In thrall to the red planet: 5 facts about our view of Mars through history

Eric Rabkin argues that depictions of Mars in literature and film – both as the cradle of hideous invaders, and humanity's potential saviour – frequently reflect the political climate back on Earth...

An illustration of the novel ‘The War of the Worlds’ by HG Wells, made by Henri Lanos, 1905. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

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From HG Wells’s 1898 The War of the Worlds to the rise of the red menace in 1950s America…

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Alien invasion

HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds arrived in a period in which wars of empire raged across the globe

Introducing the world to hideous, tentacled Martians – who lay waste to mankind with devastating heat-ray guns – it’s hardly surprising that HG Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds made quite an impact when it was published in hardback in 1898.

Yuri Gagarin, Russian cosmonaut, 1961. Artist: Anon

The novel tapped into a climate of global anxiety, as the world’s imperial powers continued to flex their muscles but encountered increasingly determined opposition as they did so. The Cuban War of Independence, the Philippine Revolution and the Spanish-American War were just three of the conflicts to rage in the dying days of the 19th century.

The War of the Worlds was one in a long line of British invasion narratives – beginning with George Tomkyns Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking in 1871, a fictional account of a German attack on Britain.

An invasion dominates Wells’s novel too. But, in this case, it’s not humans responsible for it. When Martian forces make a surprise crash-landing in southern England, British troops are helpless to stop their relentless and bloody advance. “With infinite complacency, men went to and fro about the globe, confident of our empire over this world,” the novel’s narrator tells us. “Yet across the gulf of space, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our planet with envious eyes and slowly, and surely, drew their plans against us.”

Russian cosmonaut dog Laika, c1957. Laika was the first animal to orbit the Earth, travelling on board the Sputnik II spacraft launched on 3 November 1957. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

As Britain stood on the brink of a second conflict with the Boers of southern Africa, and with tensions rising that would end in the First World War, it was but a small step to substitute Martian invaders with human armies.

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Panic on the streets of New York

A fabricated Martian invasion hit a raw nerve in a country facing the prospect of war

Just after 8.30pm on 30 October 1938, the thousands of Americans tuned to the radio show ‘Mercury Theater on the Air’ suddenly heard an alarming news flash: huge Martian fighting-machines were emerging from meteor-like spacecraft that had landed near Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. What they were listening to was an adaptation of HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Many, however, mistook it for an invasion on American soil.

“Something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake,” a desperate voice shouted down the airwaves. “Now it’s another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me… There’s a jet of flame springing from the mirror, and it leaps right at the advancing men. It strikes them head on! Good Lord, they’re turning into flame!… Enemy now turns east… Evident objective is New York City…”

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The so-called Panic Broadcast, directed and narrated by 23-year-old radio actor and future filmmaker Orson Welles, caught America at a vulnerable moment. Still besieged by the Great Depression, which had seen half of its banks close and unemployment soar to 25 per cent, the nation was struggling, and many people felt themselves just a short mischance from disaster.

Adding to the sense of dread was the rise of German imperialism across the Atlantic. Hitler was now the dark colossus of Europe, annexing Austria just a few months before Welles’s broadcast. Following the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 (which enshrined anti-Semitic Nazi doctrine in law), New York, a city with some 1.7 million Jews, seemed an obvious target for German aggression. An invasion, Martian or otherwise, was no longer unthinkable.

Papers such as The New York Times seized on Welles’s broadcast (which you can listen to on YouTube here), sparking a popular outcry against fake news. Congress even considered limiting freedom of speech, while the Federal Communications Commission launched an investigation to see if any laws had been broken. Ultimately, the real-life fears of 1938 overshadowed the fictional, and Welles escaped with an on-air apology.

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The rise of the red menace

Amid anti-communist witch-hunts, films and novels offered contrasting portrayals of Mars

As Nazism was consigned to history in 1945, so too – for a short while at least – was film-makers’ fascination with Mars. Hollywood now turned inward, looking for relief and escape after the horrors of war and economic turmoil. Mars was no longer deemed interesting subject matter and no theatrical films between 1945 and 1950 used Mars in their titles.

