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This Is Why We Love Stories About Mars

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tories about monsters are stories about ourselves. Our current obsession with zombies might have something to do with our own societal doubts and agoraphobia in a rapidly urbanizing society. Stories about robots and Frankensteins are about the uncomfortable progression of science and what it means to be human. Science fiction entities tell us more about the writer and the reader than the entity itself; in Japan, stories of the nuclear age came with destructive monsters, while in America radiation makes supermen.

But stories about space? There’s a reason we’ve called it the final frontier, no matter how creatively limiting that concept is. Stories about space and aliens are generally stories about mankind interacting with experiences outside of the dominant culture of the time, and stories about Mars are stories about those outsiders who are adjacent or near or new. Mars was (and technically still is) just far enough away to stimulate our imaginations and just close enough to compel foreboding. And through the stories of Mars we can see mankind’s evolving relationship with, fear of and desire to learn from the frontier. The interactions with Mars and Martians in books and film show our changing perceptions of neighbors and imperial expansion and “Manifest Destiny.”

Mars-related book covers through time.

Public domain

This is the second of two stories looking at the place that Mars has in our culture, not just our scientific aspirations. (The first surveyed the amazing Mars coverage in The New York Times of a century ago.) This is far from a complete cataloging of Mars-related literature and movies, but if you’re trying to deduce the seed of our interplanetary travel motivations — outside of the George Mallory angle — it’s somewhere in here.

For Western speculative fiction, the first, most essential Martian story — “War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells — appeared in 1897, at the end of a bloody century with continental powers repeatedly eyeing the prizes of the British Empire and just before the lead-up to the Great War. At the time, Britain’s foreign policy priorities involved refraining from major alliances in “Splendid Isolation” and relying on naval prowess to repel attack. Each iteration of “War of the Worlds” is a time capsule of the external fears of its creators; in 1897, that was a form of mechanized warfare that rendered British naval prowess irrelevant. Later, we’d see Cold War ideals and then a post-9/11 frame.

After H.G. Wells, it’s impossible to talk early Mars fiction without talking about Edgar Rice Burroughs. His “Barsoom” series — the books with Confederate soldier John Carter transported to a lousy-with-canals Martian1 society on a sword-and-sandal adventure — helped launch a publishing empire from the 1910s onward. It’s a Western written by someone very familiar with the going notions about Mars; the hero derives his powers from the gravitational properties that Percival Lowell and his compatriots claimed made canal construction logistically feasible, and Mars itself is a desert society peppered with oases consistent with Times reportage.

To say that Burroughs’s legacy is complicated is an understatement. There are several races of Martians in the series, and some of them are ugly stereotypes, but at their core the books do tackle themes of imperialism and subjugation and slavery — though Burroughs is no Kipling, just as his “Tarzan” is no “The Jungle Book” — while eventually just getting into mad science insanity that I’m sure sold like hotcakes. It’s about an idealized form of masculinity on the frontier.

Two subsequent British works illustrate different approaches to the same story. “Last and First Men” (1930) by Olaf Stapledon and “Out of the Silent Planet” (1938) by C.S. Lewis are linked in that each is a story of Earth men flexing imperialist muscle to try to obtain a foothold in the Martian world. In Stapledon’s tale, the Martians are wiped out by genetic supermen from Earth. In Lewis’s response eight years later, the notion of advancing culture or species through conquest is interrogated far more harshly. That these two takes on an advance-or-die, resource-starved, Terran society attacking a far-flung society came out during the territorial height of the British Empire should come as no surprise.

When movies became ascendant in culture, Martians did, too. In American cinema, by the 1950s, Martian invaders were basically Soviets. In 1953, “Invaders from Mars” told of green humanoids assimilating local American small-town populations to aid in their takeover attempt.2 “The War of the Worlds” film that same year updated Wells’s pre-World War I invasion saga for a Cold War audience that was just four years into a Soviet atom bomb and already too familiar with the industrialization of war and the threat of surreptitious annihilation from above.

Offscreen, science fiction was having its renaissance. When all the Golden Age sci-fi greats took a stab at a Mars story, more often than not they said a little bit more about Manifest Destiny than the science of Mars.

