(Yes, that's really me in the lower left corner... as I looked back in January of 1982.)


Perhaps it should have come as no surprise that this week’s report by NASA, regarding the data collected by the Mars rover Curiosity, was do doggone anti-climactic in light of all the Internet buzz and media hoopla that ensued after scientist John Grotzinger announced that the findings were destined “for the history books.” 

It’s hard to live up to that kind of advance publicity. Just ask Kim Kardashian’s ex-husband. Or the cast and crew of the film Howard The Duck...

Still, public interest in the Mars rover and its ongoing mission to determine if the Red Planet could ever have supported microbial life reaffirms something that some of us who wear our geek labels like a badge of honor have known all along: Mars is just plain cool.

We Earthlings have long believed that there must be life on other worlds, and have yearned for centuries to find it. To be honest, I really don’t know why. Maybe we’re like the character Charlton Heston played in Planet of the Apes; maybe we can’t help thinking there must be something better out there somewhere. Whatever the reason, stories concerning the exploration of and/or discovery of life on other worlds have a long and honorable tradition among the denizens of our homeworld; Mars, due to its proxmity to Earth, has long been a favorite subject of such imaginative speculation. 

So while NASA continues what thus far has been (at the very least) an intriguing scientific assault on the Red Planet, I thought it might be fun to take a moment to recall the lively Martian takes which have long been a staple of popular fiction.

It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that the single most famous novel concerning contact between man and Martian is still H.G. Wells 1898 masterpiece The War Of The Worlds. First published in serial format in Londons Cosmopolitan Gazette, the work stands as one of the most one-sided wars in the history of science fiction, or for that matter in literature in general; it also stands as the model upon which pretty much all subsequent "invasion of Earth" tales have been built, whether they be literary works such as Starship Troopers, Childhood's End and Ender's Game, or cinematic spectacles ranging from the likes of such Cold War-era fare as Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers to more recent blockbusters like Independence Day, Cowboys Vs. Aliens and even the Men In Black trilogy.

Of course Wells novel inspired several spin-offs - most notably Orson Welles infamous 1938 radio adaptation, which (thanks to its use of realistic sounding "news bulletins") had millions of otherwise sane Americans convinced that an invasion of the Earth was really taking place. 

Years later, in the 1970s, novelist Manly Wade Wellman and his son Wade Wellman wrote an interesting book entitled Sherlock Holmes' War Of The Worlds, which revealed the heretofore unknown role that the Great Detective (with the assistance of Conan Doyle's other great literary character, Professor George Edward Challeneger) played during the events described by H.G. Wells. Later, in 1996, editor Kevin J. Anderson gave us War Of The Worlds: Global Dispatches, an uneven but mostly enjoyable collection of short stories which tells of how the invasion described in Wells' novel impacted the world. (One of my favorites is Mike Resnick's "The Roosevelt Dispatches," in which Teddy Roosevelt actually bags one of the invaders.)

But Wells' Martians were not the first to spring upon readers imaginations. Indeed, Earthmen had been traveling to Mars well before "The Great Invasion" took place.

In 1891, a writer named Robert Cromie - a friend of Jules Verne - published a novel entitled A Plunge Into Space. Long out of print, it was reportedly a far cry from the hostility detailed by Wells; Cromie's space travellers find life among their Martians so perfect that they wind up becoming bored and returning home to Earth. Based on my research, it would appear that most readers who were looking for an exciting tale came away feeling equally bored.

A far more interesting book appeared in 1899, the year after Wells made such a splash with The War Of The Worlds. In Ellsworth Douglas' Pharoah's Broker, the Martian civilization to which the Earth explorers travel resembles that of Egypt in Biblical times! 

In this book, one of the characters posits the hypothesis that each planet in our solar system is experiencing essentially similar historical development; the theory is that, if the voyage to Mars had been representative of a trip into Earth's past, then perhaps a trip to Venus might give the adventurers a glimpse into Earth's future. The book ends with the travellers departing on such a voyage; but no sequel to Pharoah's Broker ever appeared in print.


Both Pharoah's Broker and A Plunge Into Space, great attention-grabbers in their time, are long since forgotten today. If they were to reappear in print today, it is likely that they would appeal only to those who consider themselves historians of the science fiction genre; the average reader would no doubt laugh at their archiac language and childish (by today's standards) storylines. Even so, having read a mimeographed copy of Pharoah's Broker years ago, I can't help wishing that some small publishing house might eventually deem it appropriate to put it out again for new audiences to discover.

