In Gulliver’s Travels, first published in 1727, Jonathan Swift describes the two moons of Mars, 150 years before they were officially discovered and named by astronomer Asaph Hall.  Although many scientists dismiss this as a coincidence, the imagining of Mars by writers, thinkers and movie directors has created a sci-fi folklore that’s both informed and fueled popular interest in the Red Planet.

Of course, much of this “informing” process has involved pure speculation. The suspense and mystery of exploring the unknown makes for good fiction. As does, apparently, mistakes in translation. When Giovanni Schiaperelli, an astronomer from Milan (1835-1910) mapped Mars in the 1870s, noting structures he called “canali” (Italian for channels), English speakers thought he had discovered canal-like structures made by aliens. It didn’t matter that the canals were soon discovered to be an illusion—American astronomer Percival Lowell had already concluded they were real, artificially-made structures, describing Mars as a marginally habitable. Lowell’s work triggered a sci-fi trend in books, movies and stories about Mars, and the funny green aliens that supposedly inhabited it.

War of the Worlds

In 1898 writer H.G. Wells penned a nightmarish depiction of a Martian invasion of Earth. War of the Worlds popularized both the belief in aliens, and dystopian sci-fi, a horror genre that plays on our fear of the unknown universe.  When War of the Worlds was broadcast as a radio play with Orson Welles in 1938, many listeners thought it was real and panicked. While we consider ourselves more media savvy today, Wells’ story is still compelling—over the past 100 years, it’s been reproduced numerous times in multiple media, from music, movies and comics to computer games.

Courtesy NASA-JPL/Caltech

While Mars sci-fi surged in the 1930s-60s, with movies, popular stories and books by such writers as Leigh Brackett and Edgar Rice Burroughs, the imagined Mars, with its extended dream of alien life forms, was dashed in 1976 when two NASA Viking probes landed on the planet. The probes showed a dry, desolate place, and no existence of life. Many believed this was proof that Martians and alien life forms existed in imagination alone.

Mars reality in real-time

As a result of more thorough scientific and geological surveys of Mars in the past two decades, scientists have discovered that the Mars of our popular imagination, the one that is warm, wet and hospitable to life, may have actually existed millions of years ago. And in 1996, NASA research conducted on a Martian meteorite showed some evidence for the existence of microscopic life. While science fiction endures, the popularization of the Internet in the 1990s and 2000s has sparked widespread interest in the real-time exploration of Mars. NASA’s Pathfinder rover mission (1997), for example, remains one of the most popular events in Internet history, watched on the web by millions. Because landing on Mars and exploring it is exceptionally difficult, however, the mysteriousness of the Red Planet continues.

Excerpt from The War of the Worlds radio play with Orson Welles (1938):

I’m speaking from the roof of Broadcasting Building, New York City. The bells you hear are ringing to warn the people to evacuate the city as the Martians approach. Estimated in last two hours three million people have moved out along the roads to the north…
Hutchison River Parkway still kept open for motor traffic. Avoid bridges to Long Island… hopelessly jammed. All communication with Jersey shore closed ten minutes ago.
No more defenses. Our army is… wiped out… artillery, air force, everything wiped out.

This may be the last broadcast. We’ll stay here to the end…

10 popular books about Mars:

  • War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1894)
  • Station X by G. McLeod Windsor (1919)
  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950)
  • Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke (1951)
  • David Starr, Space Ranger by Isaac Asimov (1952)
  • Martians Go Home! by Fredric Brown (1955)
  • Martian Time Slip by Phillip K. Dick (1964)
  • John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1964)
  • Mars We Love You by Jane Hipolato and Willis E. McNally eds (1971)
  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (1992)

10 popular Mars movies

  • Rocketship X-M (1950)
  • Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953)
  • Invaders from Mars (1953 & 1986)
  • Angry Red Planet (1959)
  • Mars Needs Women (1966)
  • Mission Mars (1968)
  • The Alpha Incident (1977)
  • Total Recall (1990)
  • Mars Attacks! (1996)
  • Mission to Mars (2000)