The wonder of old Mars and its sands

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.

Classic old Mars – the channels (‘canali’) that Giovanni Schiaparelli thought he saw on Mars in 1877, called ‘canals’ in English – spurring the image of a dry world whose inhabitants had dug these waterways. It was, in fact, wholly an optical illusion. Via Wikipedia.

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.

Conceptual 1950s-era art by Chesley Bonestell of a Mars expedition proposed by Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

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

16 thoughts on “The wonder of old Mars and its sands

  1. My favourite Mars story is Answers With Joe, who takes apart the desire to get out there:

    The thing with that video is it sparked a lot of anger from the pro-Mars lot. And Andy Weir later did an interview with Scott, where he said the way to get to Mars is to first cure cancer. Enabling problem free space travel of the future. And I think that really highlights the problems of deep space travel right there. Not that I’m an expert, of course.

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    1. Yeah the problems of physiological response to long-term microgravity and the radiation environment of deep space haven’t been solved (and might not be). My answer is better propulsion systems, VASIMIR, for instance, that might allow brachisterone trajectories and cut transit times to 30 days. Of course, if you get there and can’t relight the engine for the braking manoeuvre, you’re on a one-way journey out of the Solar System as the velocities involved exceed the Sun’s escape velocity at Mars’s orbit. Sigh… Mars flight was so much simpler in the 1950s…

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      1. I kind of prefer the Victorian era where everyone presumed aliens were on Mars. Times were simpler back then. Not like these days, with flat Earth and all that jazz. No propulsion system will prove the Earth is round, is what I say!

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        1. What puzzles me about the Earth being flat is the fact that a ship’s captain, taking a passenger-load of flat-earthers to check out the ice wall surrounding the edge (‘Antarctica’), used GPS to get there, which relies on satellites orbiting a spherical Earth. Also, the wall is much, much shorter than it should be if it was the Earth’s perimeter. Can’t explain that one.

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  2. Hi Matthew. I think as human technology improves it will be confirmed that we are alone in the universe. This will be because life on earth came here from a different universe – a universe where there is no time and no dimensions and nothing material – a universe of pure mind. But somehow an organising principle, like a bit of software, leaked into our universe where there is time, dimensions and things material and then life started organising itself through biochemistry, natural selection and evolution. I also think we will find that true interstellar space travel is impossible for our species. From that, we will conclude that the next best option (given that ultimately our sun will go SuperNova) is to spread not humanity but carbon-based life throughout our galaxy. To that end we will learn how to analyze planets of other stars and then genetically engineer single-celled life – modified earth slime – that we will send to these worlds to seed them. Our first attempt at this will take place on Mars. So we will analyze what’s there and then brew up in the lab something that can live there and then send it. I don’t see this as the same as terraforming. We don’t need to have Mars evolve into something that we could live on – we just need to initiate life there with the environment as it is. Where natural selection then then takes life on Mars etc, and how then Mars etc. is modified by life, just as earth has been modified by life, is anyone’s guess, and the details don’t matter. So I think in time you will have your Old Mars. Cheers. Paul

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    1. I agree we’ll never have FTL travel, but I’ve always thought that colony ships made sense. Earth’s dying so donate your eggs and sperm to a colony ship and send it off with the hope that one day, they’ll become homo sapiens mark 2. Of course, then there’s the moral question of ‘should we?’ Given how destructive homo sapiens is, I’m not sure it would be fair to inflict us onto the rest of the universe.

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      1. I suspect humanity should not be inflicted on the universe. We wreck every environment we find. Put another way, behaviours that, it seems, worked pretty well as survival tactics during hunter-gatherer days (when we could always move to ‘another’ environment) have become rather counter-productive in a complex, planet-spanning civilisation. I’d hate to think we’d then inflict that on the rest of the universe. If there’s life out there at all, of course.

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        1. Yes, I have to agree. We’ve created some wonderful things – music amongst them – but those things are always the exception. We could learn. It is possible. But I’m not holding my breath.

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    2. We might already have initiated life there – there’s good evidence that the earlier landers weren’t as well sterilised as they might have been. Whether Earth life could survive the peroxide soils, lack of real atmosphere etc is another matter. But it would only take one species of micro-organism to do so for the process to begin.


  3. Ah…you speaka my language! Okay, that sounded better in my head.

    My first contact with scifi/fantasy was via Edgar Rice Burroughs, and I still have a fondness for his stories of daring-do. My next Mars adventure was with Kim Stanley Robinson with his Mars trilogy. Robinson also introduced me to the idea that corporates could be evil. Naive biddy that I was, I assumed corporates wouldn’t dare defraud the public because…The Law would get ’em. Don’t judge me.

    More recently I read Andy Weir’s take on Mars. You’ll notice there’s a huge gap in the middle of my reading. I intend to rectify that forthwith. Thank you. 🙂

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    1. You realise I have that ‘Men at Work’ song going through my head now? 🙂 I’ve not read Robinson – I must admit my interests in sci-fi faded a bit with the new wave of the 1960s. Clarke’s ‘The Sands of Mars’ is definitely worth tracking down, it’s a period piece now but classic Clarke – ultra-hard sci-fi sitting comfortably under a very human character story. I read Weir and thoroughly enjoyed it… he’s definitely ‘new Mars’, of course.

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      1. -giggles- Sorry! Robinson is very hard scifi too but with a hell of a lot of philosophy and politics woven into the story as well. The life-extension therapies clearly haven’t arrived yet, but I was fascinated by how Mars was to be terraformed. Even more interesting in some ways was the evolution of their culture and politics in an environment that could not be more different to that of Earth. Weir’s Mars is very tech. I did enjoy it, but I felt his characterisation lacked much in the way of emotion. But that could just be me. 😉

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        1. I thought so too – I think Watney was more a foil for the succession of ‘problem-and-solution’ exercises based on Mars. I gather Weir’s method was to crowd-source both his problems and the solutions – created a ready-made audience for the book who were emotionally involved as creators. Wish I could do that with one of mine. (To avoid plagiarism, my character will be cast away on Venus, but the book’d be very short as the hero gets cooked, crushed and then dissolved by sulphuric acid in the first paragraph.) 🙂

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          1. LMAO & ROFL !!!!!

            Kaching! First belly laugh of the day. Yeah, a story set in Venus would be very short lived. 😉
            I had no idea Weir crowd-sourced so much of the book because, yes, that’s essentially what the story is about. I can see the marketing benefits, but my inner writer cringes at the mere thought. Creation by committee doesn’t sit well with me.
            You and I may have to settle for a very large space station. And some advances in medicine that would allow us to spend decades in zero G without turning into jelly. 😉

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