Far more popular than the works of Cromie or Douglas, for more reasons than one, are the Martian novels written by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. The first, A Princess of Mars, was first serialized in All-Story Magazine in 1912; so far as I know it has never been out of print, and most historians of the genre (the knowledgeable ones, at any rate) point to it as the thematic forebear of not only Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers but also of Star Trek and Star Wars.

Burroughs wrote 11 Martian novels in all, the last appearing not long before Burroughs death in 1950. The best of the bunch are the first three:  A Princess Of Mars, The Gods Of Mars and The Warlord Of Mars, which together tell the story of how John Carter, a former captain in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, ends up becoming the most powerful ruler on Mars (or Barsoom, as its inhabitants call it). 

There are some (myself included) who feel that the first three books might hold an even loftier place in the annuls of science fiction-fantasy literature had Burroughs ended the series there. To me the three books form a tale every bit as exciting and memorable as Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings. While later entries in the series are enjoyable on their own terms, the original trilogy introduces startling concepts, thrilling action and interesting characters which were quite original when they first appeared.

That said, the Martian tales for the most part manage to maintain a higher level of both quality and originality from start to finish than was true of Burroughs' more famous Tarzan series. A full century after the first novel appeared, the books still excite and still stand head and shoulders above most of their imitators (and there have been many).

And, of course, there is Ray Bradbury's wonderful The Martian Chronicles (1950), which is not so much a novel as it is a series of interlocking short stories. Considered one of the greatest books in any genre of all time, many critics nonetheless see the book as being somewhat naive both in its speculation and in its narrative; one writer even once reviewed the book as an allegorical retelling of the white man's march across America, with Bradbury's Martians assuming the role of the Native Americans. 

A far more humorous take on the Wellsian invasion from Mars scenario came in the form of Fredric Brown's Martians Go Home, which first appeared in the 1950s. If youve only seen the really awful movie version that appeared (briefly) in 1990, you're cheating yourself; this novel is one of the funniest books ever written, and its Martians - in this case, quite literally little green men - offer such droll, telling commentary on the basic stupidity of Man that the reader cant help but agree.

Speaking of movies, Mars has proven to be even more popular a subject of screenwriters than with novelists. As far back as  1910, when the Thomas Edison Studios released a four-minute epic entitled A Trip To Mars, the red planet has been an irresistable draw for moviemakers. Ming The Merciless even transplanted his base of operations from Mongo to ol' Barsoom in the 1938 serial Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars.

Producer George Pal's classic 1953 screen adaptation of The War Of The Worlds, like the novel on which it is based, is likely to forever be a landmark of the genre. The re-location of the action from England to America and the introduction of a non-Wellsian romantic subplot notwithstanding, The War Of The Worlds is one of the few science fiction films of its era that is still every bit as watchable today as when it was first released.

(The Pal film inspired a quasi-sequel, a television series also entitled War Of The Worlds, which was produced for a two-year run by Paramount in the late 1980s. Like the movie, the series relied a great deal upon the use of religious symbols and imagery - something which some writers have argued that H.G. Wells, well known for his atheism, would not have approved of.)

The later 2005 film adaptation of War Of The Worlds, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise, was certainly well made and exciting but ultimately not nearly as memorable. Certain aspects of the movie hew a little closer to the novel, and the brief cameo appearance by the stars of the earlier film - Gene Barry and Ann Robinson - was a nice touch; but for me the movie just doesn't have the same impact as the Pal version. 

Martians decimated much of the Earth in 1953, but we got back at them - sort of. The same year that brought Pal's masterpiece to the screen also saw the release of Abbott And Costello Go To Mars, which many fans of the comedy duo consider (unfairly in my opinion) to be their weakest film. Of course, many fans also object to the fact that the duo never make it to Mars in the film, winding up instead on Venus - apparently they didn't understand that this was part of the joke!

(Some years before, Burroughs had written another series of novels based on this same premise of pilot error. His "Carson Of Venus" series, a follow-up to the more successful "John Carter Of Mars" books, opens with hero Carson Napier planning a trip to Mars; how he winds up on Venus is something best left for the reader to learn on his own, as I'm not sure I could do it justice.)

