Why is science fiction so obsessed with Mars?

"There are lots of ways in which humanity's encounters with aliens from other planets are metaphors or allegories for humanity's encounters with itself," says Jeffrey Tucker. "That encounter can be friendly and productive, or it can be violent and exploitative." (Credit: James Vaughan/Flickr)

From a brief appearance in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in 1726 to this fall’s blockbuster, The Martian, Earth’s nearest neighbor in the solar system plays a big role in pop culture and the literature of science fiction.

Even as advances in interplanetary science bring Mars into ever-sharper focus, the planet remains a compelling source for creative artists to explore ideas about what it means to be human, says Jeffrey Tucker, associate professor of English at the University of Rochester.

“Science fiction is always a way of commenting on what’s happening in the here and now.”

A leading scholar of author Samuel R. Delany, whose science fiction and critical analysis have made him an influential figure in the genre, Tucker says he often reminds his students that seemingly speculative or imaginative stories are usually grounded in a larger context.

“When I teach science fiction, I quote Delany, who says, ‘Science fiction is not about the future; it uses the future as a narrative convention to present significant distortions of the present…. Science fiction is about the current world—the given world shared by writer and reader.'”

Why does Mars seem to loom so large in popular culture?

One of the best answers I’ve read is from Isaac Asimov’s introduction to an edition of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. He basically suggests that much of our fascination with Mars and the notion of life on Mars has to do with a matter of translation—or a mistranslation—of the Italian word “canali.”

In 1877, when the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli noted markings on Mars’s surface, dark lines that seemed to crisscross each other, he called them channels. The Italian word for channels is “canali,” and this somehow became “canals” in English rather than channels.

There’s a big difference between the two. A channel can be a naturally occurring geographic phenomenon, whereas a canal suggests an artificial creation, which further suggests some intelligence created it.

That prompted a lot of people, including the American astronomer Percival Lowell, to speculate about intelligent life on Mars. There are, of course, the other facts about Mars: it’s the closest planet to Earth and it’s similar to Earth in terms of its physical makeup. And it has moons. The similarities have invited reflection and comparison.

Have the stories evolved over time?

There are a couple main trajectories to the stories. In The War of the Worlds, Earth is invaded by Martians. The Martians are intelligent, but they certainly are not humanoid. They’re more like octopi, and they arrive in these gigantic military spaceships. In the opposite trajectory, human beings go to Mars.

One of the earliest and best known is Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom series. The first book is A Princess of Mars, which was published in 1917. Burroughs is best known for Tarzan of the Apes, and the Mars books are very similar except that instead of Africa, the protagonist, John Carter, goes to Mars.

What do those stories tell us about humans?

Science fiction is always a way of commenting on what’s happening in the here and now. In The War of the Worlds, the only country we see invaded is England. Why is that? Wells is commenting on British imperialism—on the English and their history of invading and colonizing other parts of the world. And it’s violent and troubling and disturbing. What’s also interesting is that the Martians are defeated not by humanity, but by bacteria, the lowliest life form on the planet.

The classic science fiction story about humans going to Mars would be Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, published in 1950. In those stories, there’s an implicit criticism of human beings who dismiss or who are disrespectful of an ancient Martian culture that existed there.

What’s also interesting is the shift in perspective. In the Martian Chronicles, you can see Earth from Mars. And Earth is this greenish star-like thing. But the inhabitants of Mars can also see the destruction of Earth, because there’s war happening on Earth. And that green star is on fire in the night sky.

Mars provides a perspective, both literally and figuratively, on the planet Earth.

Do you think the average reader who enjoys science fiction thinks about the stories on that level?

I can’t speak to what the average reader gets from the stories, but I challenge my students to be very thoughtful about what we read and why. What I find most interesting about science fiction is its allegorical ability to comment on what’s happening at the time described by the text—on a social, or political, or ideological level.

I’m also interested in other themes, including alien encounters, which are about the ways in which people who are different encounter one another. There are lots of ways in which humanity’s encounters with aliens from other planets are metaphors or allegories for humanity’s encounters with itself. That encounter can be friendly and productive, or it can be violent and exploitative.

It’s intriguing that as scientists announce more details about Mars, the imaginative pull remains strong.

What do they say? Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. I don’t think what we have learned about Mars and what it’s really like has gotten in the way of our ability to tell good stories, or had an effect on the kind of stories that have been told about Martians.

Source: University of Rochester