Get your ass to Mars!

May 13 2008 Published by under Fantasy fiction

(Title courtesy of the movie Total Recall.)

The planet Mars has always been a source of fascination (as is its sister planet Venus, but that's another post). As we have seen (here and here), in reality Mars can be quite an interesting place, but it has also served as an exotic locale for fantasy and science fiction adventures. Recently I started stumbling across various classic adventure stories set on the red planet, and after a couple of weeks of marathon reading, I thought I would do a post about them!

It's not surprising to see why Mars captured the imagination of fiction writers. It is a planet close enough to see with telescopes but far enough that its details remained mysterious and subject to speculation for a long time. How excellent would it be if there were people on it, like us! The speculation, and the fiction accompanying it, really took off when in 1877 astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed what he thought were 'channels' on the surface of the planet. The word canali for 'channel' was misinterpreted as 'artificial canal' in English, leading many readers to assumption that the observed features were 'intelligently designed'!

As described on Wikipedia, in the 1890s other 'observations' of Mars detected other canals and supposed seasonal changes, creating massive and wild speculation about Martian life. A detailed obervation in 1909, however, detected no canals, and spectroscopic analysis of the planet soon demonstrated that water was not present in the Martian atmosphere. It was later demonstrated that the canals were an optical illusion created by the mind's tendency to "connect the dots" on hard-to-see pictures.

The fiction writers were not to be deterred, however! For the most part, the idea of canals, combined with the 'red' part of 'red planet', lent itself naturally to a vision of a dry, desert-climate planet. In reality, Mars is a planet with 1% of the atmospheric pressure of Earth, an atmosphere comprised mostly of carbon dioxide, with temperatures ranging from -140° F to 20° F depending on season. The acceleration of gravity is roughly a third of that on Earth, as I noted in my Martian skydiving post. Though it is clear now that the planet is inhospitable to life, it may not have always been the case, a 'loophole' that later authors would take advantage of, as we will see.

The native Martians are typically depicted as rather primitive and savage people who have taken 'survival of the fittest' to the extreme. Morality and altruism are mysterious concepts that the heroes of the tales must spread and teach by example. (In retrospect, clearly the 1980s film Flash Gordon draws some inspiration from this plot idea.) Martian culture is almost always described as being ancient and plagued by archaic and nonsensical rules. Martian technology is a paradoxical combination of mystical technology, biotechnology, and zeppelins. Oh, and of course, Martian women are always excruciatingly beautiful!

We follow the course of Martian authors starting with the greatest of them all, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Though he wasn't the first to write an adventure yarn set on Mars, he undoubtedly was the author to turn such stories into a genre all their own!

1. John Carter of Mars: A Princess of Mars (1912), by Edgar Rice Burroughs. A Princess of Mars tells the story of John Carter, a Virginian and Civil War veteran. After a failed attempt to rescue his friend from a band of hostile Indians, Carter collapses in an Arizona cave and finds himself mysteriously drawn across space to the surface of the Red Planet. He is immediately captured by the giant, warlike green Martians, but his life is spared because of his unique athleticism: the low gravity of Mars makes him a powerful warrior and jumper!

Carter quickly learns the language, and has risen in rank amongst the green Martians when they capture a new lovely human-like Martian, the lovely Princess Dejah Thoris. Carter immediately falls in love, and enacts a desperate plan of escape/rescue. Events escalate, and eventually Carter must lead an army to the rescue of all of Mars!

Burroughs himself provides an 'introduction' to the book, as the 'friend' of Carter who receives the man's memoirs. The book is a great, classic pulp adventure. This was Burrough's first book, though definitely not his last: he wrote a total of eleven books about the planet of Barsoom alone! My favorite part of the first book, however, is the creepy image at the end, when the reader finds out exactly what in the cave sent Carter to Mars in the first place.

2. Eric John Stark of Mercury: The Secret of Sinharat (1949), by Leigh Brackett. Whereas Burroughs' Mars is a primitive and savage place, Brackett's Mars is much more technologically advanced - but just as savage. Mercury, Mars and Venus have all been colonized, but are frontier planets, filled with barbarians and outlaws. Eric John Stark is an orphan from Mercury, saved from death at the hands of amoral prospectors. Stark himself is a man of little respect for the law, and is willing to take jobs that lie on the wrong side of it.