But by the start of the fifties a new enemy had emerged, striking fear into Americans: communism and the USSR. For years the two superpowers leapfrogged in an arms race that saw the US produce atomic and hydrogen bombs and the USSR launch a man into space. Politically, they fought by proxy in the Korean War (1950–53); domestically, they traded spies and speeches.

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The trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Americans convicted of passing top-secret information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union, only served to fan anti-communist feelings. The pair were investigated as part of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s ‘Red Hunt’. Anyone discovered to be a ‘Red’ – named for the colour of the USSR’s flag and that of international communism – could be imprisoned or black-listed for employment.

From 1950 until McCarthy was censured as a demagogue by the Senate in 1954, Mars, as the red planet, was only ever filmed in a sinister light. Invaders from Mars (1953) and Devil Girl from Mars (1954) are just two of the films that cast it as the cradle of malevolent forces.

Devil Girl From Mars
A poster for David MacDonald’s 1954 science-fiction film ‘Devil Girl from Mars’ starring Patricia Laffan. (Photo by Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images)

While cinema tended to portray Mars as a source of evil, in novels the planet often offered humanity redemption. Ray Bradbury’s 1950 linked-story collection, The Martian Chronicles, is an outstanding example of a tradition going back at least to the turn of the century in which Mars, in prose, offers mankind the chance to occupy a new Eden. One story, ‘The Green Morning’, sees the protagonist, Benjamin Driscoll, plant seeds that grow magically overnight into lush trees that oxygenate the Martian atmosphere.

“It rained steadily for two hours and then stopped. The stars came out, freshly washed and cleaner than ever…”

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Next stop Mars?

One “giant leap for mankind” put the red planet firmly back on the cultural agenda

After man first set foot on the moon on 20 July 1969, humans walking on Mars – rather than Martians walking on Earth – seemed more of a distinct, if distant, possibility.

The moon landing had a global psychological impact. For the first time, humanity could claim to have found, walked on and photographed a truly new land.

The moon itself was rarely taken seriously as a possible home. Instead, in the aftermath of Neil Armstrong’s ‘giant leap’, it opened up the tantalising possibility of humans colonising Mars. If only the atmosphere were not too thin; if only there were water.

German astronomer Johannes Kepler c1620. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

Terraforming – the process of modifying another planet’s environment to make it hospitable to humans – was a word first used in a 1949 short story, but it became a staple concept of science fiction novels from the 1970s onwards. One of the most famous examples is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (1993–96). This centuries-long saga drew on contemporary scientific and philosophical developments to take readers from the touchdown of the first 100 people on Mars to their subterranean habitat, the drilling of deep holes to release heat and water, and the ultimate thickening of the atmosphere.

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Saving face

Could humanity’s salvation lie on Mars’s rocky exterior?

In 1976, Mars was back in the news once again, courtesy of the Nasa Viking 1 mission’s ‘discovery’ of what appeared to be an enormous human head, nearly two miles long, on the surface of the planet. Although refined imaging showed the ‘face’ to be nothing more than a cluster of rocks, with each new advance, Mars became more approachable.

Peter Mayhew, Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness and Mark Hamill, on-set of the film Star Wars

Recent films and books, such as the 2015 movie The Martian, based on a 2011 book by Andy Weir, treat the challenge of Mars not as that of a god of war but a hostile environment that can be overcome by human tenacity and science. The film sees astronaut Mark Watney stranded on Mars and forced to find a way to survive until a rescue mission can be sent.

But future expeditions to Mars might not be confined to fiction. Back in the real world, the Mars One organisation aims to have landed humans on the planet by 2032, with the purpose of creating “a second home for humanity”.

Elon Musk, founder and owner of SpaceX – which develops rockets and sells launch services to fund efforts to reach and inhabit Mars – has declared: “The future of humanity is going to bifurcate in two directions: either it’s going to become multiplanetary, or it’s going to remain confined to one planet and eventually there’s going to be an extinction event.”

We may develop the technology to explore Mars’s environment; we may not. Either way, there’s little doubt that we’ve long viewed the planet through the prism of our own environment here on Earth.

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Eric Rabkin is a professor emeritus of English language and literature at the University of Michigan. His books include Mars: A Tour of the Human Imagination (Praeger, 2005).