Sean McMullen



Since the discovery that Mars is another world like Earth in the Seventeenth Century, science fiction has been speculating about what lives there and what it is like to explore. The 1877 opposition saw the Martian 'canals' discovered, and with them came the idea that Mars probably had intelligent inhabitants. Wells' War of the Worlds was published in the same decade as the first serious spacecraft designs, and in the early Twentieth Century Mars was the favourite extra-terrestrial destination in books, stories, and movies. When Orson Welles broadcast his War of the worlds adaptation in 1938, science fiction had people so convinced that Martians existed, that a million people believed they we actually invading.

The 1940s saw great progress in both rocketry and science fiction, and in 1956 the famous The Exploration of Mars by Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun was published, describing the technology required for a manned expedition to Mars using known physics. The Mariner and Viking pictures of Mars in the 60s and 70s ended the traditional dreams of a Mars with canals, dead civilizations, and plant life, but since then a new science fiction of Mars has been popularising the newly discovered, real wonders of the planet, thus rebuilding the image of Mars as a fascinating place to explore in the public consciousness.


At first, Mars was nothing more to the public than a menacing, luridly red dot moving amid the stars, and was generally considered to be a portent of disaster. As astronomy began to shoulder astrology aside, Mars confined itself to upsetting astronomers, because the planet traced out some very strange paths in the sky and had the experts arguing about orbital dynamics for millenia. Finally, in 1659, the Dutch astronomer Christian Huygens saw and sketched the Syrtis Major and determined that Mars' rotation period was about that of Earth. Thirteen years later, he discovered the Southern Polar Cap. Having established that Mars was a world with definite surface features, Huygens went on to theorise about "inhabitants" of Mars, some of which might be sentient. In 1719 Maradi discovered that the surface features change, and in the 1780s Herschel determined that these features changed colour, and that its axial inclination allowed similar seasons to Earth. He also named the dark areas seas, and the polar caps ice.

Discover a world, and science fiction will soon offer you a very cheap trip there, namely the cost of a book. In 1751 Voltaire had two alien giants from Sirius visiting Mars in Micromegas, and numerous other authors in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century populated Mars with sentient beings. These generally used Mars merely for a setting for their utopias, just as central Africa, South America, Australia and even Antarctica were also used. In 1877 all that changed, however. The Italian astronomer Schiaparelli thought he saw lines connecting the polar caps to the dark areas.

The lines were nothing new. Beer and Madler had recorded two in 1840, and Dawes, Lockyer, de la Rue, Kaiser and Lassel had all sketched a few, but Schiaparelli had called them canali, the Italian for grooves. This was mis-translated into canals, and canals implies something artificial. Something artificial implies something intelligent, and suddenly there was hard evidence for intelligent life on Mars. Until the opposition of 1877, Mars was just another planet, although the most Earth-like of those known. Now we were definitely not alone. Some astronomers could not see the canals, and cameras were not able to record them, but many eminent astronomers, such as William Pickering and Percival Lovell, saw them and drew detailed maps.

The canals are today thought to have their origin in the human eye's tendency to join up unconnected marks. The Mariner spaceprobes of the 1960s finally laid the canal myth to rest, but for nine decades there was some certainty that an ancient and advanced civilization was fighting for survival on a cooling, drying planet. In science fiction, Kircher, Swedenborg, Lach-Szyrma, and Griffith had all written about travel to Mars, but now reality had arrived. Percy Greg was first onto the bandwagon with an advanced Martian civilization in Across the Zodiac (1880), followed by a lost-race adventure in Hugh McColl's Mr Stranger's Sealed Packet (1889), a love story in Gustavus Pope's A Plunge into Space (1890), and yet another utopian novel in Kurd Lasswitz's Auf Zwei Planeten (1897). Even an Australian got in on the act, when the Melbourne clergyman Robert Potter published the first Martian invasion novel, The Germ Growers (1892). Visitors from outer space had been around since Eliza Haywood's The Adventures of Eovaai (1736), which featured an alien princess visiting Earth, but the idea of really large numbers of Martians landing on Earth, waving advanced weapons, and demanding real estate were an invention of the 1890s.

