Mars Imagined: Sci-Fi's Enduring Attraction to the Red Planet

White Apes Pursue John Carter
White Apes pursue John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, center), in the movie named after the hero which opens March 9,. 2012. (Image credit: ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.)

Mars is the red-hot milieu of the new Disney film, "John Carter," which hits theaters Friday (March 9). And while the action flick is in line to be the latest blockbuster, the story on which it is based is on a century old and has influenced countless others, underscoring how the Red Planet has served as the backdrop of science fiction since the genre's earliest great works.

For centuries, fantasy stories were often stuck on Earth, but in the 19th century, "we humans stopped really being able to come up with completely imaginary locations on Earth, and the idea of the truly alien here became much harder to maintain," said pop culture scholar Jess Nevins. "We were still doing it, but on some level we knew most things had been mapped."

So science fiction began exploring distant realms, such as Mars.

"Besides the moon, Mars is the easiest truly alien place for us to imagine ourselves or other creatures on, so we're able to project all sorts of fantasies onto it," Nevins said. "We know it's there, and known it's there for a long time. It's close, red and threatening." [Gallery: Visions of Mars from 'John Carter']

Rise of the Red Planet

(Left) This 1894 map of Mars was prepared by Eugene Antoniadi and redrawn by Lowell Hess. (Right) A Hubble Space Telescope photo of Mars shows the modern view of our neighboring planet. (Image credit: Tom Ruen, Eugene Antoniadi, Lowell Hess, Roy A. Gallant, HST, NASA)

The idea of intelligent Martians exploded in popularity in the 19th century. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli saw channels on the Red Planet, and U.S. astronomer Percival Lowell wildly speculated that they were canals built by ancient Martian civilizations in a final effort to survive on their drying, dying world.

"In the 19th century, you saw this whole cultural drive to investigate the past linked with the Western exploration of Africa, South America and Southeast Asia and tied with colonialism and imperialism," Nevins said. "Then we find what seem to be dried canals on Mars, and so that sparked the imagination — 'Hey, maybe there are dead civilizations on another planet.'"

Astronomical observations later revealed these "canals" to be optical illusions. Still, "because of the Percival Lowell hallucinations, educated people from all over the planet from about 1895 to about 1935 could in good conscience believe there might be life on the next planet out, and maybe even intelligent life," said science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, who has won Hugo, Locus and Nebula awards for his Mars trilogy ("Red Mars" in 1992, "Green Mars" in 1993 and "Blue Mars" in 1996) and is author of the forthcoming novel "2312."

The first major works to deal with Mars were Kurd Lasswitz's "Two Planets," an 1897 German novel that imagined a technological utopia on the Red Planet, and H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" (1898), in which Martians invade Earth.

"'Two Planets' had this powerful influence on the German Rocket Society and rocket pioneers such as Wernher von Braun — we might not have been able to reach the moon if weren't for this science fiction about Mars," Robinson said.

'A Princess of Mars'

The cover of "A Princess of Mars," a Marvel comic adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' epic 1917 book. (Image credit: Marvel)

After that came Edgar Rice Burroughs and his 1917 tale, "A Princess of Mars," which appeared in serial form in 1912 and as a book five years later. Although Burroughs is best known for a later creation, Tarzan,  that character would be no more influential than John Carter, Burroughs' Civil War veteran who mysteriously finds himself on Mars, a world populated with strange four-armed aliens, wild monsters and scantily clad princesses. "A Princess of Mars" is the basis for the Disney film.

"The world of Burroughs was very fantastic, but it was a fantasy that was grounded in reality, that it's a place we can go to, and since we didn't know what was there, anything could be there, and that's a very powerful draw," said science fiction author Geoffrey Landis, a scientist at NASA's Glenn Research Center who has won Hugo and Locus awards for his stories about Mars. [Gallery: 'A Princess of Mars' Hits Comics]

Due to the Red Planet's lower gravity (actually about one-third Earth's gravity), John Carter is far stronger than any Martian, becoming an unstoppable warlord.

Nevins said: "There was, of course, adventure fiction and science fiction before Burroughs, but with John Carter, Burroughs really created a model for escapist fantasy to follow that's very much anticipating superhero comics. There were isolated predecessors of Burroughs that relocated heroes to another world, but there were none more influential than him — it would be like comparing firecrackers to a volcano."

"John Carter was the purest expression of the raw, primal id up to that point — he's this relatively ordinary man who becomes this superman who can do anything, leap all over the place, kill a lot of monsters, get the princess. H.G. Wells and Jules Verne were the giants of serious science fiction, but Burroughs was the giant of popular science fiction and was very influential." 

The Barsoom series (in Burroughs' books, the natives of Mars call it Barsoom) falls into the same vein "as other imperialist, colonialist stories, where the white man goes to a new location, becomes leader of these others, gets their beautiful woman to fall in love with him, marries her, fathers children," Nevins said. "I can't say it's great literature, but I can remember the effect it had on me when I first read it when I was 9 or 10 — I thought it was just about the coolest thing ever, with everything you'd want out of an adventure novel."

John Carter on Mars

The impact that John Carter had on science fiction has been huge.

For instance, the image of a superhuman warrior on a desert planet seems to have influenced the science fiction epic "Dune," and the Barsoom stories also influenced Ray Bradbury's haunting images of a desolated Mars in his "Martian Chronicles."

Men of our world who unexpectedly end up superheroes someplace alien and fantastic have included Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, and the reason John Carter becomes surpassingly mighty is the same one Superman's creators gave for the Man of Steel's ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound: Their home worlds had much stronger gravity than their new ones.

"The heirs of John Carter are many and numerous," Landis said. "Burroughs had a tremendous effect on science fiction. It hasn't all been for the good — he really left the idea of reality behind. But he drew a great deal of interest to Mars as a place — not just a dot in the sky, not just something astronomers looked at through telescopes, but as a place that's exciting. Maybe it's not interesting the same way that Edgar Rice Burroughs said it was, but it's interesting in its own right. Just his making Mars feel like a real place was very influential."

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Charles Q. Choi
Contributing Writer

Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for and Live Science. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica. Visit him at