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In Review

Mars, Martians, Metaphors, and Mirrors Why does the red planet fascinate storytellers? Interview by Scott Hauser
marsMARS ATTACKS! With Martians who invade Earth from militaristic spacecraft (like those illustrated in a 1906 edition), H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds set the stage for later stories about Mars. (Photo: Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo)

From a brief appearance in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in 1726 to this fall’s big screen blockbuster, The Martian, Earth’s nearest neighbor in the solar system has a storied history in popular culture and the literary life of science fiction. Even as advances in interplanetary science bring Mars into ever sharper focus, the planet has remained a compelling source for creative artists to explore ideas about what it means to be human, says Jeffrey Tucker, associate professor of English.

“Science fiction is always a way of commenting on what’s happening in the here and now,” says Tucker, who studies and teaches literature, particularly in the context of technology, science, culture, and identity. 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.

Missives of Mars

The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells (1897, 1898). First serialized in British and American magazines, the novel is one of the most influential stories in science fiction. Depicting an invasion of Earth by a violent Martian species, the work was the source for a 1938 radio play adapted by Orson Welles that is reported to have caused panic among some listeners.

A Princess of Mars, part of the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. First serialized in 1912, the story introduces Confederate veteran and prospector John Carter who is transported to Mars after being chased by Indians into a mysterious cave.

“Brain Stealers of Mars,” a story by John W. Campbell Jr., an influential science fiction editor in the 1930s and ’40s. Published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1936, the story is not considered to be great literature but introduced ideas about human-Martian interaction and identity that became a prominent theme in the genre.

The Martian Chronicles, a collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury published in 1950. Considered one of the classics of science fiction, the stories explore ideas involving human interaction with alien cultures and the influence that humans may have on indigenous peoples on other planets.

Red Planet (1949) and Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert Heinlein. While Red Planet tells the story of students at a boarding school on Mars and was geared toward a younger audience, Stranger in a Strange Land explored the experiences of a human who was raised on Mars and then returned to Earth.

The Mars Trilogy of Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1994), and Blue Mars (1996) by Kim Stanley Robinson. The books tells the story of a human settlement on Mars, and the humans’ efforts to transform the planet’s harsh environment. The books are considered to be more utopian and environmentally oriented than others in the tradition of science fiction involving Mars.

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.