Friday, 3 September 2004

The Vanguard of Mars Part One

"Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, strange beings who landed in New Jersey tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from Mars.." {Howard Koch (writer) and Orson Welles (narrator), from the episode "The Invasion From Mars" of The Mercury Theater of the Air, based on the novella War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, first aired October 30, 1938}

In the annals of literature and film, more extraterrestrials have probably called Mars home than any other planet. Invasions from Mars have been thwarted again and again in books, movies, and TV series. Earthmen have visited the Red Planet and encountered the inhabitants there. A few Martians have even come to Earth and befriended mankind. Even today, when we are fairly certain that Mars bears no intelligent life, the average child is familiar with the idea of life on Mars.

In some respects the fact that people siezed upon Mars as the source of both friends and foes of the planet Earth seems odd to me. First, it must be considered that the planet Mars was rarely mentioned in literature prior to the 18th century. In fact, Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift, published in 1726, is one of the earliest references to the planet in the English language. It seems strange, then, that a planet that was rarely mentioned prior to the 18th century should become the planet that may well be mentioned the most in literature besides our own. Second, the prospect of intelligent life on Mars was squashed in the 1940s when spectral analysis of the planet showed that there is almost no oxygen in its atmosphere. In 1965 the Mariner probe proved beyond a doubt that there were no Martians to be found on Mars. Still, from the Forties to the Sixties, stories, books, and films continued to be produced in which there was intelligent life on the Red Planet. It seems even science could not stop the invaders from Mars.

As early as 1865 a work appeared which postulated that there was life on Mars. In Un Habitant de la Planète Mars by Francois-Henri Peudefer de Parville, the body of a Martian is carried by a comet from Mars to Earth, only to be uncovered in the United States. It was in the year 1877 that something would happen that would secure Mars' place as the home of alien invaders in literature and film. That year Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli thought he had seen "canals" on Mars through his telescope. Of course, if there were canals on Mars, then there had to be someone to build the canals. In other words, there had to be Martians. Naturally, it was not long before Earthmen were encountering Martians in fiction. In Les Aventures Extraordinaires d'un Savant Russe by Henry de Graffigny and Georges Le Faure, scientists explored the solar system, including Mars. It was on the Red Planet that the encountered winged humanoids. Of course, the French weren't the only ones voyaging to the Red Planet. In Across the Zodiac by Percy Gregg, pubilshed in 1880, a group of adventurers explored the solar system, including Mars, a utopia where the Martians possessed both advanced technology and telepathy.

While it was Schiaparelli who initially fired interest in Mars with his report of "canals (later proven to be an optical illusion)," it was American astronomer Percival Lowell who secured its place in literary and cinematic history. He published three books on the Red Planet, Mars in 1895, Mars and Its Canals in 1906, and Mars As the Abode of Life in 1908. In his observations of the Mars, he saw what he thought were deserts, seas, and vegetation. He theorised that the "canals" had been build by a long dead (or dying) Martian civilisation. Lowell's books fired the imagination of many writers.

In fact, the first book inspired H. G. Wells to write what may be the most famous work about Martians or, for that matter, an invasion from another world. In War of the Worlds, published in 1898, the Martians invaded Earth because their planet was dying. War of the Worlds would in turn inspire the notorious Mercury Theatre of the Air radioplay and the classic George Pal movie of the same name. Of course, Earthmen would have their revenge against the Martians who invaded our world in Wells' classic novella. In 1898 Edison's Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss was serialised in The New York Evening Journal. An unauthorised sequel of sorts to War of the Worlds, Edison's Conquest of Mars had Edison travelling to Mars to fight the Martians on their own ground. Although largely forgotten now, Edison's Conquest of Mars was the first work in science fiction to feature both spacesuits and ray guns!

While many writers saw Mars as a source of interplanetary invasion, others saw Mars as a source of riproaring adventure. In 1912 All-Story Magazine published Under the Moons of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It was Burroughs' first sale and the first story in a series about John Carter, an ex-Confederate Army officer who finds himself transported to Mars. Burroughs' Mars (known as Barsoom by the natives) was a world of kingdoms constantly at war, where Carter had ample opportunity to prove his courage. Burroughs' Martians came in a vareity of colours, including green, red, yellow, and white; in fact, Burroughs may have been the first author to portray Martians as green. His Martians also came in a variety of shapes and sizes; indeed, his green Martians were not "little green men," but rather large creatures with six arms. Burrough's adventures of John Carter on Mars proved very successful, eventually producing 12 novels.

The John Carter series naturally fuelled interest in Mars and writers in the sci-fi pulp magazines of the mid-Twentieth Century naturally gravitated towards the Red Planet. Some followed Burroughs' lead in making Mars a place of adventure. A notable example of this is C. L. Moore's series of stories centred around Northwest Smith. Smith was an adventurer who frequently found trouble on the back streets of the cities of the dying Martian civilisation. Moore's Mars was a lot like the Old West or the cities portrayed in film noir, lawless and rather dangerous. For his part Smith was not unlike any number of Humphrey Bogart's characters, tough as nails and not always honest. Others saw Mars as a place of exploration. Stanley Weinbaum in the short story "A Martian Odyssey" realistically portrays the developing frienship between a lost Earthman and an avian Martian. In one of John Wyndham's early novels, Planet Plane (later known as Stowaway to Mars), explorers arrive in Mars to find a dying Martian civilisation. Naturally, there were also stories in which the Martians were intent on invading Earth as well.

Following the Second World War, tales about Mars and Martians became more sophisticated. Martian invaders appeared less frequently and more often than not Martians were not even humanoid. Among the most sophistictaed treatments of Mars was The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, published in 1950. While often called a novel, The Martian Chronicles might better be described as a series of interconnected short stories (many of which were published well before the book came out). Bradbury's Martians are an ancient, gentle, and wise civilisation, a far cry from Wells' invaders in War of the Worlds. Unfortunately, Martian civilisation is destroyed by a simple germ from Earth. No Martians appear in Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, published in 1961, but their existence is felt none the less. The sole survivor of Earth's first mission to the planet was infant Valentine Michael Smith. The Martians raised the child and as a result he not only has a Martian outlook, but many of their abilities as well. Viewing the world with a Martian philosophy of love and understanding, Smith finds himself at the mercy of a society he often finds difficult to comprehend.

While kinder and gentler Martians started appearing in science fiction stories and novels in the Forties and Fifties, they remained imperialists intent on invading Earth in other media. Indeed, H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds would give rise to the most famous radio play of all time. In 1938, on October 30, Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater of the Air would frighten radio listeners with an all too realistic sounding invasion from Mars.

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