Mars, as seen from Earth: The red planet in pop culture
We’ve recently harnessed oxygen from its atmosphere and managed a flight on it. But the red planet holds sway over our imaginations in wild and wonderful ways too. Check out how Earthlings’ ideas of Mars have changed over time.
On Earth, at the moment, it feels like everything’s falling apart. The virus is tearing through the population. Governments are teetering. Climate change is making things worse.
On Mars, meanwhile, all is going according to plan. Last month alone, Earthlings produced breathable oxygen out of its thin atmosphere and got a helicopter to fly, twice, without ever setting foot on the planet. Two other craft are hovering in orbit, hoping to touch down in the coming months and study Mars’s seismic activity, internal heat flow, geology, atmosphere and minerals.
Mars has been Man’s escape plan and obsession for decades. The fiery red planet has been part of human imagination for as long as we’ve watched it hover in the evening sky. In Hinduism, it’s a representation of Mangal, a force of strength, violence and anger. In Chinese and Arabian mythology, it represents fire. To the ancient Romans, Mars was the god of war.
We’ve been making calculations and measurements for over 2,000 years. But it took a translation error to really spark the idea that there might be life on Mars. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, looking through his telescope in 1877, noticed channels on the planet’s surface. He called them canali (channels). The rest of the world, then in awe of Egypt’s new manmade Suez Canal, misinterpreted the term as canals — similar feats of engineering, perhaps achieved by sentient beings.
Humans hadn’t even invented airplanes yet, so Mars was close enough to see, but never visit. Overnight, it went from being a distant dot in the sky to a playground of possibility, a place to project human hopes and fears.
The early stories about Martians were relatively tame, part of the Utopian fiction boom in Russia, the UK and US in the 1880s and 1890s. Spiritualists and mediums published their speculations as travelogues. One woman, Hélène Smith, claimed to be a regular visitor to Mars (in addition to being the reincarnations of Marie Antoinette and a Hindu princess from 15th-century India). Early films took leaps of imagination too. The 1918 Danish silent movie Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars) depicted the planet as a place of peace, vegetarianism and non-alcoholism, in a reflection of Denmark’s own changing worldview.
Then, in 1938, Orson Welles adapted The War of the Worlds — HG Wells’s then-40-year-old novel about a Martian invasion of Earth — for the radio. The play was designed to sound like news bulletins. Hysteria broke out across America. Had Martians (and their spindly-legged spaceships) actually landed? Mars suddenly seemed too close.
In the wake of the play, the red planet sparked numerous tales of conquest, horror, survival, even romance, and Mars became a creative escape from our own blue-green home.
In the real world, since the 1960s, orbiters, landers and rovers across 49 missions launched by the US, Russia, the European Union, China, Japan, India and the UAE, have helped demystify this desolate red terrain. We know that Mars, half the size of Earth, has dust storms that can sweep across the entire planet. We’ve marvelled at its canyons, craters, ice-clouds and oversized volcanoes in high-resolution close-ups.
We’ve determined that some parts at least were once warmer and wetter. The planet that is 3.03 light minutes away is now less than a year’s journey by spaceship.
And yet nothing we’ve dispatched to Mars has ever returned. Our machines have either crash-landed or were intended to die there. We have a measly 45-odd meteorites that represent tangible gifts from our neighbour.
The best Martian gifts (so far) are the ones we’ve given ourselves: books, stories, films, games and TV shows. They no longer portray Martians as monstrous enemies, exotic damsels, or chattel. Instead they draw on what we’re learning, for sharper imaginary adventures.
By 2025, seven more missions, from India, Japan, Russia and the EU, are expected to fly past or land on Mars. We’ll keep scanning our neighbour for signs of life, just in case.
Classic cinema, TV and radio
Orson Welles’s radio version of the Martian-attack classic, The War of the Worlds (based on HG Wells’ book) , which terrified listeners when it was broadcast in America in 1938, is now the stuff of legend. It was also turned into a film, in 1953.