Other cinematic trips to and from Mars during that era included the classic Invaders From Mars (1956); the extremely silly Devil Girl From Mars (1954); and George Pal's Conquest Of Space (also 1954). The best-known Mars films of the 1960s were the classic Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964), whose director, Byron Haskin, had also helmed Pal's version of War Of The Worlds; and the abyssmal Mars Needs Women (1966), in which a group of love-starved Martians attempt to kidnap a burlesque dancer and an airlaine stewardess, among others, to help repopulate the planet. (The best thing about that movie was the appearance of future Batgirl Yvonne Craig as quite possibly the best looking expert in space genetics in the history of the field.)  

Science fiction's most famous alien was almost a Martian by nationality. In his earliest concepts for what eventually became Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry described the character of Mr. Spock as a native of the Red Planet: a red-skinned creature with fiery ears, who had a plate in the middle of his stomach he didn't eat or drink, but he fed upon any form of energy that struck this plate. Somewhere between concept and execution, however, Spock moved from Mars to Vulcan and got one heck of a makeover. (Roddenberry later compensated Mars for its loss by giving the Utopia Plantia Fleet Yards, where the U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701-D would one day be built...).

Which leaves the honor of being the best-known Martian of all to Marvin the Martian, that animated fellow who locked horns with both Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Created for the 1948 cartoon "Haredevil Hare," this little fellow is best-known for his efforts to blow up the Earth with his Iludium pew-36 Explosive Space Modulator (because Earth obstructed his view of Venus).  Marvin returned for four more cartoons, perhaps most celebratedly in the classic 1953 tale "Duck Dodgers In The 24-1/2th Century."

(My boss and friend Ray Lokey would never forgive me if didn't mention the fellow who may or may not be the second most popular Martian of the mid-20th century: Uncle Martin from the 1960s television comedy My Favorite Martian. It was one of my favorite shows when I was growing up, too, and paved the way for later similarly series such as Mork & Mindy and Third Rock From The Sun; I always thought it was so appropriate that Ray Walston, the actor who so delightfully brought Uncle Martin to life, and Robin "Mork" Williams would later play father and son in Robert Altman's movie musical version of Popeye...)

With a handful of exceptions - such as a well-crafted TV mini-series based on Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles in the 1980s - cinematic depictions of life on Mars became fewer and farther between after the 1960s. And those that have been released have tended to be less successful than the films of the past. A good example is this year’s John Carter, based on the aforementioned Burroughs novel A Princess Of Mars, which by all rights SHOULD have been a success and which as far as I'm concerned is STILL the best movie released this year. The film is much loved by its legion of fans, which continue to make the case for a sequel, but remains unfairly derided as a flop by most in the Hollywood community. 

The drop in popular interest in Mars was NASA's fault, to a certain degree; when the Viking robot probes finally went to the Red Planet and sent back close-up pictures showing Mars to be barren and hostile, there was a sense of disappointment. Our long-held fantasy was rendered useless by hard, cold reality. Alas.

Then, in 1996, NASA researchers claimed to have found in a rock from the planet's organic compounds which they said were deposited by primitive life forms before the rock was blasted into space and sent on a 15 million-year voyage to Earth. NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin at the time stated, “I want everybody to understand that we are not talking about little green men here.” Which, come to think of it,  may not be such a bad thing. Personally, I’d much rather see the big green sword-wielding warriors with four arms that Burroughs wrote. (Or, better yet, the red-skinned, dark-haired, buxom Martian princesses that Burroughs’ green-skinned warriors were always kidnapping. But I digress…)

As antic-climactic as this week's announcement turned out to be (Grotzinger was quoted as saying, "The enthusiasm we had was just misunderstood"), the success of the Curiosity mission has rejuvenated enthusiasm for Martian exploration and paved the way for another Mars mission in 2020. My inner 12-year-old can't help hoping that, just as Curiosity has breathed new life into the real-world search for life on the Red Planet, that success may have the same effect with regards to interest in the fictional Mars. 

After all, John Carter still lives!

In the meantime, we still have these wonderful novels and films from the past to refresh our own youthful exuberance, and perhaps to help inspire a new generation of dreamers.  

(Copyright 2012 by John A. Small)