Mars in Early Science Fiction

Is there Life on Mars?” – David Bowie

Quick! Name the first science fiction story to feature Mars…

Many sf fans would likely cite H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898) or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1912) but not so! Even Wells beat himself to the punch with his 1897 short story “The Crystal Egg”. But he’s still not the first…

Inspired by Quasar Dragon (who mentions Edwin L. Arnold’s 1905 novel Gulliver of Mars as a precursor to Burroughs), I set out to find exactly when Mars first became part of the science fiction landscape.

[…pauses while he pulls out Clute’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction…]

According to the EoSF, it began in the 17th century with scientists who dabbled with speculation:

Mars was visited by the usual interplanetary tourists – Athanasius Kircher, Emanual Swedenborg, W.S. Lach-Szyrma, George Griffith, et. al. – but it became important in the late 19th century as a major target for specific cosmic voyages because the Moon, known to be lifeless, seemed a relatively uninteresting destination .It is the home of an advanced alien civilization in Percy Greg’s Across the Zodiac (1880) and a setting for lost-race-type adventures in Mr. Stranger’s Sealed Packet (1889) by Hugh MacColl. Robert Cromie’s A Plunge into Space (1890) is an interplanetary love story and sociological tract, as is Gustavus W. Pope’s A Journey to Mars (1894). Kurd Lasswitz’s Aud Zwei Planeten (1897, [translated as] Two Planets 1971) provides another elaborate description of an advanced civilization and discusses the politics of interplanetary relations. H.G. Wells published a brief vision of Mars in “The Crystal Egg” (1897) and followed up with the archetypical alien-invasion story, The War of the Worlds (1898), which cast a long shadow over the sf of the 20th century.

Since those early days, there have been plenty of other books about Mars. Which of these is your favorite?

  • Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis (1938)
  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950)
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (1961)
  • Martian Time Slip by Philip K. Dick (1964)
  • Mars by Ben Bova (1992)
  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (1992)
  • Beachhead by Jack Williamson (1992)
  • The Martian Race by Gregory Benford (1999)

See also: A Mars Bibliography.

See also: Wikipedia’s Mars in Fiction (which oddly doesn’t even list Wells but does list Edison’s Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss (1898) as the earliest work).

4 thoughts on “Mars in Early Science Fiction”

  1. Definitely Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. I’ve got a lot of respect for the great amount of thought that Robinson put into the details of the ecological engineering, social evolution and technological projects in Red Mars, but at the end of the day, I think Bradbury does a better job of delving into the advancements and failures that make us human.

  2. Tough choices, but I think the sheer poetry of Bradbury’s work outweighs and outdoes all of the others.

    Although its a (cough) roleplaying game supplement, I commend the GURPS supplement GURPS Mars. Like most GURPS worldbooks, its not only a game supplement (which you can ignore those crunchy bits) but its fun reading, too, about Mars in reality and in fiction.

  3. The Martian Chronicles, Stranger in a Strange Land and A Princess of Mars are all high on my list.

    On a tangential note…..gee, John, you have lots of spare time…

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