The most famous alien invasion of them all came from the mind of Herbert George Wells. In 1897 his short story The Crystal Egg suggested the idea of a spaceprobe from Mars, which provided the Martians with direct views of the surface of Earth - although it did work both ways, and showed us Earthlings views of Mars. The crystal itself turns up in a London antique shop, and guess where the Martians establish a beachhead in Wells' 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds? First published as a serial in The Strand Magazine, it was heavily illustrated, and featured a very serious interplanetary invasion, complete with highly advanced military hardware (such as heat rays, tripod-tanks, poison gas, and aircraft), as well as monstrous and utterly alien Martians. Until then, Martians had been essentially human and relatively harmless, although a bit smugly superior. When combined with a fairly general belief that Mars either once had or still had an advanced civilization, the novel caused a sensation. The average Briton could imagine Martians landing in Kent and advancing on London just as surely as French or Germans doing the same thing.

Why was Wells so fantastically successful, even though people had been writing adventures about Martians for over a hundred and fifty years? A lot of it involved plausibility. Earlier novels generally involved mind-journies, or technology that featured more hand-waving than hardware. Thirty years earlier Jules Verne had written about using a giant gun to fire a spacecraft to the moon, introducing theoretically possible although not very practical hardware to interplanetary travel. Wells also used the giant gun idea to get his Martians to Earth, and in its time the physics was a bit like Star Trek's warp drive - it sounded cool to audiences, even if the blueprints glossed over some of the more important details.

Even though science fiction about voyages to other worlds had been around for a long time, rocket powered spacecraft took much tonger to even get onto the drawing board. The first attempt at manned rocket flight was by a medieval Chinese named Wan-Hoo in 1500AD. His craft consisted of two large kites tied to a framework containing a saddle, and forty seven large gunpowder rockets. In theory, it should have worked. Unfortunately the rockets powering his sled exploded simultaneously, and apparently no recognisable fragments of Wan-Hoo were ever found. In 1783 the Mongolfier brothers were wise enough to try their design for a hot air balloon out on a chicken, duck and sheep before the first human flight was made two months later.

In 1828 a German science fiction cartoon appeared of a steam powered manned rocket capable of travelling from Paris to Saint Petersburg at 1400 miles per hour, and by 1869 Jules Verne was writing science fiction about spacecraft being launched from guns but using rockets for course corrections. The Russian Nikolai Kilbalchinich designed a rocket powered manned aircraft fuelled by gunpowder pellets in 1881, but he was unable to take his design any further - being on death row at the time for designing the bombs which killed Czar Alexander II. Then, in a public lecture delivered in 1891 the German Hermann Ganswindt theorised about rocket-powered manned spaceflight. His spacecraft had an exhaust well through the passenger cabin, a propulsion unit firing steel balls with gunpowder, and rotation along the axis to provide artificial gravity. Unfortunately Ganswindt was rather impatient and short-tempered, always a problem when applying for government funding, so his designs never reached the testing stage.

It was the Russian school teacher KonstantinTsiolkowsky who hit on the first realistic spacecraft design. His first article touching on the subject was in 1895, and in 1905 he came up with a design using liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen to provide thrust, and multiple stages to save weight. The science fiction of human space travel was by now looking beyond the moon. In 1880 Percy Greg's Across the Zodiac used anti-gravity propulsion to take a spacecraft to Mars, and George Griffith's A Honeymoon in Space of 1901, featured a flight to the planets, including Mars, using quite a sophisticated spacecraft that even had pressure suits for going outside. Even Tsiolkowski got into the science fiction market with Beyond the Planet Earth in 1920. In 1926 the American Goddard flew the first liquid fuelled rocket, then the German Opel achieved manned rocket flight four centuries after the hapless Wan-Hoo. Opel's rocket powered aircraft, the Opel-Rak 1, used a battery of reliable, commercial life-line rockets. Also in 1928 came publication of some vital work on orbital dynamics by the city architect of Essen, Dr Walter Hohmann. The Hohmann transfer orbits showed precisely what launch windows and velocities were required to fly to Mars and return again, and it was all sound Newtonian physics. Thus all the pieces were there to go to Mars, and it was just a matter of putting them together as a spacecraft. A really, really big spacecraft..