“The Martian Chronicles” (1950) by American Ray Bradbury told a future-history of how Earth advanced to Mars, inadvertently wiped out the local hostile population with a disease, and slowly moved in. Kurt Vonnegut’s “Sirens of Titan” in 1959 had an interplanetary Martian-Earthling war that ended rather badly for the former. Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sands of Mars” in 1951 portrayed the virgin red planet as a capitalist-controlled site of settlement and exploration. Isaac Asimov’s take on the Martian story, 1952’s “The Martian Way,” again grounded the planet in America’s frontier spirit — conveniently writing out the fraught idea of current inhabitants, for what it’s worth — but in this case, the frontier folks leading humanity forward were the politically demonized Martian settlers, not their Terran brethren. In Philip K. Dick’s novel “Martian Time-Slip” in 1964, the native Bleekmen of Mars were derided by the Terran real-estate speculator colonists, despite their overlooked perceptive gifts.

And as the West’s relationship with ideas from outside its cultural tradition changed, so too did Martian stories. Robert Heinlein bridged that gap between “the U.S. did deplorable things in its conquest of the continent” and the Eastern obsession of the 1960s, between 1949’s “Red Planet” and 1961’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.” The former has native Martians as a standard occupied species, but the latter has a man raised by those Martians returning to Earth, bringing their psychic and hyperintelligent values into a ’60s Christ narrative.

SHARE OF ALL FILMS ON IMDB BY TAG
DECADE OF FILM RELEASE ALIEN MARTIAN
1940s 0% 2%
1950s 5
26
1960s 6
21
1970s 9
2
1980s 18
12
1990s 16
9
2000s 21
16
2010s 25
12
Movies about aliens are getting more popular. Movies about Martians peaked a while ago.

Source: IMDB

But multiculturalism was only part of the era’s Mars story. The 1950s and ’60s saw Martians firmly established on television as belligerent invaders. Marvin the Martian was introduced to give Bugs Bunny a worthy foe hell-bent on destroying Earth.3 A 1960 episode of “The Twilight Zone” called “People Are Alike All Over” featured a Martian society that was just as indifferent and cruel as humans on Earth. The episode “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up” played into the anyone-could-be-the-enemy-spy fears of the early 1960s, with invaders posing as humans to begin their infiltration.

In comic books, Martians are — with one notable exception — the baddies. Martians who show up in a Marvel comic are sure to be villains. Sometimes they’re Nazis dressed up as Martians to scare New York. Either way, these comics are stories about external threats made real, conquerors, spies, warlords and assorted monsters of the week. In DC Comics, the White Martians are boilerplate invader types, as are Yellow Martians and the original Burning Martians. Only the Green Martians, of which there remains one — the Martian Manhunter — aren’t out for Earthling blood, despite their ridiculous power.

In the contemporary era, humans dealing with Martians are occupiers, not collaborators. It rarely goes well. Often humans are there on strip-mining and resource acquisition missions. In “Red Planet” (2000), human attempts to terraform go awry when the algae they seed on the planet feed the occupants: homicidal bugs that try to kill Val Kilmer. “Ghosts of Mars” (2001) had the ghosts of ancient Martians return from the grave and wipe out a mining operation. “Doom” — both the 1993 video game and 2005 film — showed the gory experience of a mercenary in a Martian research facility overrun by outside forces.

And in 2005, foreign-anxiety Rorschach Test “The War of the Worlds” got its post-9/11 imagining, taking its production design — the ever-present ash, civilians sprinting from smoke, ubiquitous posters of the missing — directly from the scenes after a sneak attack on a major American city.

There are exceptions, of course. Not all films about Mars dwell on the human fear of the adjacent other. “John Carter,” man, if that movie was trying to make a point about anything, I’m sorry, but I was not picking up what it was putting down.

But Mars remains the frontier in cinema. “The Martian” — in both the novel and film — tells how scientific resourcefulness and resilience can get an explorer through a marooning on a harsh frontier. We’re not skating up and down the canals anymore, sure, but we have landed a number of robots on Mars, and several groups are striving to send folks there. We know Mars is barren. But it’s the frontier, and the frontier is there to be explored.

Footnotes

  1. Barsoom is their name for Mars.

  2. It was remade in 1986, while the Cold War was still on. It wasn’t very good. Most movies about Mars have that in common.

  3. There is something poetic about Marvin being the referee in “Space Jam” in the game between the Tunes and the Aliens. After all, he’s a creature of both worlds.

Walt Hickey is FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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