conquer space’, and this conquest is the topic of many science fictional stories about Mars.
Perhaps the most thoughtful of these is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy: Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1994) and Blue Mars (1996). These books deal with the slow settlement of Mars by humans and the terraforming of the planet. Terraforming is the process by which the atmosphere, climate and ecology of the planet are made more hospitable to human life. Robinson is equally interested in the processes by which this is done and in the kind of society the colonists are able to build, away from the overcrowded, war-torn, resource-compromised home world, Earth. In this sense, the books have a Utopian element.
Greg Bear’s Moving Mars (1993) also deals with human colonists on Mars. In this book, the Martian human population seeks to free itself from the demands of the ailing home world, and in a dramatic move, new technology is actually used to move Mars away from its current location to evade attack. Although that is a thrilling episode, the book also looks at how the human beings on Mars have built a new society, one that no longer needs to look to Earth as its home or ruler any more.
But there are also stories in which Mars conquers us. Frederik Pohl’s novel Man Plus (1976) deals with a project in which astronauts are physically transformed so that they can survive on Mars’ surface, in the process becoming something that is not truly human any more. The attempt to conquer the red planet has turned them into Martians. Ray Bradbury’s short story collection The Martian Chronicles (1950), looks at the gradual colonisation of Mars from many different angles, avoiding a simple story of conquest.
More literally, in HG Wells’ War Of The Worlds (1989), Martians attempt to invade Earth. They have superior technology, but are defeated — not, however, by human beings, as you’ll see when you read the book.
Mars is not always seen as a place to conquer, or a home for races who might strive to conquer us. Some have imagined it as a world in its own right, a place where stirring adventures may be set. This was the impetus behind Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tales of Mars, or Barsoom as its inhabitants call it, a world where red-skinned humans, massive, green, four-armed creatures called Tharks and various other alien races forge alliances and fight battles over the dwindling resources of a dying planet. Sent into their midst mysteriously, Earthman John Carter has dozens of thrilling experiences across a series of novels starting with A Princess Of Mars (1917).
Fanciful as these stories may be, they inspired generations of readers who would go on to write their own science fiction or, like Carl Sagan, take part in the scientific exploration of other worlds in the form of unmanned missions to places like Mars.
Other interesting novels set on Mars include Philip K Dick’s weird Martian Time-Slip (1964), Robert Heinlein’s Podkayne Of Mars (1963) and Kage Baker’s The Empress of Mars (2008).
As one of our closest neighbours in space, Mars will always be a place on which we project our dreams and nightmares. The true conquest of Mars lies not in fighting Martians — who, disappointingly, turn out not to exist after all — or in taking over the planet, just to start the same cycle of problems we face on Earth. It lies in understanding those hopes and fears, and in the accumulation of knowledge about the real Mars, and what that knowledge can help us achieve.