In the meantime, Mars was now up and running as a business proposition. Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars (1912) was the first of a series that saw eleven volumes published in thirty years. In 1926 the first issue of science fiction's foundation magazine, Amazing Stories contained a reprint of Austin Hall's 1923 Martian invasion story The Man Who Saved Earth. Dozens of novels and hundreds of stories with Martian settings were published - and bear in mind that at this time many astronomers were still seeing canals, and the Mariner spaceprobes were still three decades in the future. The public perception of Mars involved the certainty of plant and intelligent animal life. Vegetation was obviously changing colour with the seasons, and intelligent beings had obviously been digging canals. That much was taken as fact. Thus there was intelligent life on Mars, and all that was keeping the Martians away was a daunting expanse of hard vacuum. Even the humble but popular Mars Bar that you can still buy today dates from the 1930s.

In 1938, the Martians really did invade. Well ... maybe not technically, but a huge number of Americans believed that it had happened - reliably estimated at over a million radio listeners - so for them it was real. What they had heard was Howard Koch's adaptation of Well's War of the Worlds, produced by Orson Wells for the Mercury Theatre of the Air. Many listeners got into their cars and fled their homes, and at least one listener is known to have suicided rather than have to face the invading Martians. Once calm had been restored, a lot of people were left looking really foolish, yet the fiasco did demonstrate that the general public was aware of Mars as both a planet and as a potential source of unfriendly neighbours.

The idea of spaceflight had by now made a complete conversion from Eighteenth-Century mind-journeys, Verne's 1869 spacecraft-firing cannons, and Greg's anti-gravity craft of 1880, to vaguely practical spacecraft. Fritz Lang's SF movie The Girl in the Moon (1929) featured the first truly realistic spacecraft. This was no surprise, as Hermann Oberth and Willy Ley were Lang's technical advisors, and the first liquid fuelled rockets had already flown. Indeed the two-stage rocket in the movie was so well designed that the Nazis withdrew the film in later years, for fear that German rocket technology might leak out to the west. When the original Flash Gordon 13-episode series was made in 1936, it had a record $350,000 budget. In 1938 it was followed by the 15-episode Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars. Its original setting had been the planet Mungo, but after the impact of Orson Well's radio play, Mars was thought to be the most cool place to go.

1938 was quite a year for Mars. C. S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet was a fantasy, but it featured a trip to a quite exotic Mars organised on Christian ethical principles. Even more profound changes were on the way, however. In 1937 John W Campbell took over the editorial chair of the magazine Astounding Stories, and in 1938 renamed it Astounding Science Fiction. Campbell had a degree in physics from MIT, and was not kindly disposed to fantasy. Through Astounding, he touched off what is now known as the Golden Age of SF, in which the earlier exotic fantasies and adventures were replaced by stories heavily based on real astronomy, real engineering, and real - although often rather stretched - science. The fictional explorers who now went to Mars were now colonists, geologists and archeologists, and their spacecraft were something like a cross between a heavy bomber and a submarine. The stories had an avid following among the wartime crews of real heavy bombers and submarines, as the settings were quite realistic and convincing. One such story was Position Line (New Worlds, 1949) by the Australian ship's captain A. Bertram Chandler, who likened navigating on the deserts of Mars to navigating on the seas of Earth. Incidently, Position Line won the readers popularity poll for its issue.

For science fiction fans, the most annoying thing about the space age was that it began without them knowing about it. Well, technically a few fans knew. They were the young Germans who had been inspired to build their own rockets by the science fiction of the 1920s, and had gone on to build space-capable rockets for the Third Reich. The first of these, called the A4, flew successfully in October 1942, and rose above the height at which America now confers astronaut status on its pilots. The first human-built machine had reached space. In 1945 Campbell's readers were writing back from near the German lines, describing the launching of these space weapons, because they really did travel through space to reach their targets. The reports and editorials make amusing reading, because the tone is along the lines of "How dare those Nazis get there first, and without even telling us!" Worse, when Germany surrendered there were more surprises. There was the Me 163 rocket interceptor, whose pilot wore what was essentially a space suit. In 1944 one of them broke the sound barrier in an uncontrolled dive before control was recovered a couple of metres above the North Sea. The pilot, Heine Ditmar, must have really been looking forward to a glass of schnapps when he returned to the base. A multi-stage rocket fighter, the Natter, took off vertically from a launch pad, and there was even a design for the first manned spacecraft in the early stages of testing. If built to specifications, the 85 ton A9 + A10 combination would definitely have put a man in space.