But Mars stories were playing out long before that. Thomas Edison’s silent film A Trip to Mars (1910) features a scientist who uses anti-gravity dust to fly up to the red planet. It is widely considered the first American sci-fi film.
In Russia, Alexei Tolstoy’s 1923 novel Aelita was made into a film the following year. It’s a fitting script for its time: the hero, an engineer, lands on Mars to help the inhabitants overthrow the ruling elders, aided by a Martian aristocrat, Aelita, who has also fallen in love with the hero.
By the ’50s, Martians were in children’s movies too. Invaders from Mars (1953) has it all: flying saucers, grown-ups who act strangely, an astronomer sidekick and an all-American boy hero. It was the first film to show aliens in colour. Mars was such a popular location in the 1950s, it featured in the title of Abbot and Costello Go to Mars, without ever showing up in the movie. The comic heroes end up on Venus instead.
America’s fear of communism spread to its Mars stories too. Who better to embody the violent and ugly than a green, gory oversized intruder? Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s stranded hero, got the Mars treatment. In Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) he ends up rescuing a slave (yes, Friday) from alien overlords. There’s also the 1964 comedy Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, in which Santa is kidnapped so he can give baby Martians some presents. It shows up often in worst-movies lists.
Classic sci-fi novels
For fiction writers, 1965 was a watershed year. It’s when the Mariner-4 spacecraft completed the first successful flyby of Mars, sending back actual images of the red planet. Alas, no aliens. No canals either. But plenty of craters and rocks. Sci-fi novels changed tack, adjusting fantasies to what they now knew. The preceding books, however, are in a genre of their own.
In Russia, Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star (1908) imagines a communist society on Mars, as a visiting scientist learns of technologically efficient Martian ways.
Edgar Rice Burroughs (best known for his Tarzan stories) was the man who turned Mars into an adventure setting. His hero, John Carter, was an American Civil War veteran transported to Mars, which he finds out Martians call Barsoom. The series of hit stories, published since 1912, were assembled into a novel titled A Princess of Mars in 1917. Burroughs would eventually write a total of 11 Barsoom novels, full of fantastical low-gravity jumps, battles, betrayals and romance.
Narnia author CS Lewis gave Mars a shot too. Out of the Silent Planet (1938) was the first in his Cosmic Trilogy, linking myth and spirituality to a fast-paced adventure story. But it was Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) that seriously looked at settlement there, as our world is devastated by nuclear war. His shiny red Martians had telepathic powers, unhappy marriages, and ultimately horror and dystopia. A year later, Arthur C Clarke wrote his first novel, The Sands of Mars (1951), a slower, more exploratory look at a fictitious research station on the planet, four years before the US-Soviet Union space race began.
Things calmed down a bit in the next decade. Judith Merril wrote one of the earliest sci-fi mysteries, with the tale of the lone surviving astronaut on a Mars mission. The ship’s log is missing pages. There are hints of life on Mars. But what happened? The Tomorrow People was published in 1960, but it knew exactly how to harness the unknown to create suspense. Robert A Heinlein’s 1961 story Stranger in a Strange Land, of a Martian-raised human visiting Earth as an adult, is less about adapting to Mars and more about understanding one’s home planet. It gave sci-fi a philosophical twist.
Contemporary films and TV shows
We’ve gone past monstrous Martians. Our films now have sets inspired by actual video and images released by space missions. There’s input from space agencies. Linguists consult on alien grammar. For everything else, there are fancy effects.
These movies have helped us see how high humans could jump on Mars, how bad the storms can get and what the earliest habitation pods will probably look like.
But look back a bit and, in the heady, optimistic 1990s, a garish, Technicolor, futuristic Mars felt fitting. Total Recall (1990), based on a short story by sci-fi author Philip K Dick (We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, in keeping with Dick’s penchant for interesting titles), had Arnold Schwarzenegger play a blue-collar worker who can’t tell if the espionage he’s embroiled in is real or from a memory implant.
The world got weirder still in 1996’s Mars Attacks! which parodied the sci-fi pulp stereotypes of the ’60s. These aliens had exposed brains, ghoulish faces, and weren’t shy about firing their deadly green rayguns.