The Secret of Sinharat begins with Stark being chased on 'beast-back' across the Martian plains by law-enforcement officers. When they corner him, they make him an offer he can't refuse: travel to the Low-Canal town of Valkis and investigate the mysterious and ominous goings-on there. Stark does so, and finds Delgaun, the leader of the bandit-city, has allied with the barbarian leader Kynon in a plan to wage war and plunder the civilized colonies of Mars. Kynon has rallied his army by promising them eternal life: he claims to have discovered the lost power of the people of Sinharat, the ability to transfer the mind to a new body.

Stark joins the plot in order to spy for the authorities, and gets wrapped up in the plotting and intrigues of the band of criminals. The story is fast-paced and eminently readable: I finished its 110 pages in only a couple of hours! I'm looking forward to reading the other Stark tales, which are gradually being rereleased by Paizo Press.

Incidentally, Brackett is perhaps best known today for her work on the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back, though she died soon after finishing the script and the amount of her version that made it to screen is a matter of some controversy.

3. The Martian Chronicles (1950), by Ray Bradbury. No discussion of Martian adventures would be complete without at least a mention of Bradbury's Martian Chronicles! Though the book is not a ripping adventure yarn like the other books mentioned here, it shares a number of their characteristics, including a habitable Mars, complete with canals, Martians with highly alien cultures and customs, and, of course, conflict. Bradbury's Chronicles tell the tale of the colonization of Mars by Earthmen, and the destruction of both the Martian people and the Earthmen that follows as a result. It serves as an extended critique of man's own colonial ambitions in the Americas, and contains many parallels.

The book is arranged in a series of loosely-connected short stories and vignettes, most of which are classics and every one of which is a tale such beauty that it almost hurts to read them, even for the tenth time. One of my favorites is The Third Expedition, originally published as Mars is Heaven, an eerie tale in which explorers from Earth arrive to find what seems to be an American-style small town. Way in the Middle of the Air is a simultaneously beautiful and ugly story about one of Earth's oppressed minorities finally leaving for greener pastures. There Will Come Soft Rains, one of the greatest science fiction stories ever written, describes Earth in the aftermath of catastrophe. Finally, The Million-Year Picnic tells a lovely and simple tale of some of the last colonists on Mars, and their encounter with the native Martians.

3. Northwest Smith of Earth: Northwest of Earth (1954), by C.L. Moore. Adventurers on Mars seem to fall into one of two categories: macho adventurers fighting against a primitive and hostile world, like John Carter, or rogues who flit from world to world, looking for adventure and easy coin, like Eric John Stark. C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith is another of the latter class: an outlaw usually dressed in dark leather, one hand on his heat-gun, his colorless eyes always alert for trouble or opportunity.

We've discussed some of C.L. Moore's writings before, in particular her elegant and haunting fantasy tales about Jirel of Joiry, lady and swordswoman. The Northwest of Earth stories are written equally well, and are equally haunting: if one were to summarize them with a sentence, I would refer to them as "Han Solo vs. The Cthulhu Mythos." Indeed, C.L. Moore's Mars is a world which, although alive with cities and technology, is still haunted by the Gods of Old. Northwest, in his wanderings, more often than not runs afoul of powers that threaten to envelope him.

The entire book is well-worth reading, though the structure of the Northwest stories eventually becomes a bit repetitive: more often than not, Northwest stumbles across damsel in distress, damsel leads him to a power that overwhelms him, by luck or sheer force of will Northwest manages to escape the trap. My personal favorites are Black Thirst, in which Northwest learns the secrets of the Minga maids, the most beautiful and sought-after courtesans in the solar system, Dust of Gods, in which Northwest and his Venusian friend Yarol are hired to find the remnants of one of the ancient ones, The Cold Gray God, in which Northwest is hired to retrieve an object which turns out to be a key to unspeakable horrors, and Nymph of Darkness, in which Northwest comes to the aid of a woman who is pursued by a strange and sinister cult.

C.L. Moore's works are always worth reading, especially for their dreamlike and imaginative imagery: in Dust of Gods, for instance, Northwest and Yarol open a long-sealed chamber, and light spills out of the chamber like liquid flowing from a bottle, slowly draining from the ceiling to floor and out the door.

4. Michael Kane of Earth: City of the Beast (1965), by Michael Moorcock. If you haven't read Moorcock's works before, especially his Elric of Melniboné series of fantasy novels, go and do so now! Moorcock has also written his own take on the 'Martian adventurer' theme, in the form of ass-kicking Chicago physics professor Michael Kane.

The Kane stories are clearly an homage to the works of Burroughs; just like Burroughs introduces the John Carter stories as having been personally passed on to him, one "Edward P. Bradbury" chronicles his meeting with Michael Kane and the stories that Kane tells him. (It is noted in the Planet Stories introduction that the pseudonym "Bradbury" may have come about because of its proximity on the bookshelf to "Burroughs".)