This was arguably science fiction's greatest humiliation, but it fought back. In 1949 the artist Chesley Bonestell's visions of the other planets of the solar system were published in The Conquest of Space, and the book included a Mars dominated by a mighty canal system.

In the early 1950s, a group of visionaries got together to market space travel to the public as a viable proposition. While Willey Ley and Wernher Von Braun provided workable designs for 265 foot high, 7000 ton, three-stage rockets to ferry people and equipment into orbit, Chesley Bonestell and Fred Freeman provided staggeringly realistic paintings. These articles and paintings were commissioned by Collier's, a major US magazine whose content included fiction and scoops on the latest scientific developments. The series ran from 1951 to 1953, and outlined plans to get into space, to build a large space station, and to send a fifty man expedition to the moon. Even then, women were to be among the pioneering astronauts, and the projects even had realistic - for the Fifties - budgets.

In 1956 Project Mars was published. This was Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun's detailed blueprint for getting to Mars using chemical rockets, and again the paintings of both the rocket hardware and Martian surface were by Chesley Bonestell. This was the true road to Mars, presented to the general public for the first time. A two year and seven month return trip was specified, with Hohmann transfer orbits, launch windows, and weights of food, water, air, fuel, oxidant, spacecraft and human bodies. For the first time there were no unknowns, apart from who could provide the funding. Once more, science fiction was lagging somewhat, but not for long. The stories and novels that followed tackled the problems of long voyages in small spacecraft on the transfer orbits, particularly the psychology of astronauts getting along with each other, and the impossibility of getting doctors or repair technicians to a ship on a transfer orbit.

Real spacecraft began advancing rapidly around the mid-50s. In October 1957 Sputnik 1 was orbited by the Russians. A year later America sent humanity's first artefact into interstellar space when an underground nuclear bomb test sent the steel manhole cover skywards at seven times the escape velocity of the Earth! Russia put a man in space in 1961, its Mars 1 probe flew past Mars - with a dead radio transmitter - in 1963. America did better with Mariner 4 on its 1965 flyby but the surprise and disappointment at what was found in its photographs was not confined to science fiction fans and authors. The public had expected detailed views of canals and ruins of dead cities. All that they got was craters. Then Viking 1 landed in 1976 and did not find so much as a microbe with its biological experiments. The general reaction was why bother going there? Indeed, it took science fiction some time to catch up with Mars, the reality, but in a sense it could not get any worse. The orbiters Mariner 9, Mars 2 and 3, and the two Viking orbiters had photographed awesome geological features and evidence of past water flows, and even renewed prospects for microscopic life emerged with the discovery of microbe-like fossils in a Martian meteorite in the 1990s. Mars was clawing back a little allure.

Where does that leave science fiction? Today there are more novels, and series of novels being written than ever before, all based on reality. We have had the technology to go to Mars since the 1970s. What we do not have is the funding for more than a few automated probes. Could science fiction help? In the past it turned Mars from a dot in the sky, into a world inhabited by intelligent aliens. It went on to show how humans could reach that world using known physics, then known technology. Finally, when humanity sent robot probes to Mars, and a very hostile reality was revealed, science fiction tried to give people a place in that new reality.

Science fiction remains the cheapest way to travel to Mars, then live, work, and explore there. Fictional speculations about Mars have excited public imagination and enthusiasm for centuries, and they have been updated with every scientific discovery made about Mars. Thus it is not science fiction's job to explore Mars, but model how we might get there and what we might find. Science fiction's challenge is to make the known Mars interesting, exciting and fascinating, because present and future voters, engineers, scientists and politicians are often influenced and inspired by what science fiction has to say. My story Unthinkable was written to show that Mars is now a lot easier to reach, technologically, and it is getting easier all the time. The holy grail of modern science fiction should be to come up with a reason to go to the real Mars that will make us put it all together and want to go there as a civilization and species. Stunning geology has only limited general appeal, and a lot of the early enthusiasm for Mars was based on dreams of advanced alien life and exotic civilizations - even if some of those dreams were ludicrous, sexist, unscientific, and generally over the top.


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