I miss old Mars. The Mars of imagination, the world with deep blue skies and red deserts filled with whatever magical societies and cities our whims desired. Real Mars is interesting too, and it’s there, and it’s what we’re going to have to deal with if we ever leave this planet. That Mars too can be storied. I’ve read The Martian. It’s fantastic. But – well, it’s just not the same.
Old Mars, as Sun Ra didn’t say (but might have), was the place. To American writers it was everything from Burroughs’ fantasy pseudo-Arabian kingdoms, to Stanley Weinbaum’s zoological tour de force of the 1930s (‘A Martian Odyssey’), to Heinlein’s 1949 ‘juvenile’ novel Red Planet with its thinly veiled indigenous Americans. Asimov chipped in three years later with his ‘The Martian Way’, a sly dig at McCarthyism in which go-getting Martian colonists, emotionally demonised by an Earth demagogue for being water users, and fearing they are about to be cut off from Earth’s water supply, turn the tables by – well, go check the story out. It’s great, one of the all-time sci-fi classics. And, of course, there was also Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles – a series of stories where an often dream-like old Mars became a foil against which to explore the human condition and contemporary US society.
In the British imagination, old Mars hit the headlines in 1897 with H G Wells’ vision of a hostile world spewing forth hostile invaders on jets of green flame (‘dun-duh-DAH!, dun-duh-DAH!’, and now you’ve got it going through your head). This Mars, for Wells, was the device to enable a razor-sharp social commentary in which he portrayed the British receiving the same treatment they were meting out to indigenous peoples at the time. Another milestone was Arthur C. Clarke’s scientifically up-to-date – and yet, of course, swiftly dated – desert world of the 1950s. That was joined by W. E. Johns’ flying saucer age vision of Mars in his ‘space’ series which, mercifully, had nary a sign of Squadron Leader Bigglesworth, but did feature Professor Brane and his imperturbable butler, Judkins.
There was more, of course. One old Mars novel that sticks out for me was James Blish’s Welcome to Mars, about a teen genius named Adolph and his girlfriend Nanette, who end up stranded on Mars after he invents anti-gravity propulsion, but the vacuum tube needed to run the gizmo burns out before he can return (the story was more convoluted, and better, than this sounds).
The point about this story was that it was written in 1965, just as the discoveries that destroyed old Mars broke across the world. Blish pressed on with the story anyway, and rightly so because it was really about character and plot – the setting could as well have been a desert island. His old Mars, the early-1960s Mars, was bleaker than earlier incarnations. The Mariner discoveries that Mars was a wasteland weren’t all that much of a surprise by then – but Blish still envisaged civilised and intelligent Martians, albeit a dying people.
My preference in all this? I was never much of a fan of Burroughs. Wells is eternal, for his social commentary – the period in which he flourished is one I write about, historically. Clarke’s old Mars was superb – showcasing his 1950s-era vision for the future, and specific to the science of that day in ways that even Heinlein’s old Mars of the same era wasn’t. But Heinlein’s old Mars was actually a dig at corporate social engineering, with its own virtues. Johns’ version of Mars – firmly directed at kids, and I was a kid when I read the stories – had a kind of childish innocence about it: we go to Mars to save a people who then Show Us A Better Way. I could never really – er – grok Bradbury’s vision.
If pushed to pick a favourite, for me Asimov’s old Mars, I think, usually wins. Or Clarke, sometimes. But then there’s Heinlein. And Blish. A lot, for me, depends on the mood I’m in, so it changes.
Do you have a favourite old Mars story?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021