Kane is a physicist, fencing master, and Vietmam veteran who is working on the experimental realization of a matter transmitter. When animal testing proves successful, the next logical step is to send a person through. Kane naturally volunteers, but instead of being transported across the lab, he finds himself transported to a wild and living Mars!

Though he didn't necessarily need to, Moorcock puts in a little effort to make the science of the matter transmitter and Mars itself sound plausible. By 1964, the Mariner 4 spacecraft had taken the first close-up pictures of the Martian surface and proved conclusively that it was devoid of higher forms of life. Moorcock avoids this problem with reality by flinging Kane into a Mars of eons past, in which the planet still lives, thrives, and contains life. As for the matter transmitter, in the 1960s another technology had just recently come on the scene; in Moorcock's (or Kane's) own words,

It became possible to build such a machine following completion of some research on lasers and masers. I will not bore you with a series of obscure equations, but our work on light-waves and radio-waves was of great help.

Kane's arrival on Mars is a bit less jarring than that of Carter's. Kane lands, almost literally, in the arms of the gorgeous princess Shizala, who he immediately falls for. His transition to Martian culture is easier than Carter's, as well: with the aid of technology built by an ancient race known as the "Sheev", he is taught the Martian language in minutes.

This blissful entry to Mars is short-lived, however; on an outing, Kane spies a massive army approaching the Martian city of Varnal. This is an army of the violent Blue Giants of the Argzoon, who seek nothing less than conquest and destruction of the Martian civilization. Kane helps fight off the initial invasion, but Shizala is captured, forcing Kane to venture into the underground city of the Argzoon and into a confrontation with their mysterious leader.

Moorcock's Martian tales are a rollicking good read, and contain much of the same elements of Burrough's work: weird Martian culture, fantastic beasts and daring acts of heroism. If you enjoy one, you'll enjoy the other.

5. Jeremy Wainman of Earth: In the Courts of the Crimson Kings (2008), by S.M. Stirling. Martian adventures have yet to go out of style! Just this year, S.M. Stirling published the second book in his own series of 'space fantasy', set on Mars in the year 2000.

Stirling's work is set in an alternate universe in which both Mars and Venus are habitable and inhabited by strange and exotic beasts and offshoots of humanity. The absolutely charming Prologue to the book is set at a Chicago Science Fiction convention in 1962, as the world's great speculative fiction writers, including Arthur, Catherine, Sprague, Fred, Poul, and others, watch a 'live' feed of the Mars Viking Lander's arrival. By the year 2000, contact with the thriving and advanced Martian culture has been made, and a handful of diplomats and researchers have come to the planet to learn more, including archaeologist Jeremy Wainman.

Martian culture is ancient, intricate, and utterly rigid. The civilization has been led since the beginning of recorded time by the genetic lineage of the "Kings Beneath the Mountain", a lineage that is in decline and nearly dying. The planet itself is also dying, being gradually consumed by encroaching deserts. Martian technology is entirely biological: guns, binoculars, and even construction equipment are living things, genetically engineered eons ago with the aid of the enigmatic Lords of Creation, beings with whom contact has been lost.

Jeremy sets out on an archaeological expedition to explore some of the ancient dead cities consumed by the "Deep Beyond", and he and his Terran compatriot hire Teyud za-Zhalt, a Martian mercenary, as a guide and guardian. But the woman Teyud has her own secrets, and others on Mars are hunting her for what she knows and what she is.

This is the most challenging of the "Martian adventures" to read. I found the early chapters very difficult to follow, in part because of the complicated politics which is introduced piece-by-piece and in part due to the very odd and stilted manner of Martian speech. Once the explorers head into the "Deep Beyond", however, the story picks up and flows nicely, and the various seemingly unconnected plot elements tie together nicely.


What does the future hold for Martian adventure stories? If the past is any indication, authors will continue to use Mars as a staging ground for weird and wonderful adventures involving strange places and exotic beasts. Now that I've done all this reading, I'm sorely tempted to try my own hand at writing a Martian adventure story!

In the meantime, I should note that over the coming year, Planet Stories will be releasing the rest of the Michael Kane stories by Moorcock and the Eric John Stark stories by Brackett; I'll be no doubt picking them up as they appear. In addition, The Swordsman of Mars, a 1933 tale of Mars by Otis Adelbert Kline, will be released in September (I may update this post after reading it).

"Let harmony be sustained!"

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