Late Sunday evening, Aug. 6, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory landed the probe Curiosity on the planet Mars. I remember well the early Mars-bound rovers — reading about those that failed in the 1970s but also witnessing on TV the awe-inspiring success of the Pathfinder mission in 1997. Now Curiosity joins the other rovers (Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity) in beaming back amazing images of one of our nearest planetary neighbors, a rusty world of massive mountains and startlingly deep canyons.
Curiosity strikes me as a fitting name for the probe, given the hold Mars has had for millennia on the human imagination. Uniquely orangish-red when visible in the night sky, it has seemingly beckoned to us, inciting wonder, even terror — think of the ancient Greek and Roman bloody gods of war, updated in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. But Mars also seems the planet of possibility; scientists and science enthusiasts, such as Robert Zubrin, wax enthusiastic about The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet & Why We Must, Zubrin’s most famous book about the Red Planet.
An avid reader, student and teacher of science fiction, I particularly enjoy stories about Mars. In honor of Curiosity, I’ve put together a list of my 10 favorites in order of publication. Some are obvious classics, while others are lesser- or little-known gems that deserve a wider readership.
• The War of the Worlds (1898), by H.G. Wells: This “scientific romance” (Wells’ term) is the classic invasion narrative — told and retold in at least one famous radio play and several films — about an alien race seeking new resources. The novel was written at a time of British imperial expansion, and its enduring appeal probably stems from both the suspense of the story and ongoing political anxieties about colonization — and being colonized.
• A Princess of Mars (1917), by Edgar Rice Burroughs: Burroughs’ Mars, called “Barsoom” by its native races (that’s right — plural), is an exciting, swashbuckling place where Civil War hero John Carter finds himself marooned, falling in love with an egg-laying princess and having ceaseless adventures that display his bravery, charm and chivalry (even for alien, egg-laying princesses). Subsequent books in the Barsoom series drag on but have occasional delights, such as the depiction of a complex, multiracial Martian cosmology in The Gods of Mars.
• “A Martian Odyssey” (1934), by Stanley G. Weinbaum: Weinbaum was a popular and influential science fiction short-story writer whose pulp narratives display surprising intelligence and ingenuity. In “A Martian Odyssey,” he pens a human-Martian encounter that’s a far cry from Wells’ anxious invasion story or Burroughs’ swashbuckling fantasies. Rather, Weinbaum presents us with two races trying to figure out how to communicate, providing one of the first depictions in the SF canon of an alien but not completely hostile “other.”
• Red Planet (1949), by Robert Heinlein: Red Planet is one of Heinlein’s “juveniles,” SF books he wrote primarily for young people. But this startlingly original adventure story offers intriguing insights about economic politics. It ultimately envisions Martian colonists seeking fiscal and federal freedom from old Earth. In this story for kids, Heinlein lays the groundwork for subsequent writers, such as Kim Stanley Robinson, who explore Mars as a potential political utopia.
• The Martian Chronicles (1950), by Ray Bradbury: These short stories about two dying civilizations (Earth’s and Mars’) are often moody little fables about encountering yourself through the eyes of others — or failing to do so in blind pursuit of your own ideals. In retrospect, The Martian Chronicles reads in part like a warning for 1950s America and its move toward consumer culture, technologized commodification and the Cold War.
• “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966), by Philip K. Dick: First published in a magazine, this short story about a worker looking for a “vacation” through implanted memories about a trip to Mars veers quickly into questions about the nature of reality. It was the basis for the 1990 film “Total Recall,” which captures Dick’s pulpy philosophizing with humor and contains some delightful scenes of Mars and ancient Martian technology. The remake of this movie, sans Mars and our former governor, is in theaters this summer.
• Man Plus (1976), by Frederik Pohl: An SF classic on the verge of being forgotten, Pohl’s masterpiece is one of the first serious, extended looks at a human’s transformation into a cyborg — who can live on Mars. While not focused on Mars itself, Man Plus nonetheless makes much of its setting and the cyborg’s struggle to survive in another world. The book was an important forerunner to cyberpunk SF.
• Watchmen (1986-87), by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons: This important graphic novel series is not just a moody riff on leftover, has-been superheroes; it’s a landmark work in the development of serious comics. It’s also got some great scenes on our neighboring planet, where Dr. Manhattan goes to contemplate his being and the fate of the world. And while, like Man Plus, this isn’t a story just about the Red Planet, Watchmen nonetheless shows us the powerful draw of Mars in the SF imagination.
• Red Mars (1993), by Kim Stanley Robinson: This is the first of a trilogy that, while unevenly written, is perhaps the most ambitious contemporary portrayal of the attempt to create a social and political utopia. Robinson plays out the competing politics and economics of creating an economically just society — with lots of commentary on “terraforming.” Big and bulky, the first novel is worth it. Those interested in theory will then want to check out Fredric Jameson’s work on the Mars trilogy, particularly in Archaeologies of the Future.
• The Martian Race (1999), by Gregory Benford: A great read by a now-retired UCI physics professor, The Martian Race is less driven by visions of utopia and more concerned with the mechanics of actually getting to Mars. Hard SF lovers will appreciate Benford’s approach, which is among the most scientifically accurate depictions of what it would take to get to Mars — and what we might find there.
Lastly, just for fun, check out C.L. Moore’s Northwest Smith stories, published in the 1930s. Moore, one of the best (and few female) writers of pulp SF, offers us a Wild West, gunslinging Mars — good, fanciful stuff when you need a break from the headiness of colonialism and utopia building.
English professor Jonathan Alexander is a Chancellor’s Fellow and founding director of the new UCI Center for Excellence in Writing & Communication.