In the new century, things began with a flop. Red Planet (2000) was set 56 years in the future, where something’s interfering with our oxygen-generating systems on Mars. A crew, dispatched to investigate the rusty, dusty landscape, finds that perhaps it’s not aliens we should be worried about after all.
The world changed abruptly the following year. The 2001 film version of the anime series, Cowboy Bebop: Heaven’s Door needed a deadly plot. They went with a terrorist planning to kill all humans on Mars with a mysterious germ. That the film was released a week before 9/11 was sheer coincidence. On Mars, the spaceship Bebop’s bounty hunter crew thwarted the attack in time.
Mars even fit tame family fare. The animated hit Mars Needs Moms (2011) had a simple premise: Martian moms were in short supply, so they were abducting ours. And it was up to a courageous little kid to bring the moms (including his own) back.
Another childhood favourite got the film treatment the following year. John Carter leaped on to the big screen almost a century after Edgar Rice Burroughs dreamed him up. Carter’s Mars, which Martians called Barsoom, was no match for the 21st century. NASA’s Curiosity rover had already landed on Mars and even had its own Twitter account.
On TV, The Expanse (2015-2020) has adapted James S A Corey’s novel series of the same name to great acclaim. It’s set in a brightly lit future where we have colonised Mars and the rest of the solar system. But a political conspiracy threatens to shatter a fragile peace. Meanwhile the 2015 film The Martian (based on novel of the same name by Andy Weir) makes it frightfully, nail-bitingly clear how inhospitable Mars can be if you’re stranded alone there, growing your own potatoes as you wait to be rescued.
Rations and budgeting remain our preoccupations today. Stowaway, which was released last month, is set on a Mars-bound craft that has somehow taken off with a mechanical engineer trapped in a vent. Will he threaten the mission? Can he be trusted? And is there enough oxygen to go around? Forget gory Martians, the closer we get to Mars, the more it seems that humans are the problem.
If science has taken giant leaps in the last few decades, science-fiction has made strides of its own. The genre now includes alternative histories, political comedies and LGBT plotlines set in space.
But sometimes, science learns from fiction. The 1988 novel, Genesis, an Epic Poem, by Frederick Turner had such a richly imagined idea of human habitation on Mars that the novel was, for a while, recommended reading at NASA.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s deep, vast chronicle of settling on Mars spans 200 years, three tomes and a companion collection of short stories. Both the Mars trilogy (1992-1996) and The Martians (1999) tell the story of adapting the terrain, revolution and self-determinism through the eyes of several characters. There’s hope and despair, and a commitment to scientific development as well as social dynamics.
By the turn of the millennium, scientific discoveries formed much of the basis of fiction. Geoffrey A Landis’s 2000 novel, Mars Crossing, follows an attempt to reach Mars in the 21st century, after two expeditions have failed. Four men and two women must ration supplies, repair life-support systems, find fuel for the return, and trek across the planet to a safer ship. It’s a test of endurance and ingenuity. It’s the kind of novel Andy Weir improved upon in 2011 with The Martian, featuring a botanist and astronaut stranded on Mars, waiting for a ride home.
Mary Robinette Kowal’s 2012 novelette The Lady Astronaut of Mars is more alternative history than sci-fi. A woman who led a Mars expedition 30 years earlier has the rare chance to join a new mission. It means abandoning her sick husband on Earth. But it also means the possibility of a final adventure. How will she choose?
Despite new missions, some stories remain stubbornly old-fashioned. The 2013 anthology Old Mars consists of 15 stories in the retro sci-fi style, from an era before space exploration, when the universe was a source of wonder. A disabled man is the only one who can see the inhabitants of Mars. There are arduous journeys across the dusty terrain, alien illnesses and tales of kidnap and rescue, all written by acclaimed writers such as Ian McDonald, Liz Williams and Michael Moorcock.
The Indian Connection
Two fictionalised retellings, a film and a web series, cover the Indian Space Research Organisation or ISRO’s groundbreaking 2013 Mars mission. The 2020 film Mission Mangal takes the easy road. Director Jagan Shakti presents a reductive tale of a mission director who turns a punishment posting around, leading women scientists to execute a project literally out of this world. Of course, the women must balance science and home science; one breakthrough comes when one of the scientists is frying puris. They resort to jugaad to get things done. And the tech talk is no more complex than it needed to be.
Endemol Shine India’s 2019 web series M.O.M. - Mission Over Mars is the better watch. Eight episodes offer fictionalised accounts of the lives of the women scientists who worked on the mission. “The series focused on the novelty of seeing women scientists on screen – a woman’s brain is the last thing that gets highlighted in the mainstream media,” says Mrinalini Khanna, the company’s vice-president. “They are women whose minds work at the speed of light.” They battle demons of their own — the pressure to be a submissive wife, a lack of confidence in their talent, a fear of ambition.
It streamed to critical acclaim mostly because, Khanna says, “we showed them as imperfect women who became a team of heroes — you respect them as you would any man.” The show presents a different India too. “The 2013 mission showed India what was achievable, and how much could be done with so little,” Khanna says. “India has always had thinkers and scientists. We’re now realising that a planet can influence our destiny in a whole new way.”
WHO’S YOUR FAVOURITE MARTIAN?
Some Martians are friendly and funny. Others are hatching nefarious plans. Essentially, they’re not that different from Earthlings. Writers of fantasy and speculative fiction pick their favourite Martians from the worlds of fiction and sci-fi.
* “At another time in my life, I would’ve chosen differently, but my favourite Martian at this moment lives inside a wonderful, warm story called The Way Back Home (2007), by the artist and storyteller Oliver Jeffers. It’s the story of a young boy who discovers a plane in his closet and soars high into the sky, only to face engine trouble. He crash-lands on the moon, and as it turns dark is naturally quite scared, when he discovers a Martian who has suffered a similar fate. The boy and the Martian must come together to find their way back home. My two-and-a-half-year-old son and I love this story because it is a reminder that the way to get through a crisis is by helping others, even those different from you — a valuable lesson at any time, but especially relevant now.”
Prayaag Akbar, author of Leila (2017), which was turned into a Netflix series in 2019. Set in a dystopian near-future, the book follows one woman’s attempt to find her missing daughter in an India controlled by a totalitarian regime.
* “Two of my favourite Martians are Bobbie Draper and Alex Kamal from the TV show The Expanse (2015--). I really enjoyed the broad tapestry of scientifically believable, culturally intelligent storytelling on this show. I squealed at my TV when I noticed there was a neighbourhood called Breach Candy on Mars, which may have been the contribution of the showrunner Naren Shankar.”
Mimi Mondal, Hugo- and Nebula award-nominated author. Her Nebula-nominated novelette titled His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light (2019), involves a genie, a vengeful temple goddess, a trapeze master and a young devadasi.
* ”Actually, there’s nothing truly “alien” about aliens in science-fiction. The movie Mission to Mars (2000) plays with this idea. In the movie, it turns out that tech-advanced Martians had seeded life on Earth long ago. In short, the Martians are us! I really liked the idea. Humans are such misfits on this planet. It’s like we belong elsewhere.”
Anil Menon, author of Half Of What I Say (2015). His debut novel The Beast With Nine Billion Feet (2009) is set in Pune 2040, a world of emotional cars, liquid computers, illusion pods, and two teenage siblings who are questioning what it means to be human.
* “There was an American TV programme called My Favorite Martian (1963). It was a sweet show about a mildly bad-tempered being who looked human but had some special powers. I was 12 years old and was already fixated on space travel and SF. I knew of course that humanoids from that planet were unlikely, but I liked the character’s personality.”
Manjula Padmanabhan, author of Escape (2008). Its protagonist, Meiji, is the only woman left in a land where women have been exterminated. In the sequel, The Island of Lost Girls (2015), Meiji struggles to find her place in the world outside her brutalised homeland.
(Compiled By Vanessa Viegas)