Tales from the Red Planet

This past winter, I taught a course on Mars. I wasn’t actually on Mars, although that would have been awesome. I taught a course about the literature of the red planet as part of my winter teaching load.
Several years ago, I helped create the course in speculative fiction for our department, but this was the first time I had the chance to teach it. Interestingly enough, the course has quickly become one tailored to the interests of the instructor. Someone taught the course as an exploration of zombies, someone else on artificial intelligence. As I was considering what I would do with the course, I suddenly thought, hey, Mars.
The red planet has fired the imaginations of writers and scientists alike for centuries, and Mars has found its way into virtually every mythology. To the western world, Mars is most recognizable as the God of War, but even Mars, Ares to the Greek world, was an evolving deity. The figure of Mars Silvanus, for example, combined attributes of the God of War with that of a nature deity.
The amount written about the red planet is astonishing: everything from well-known books, such as War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, to lesser known stories, such as “Ministering Angels” by C. S. Lewis. From the literary to the ridiculous, from books and short stories to television and film, you can find just about everything. Have you seen, for example, Santa Clause Conquers the Martians? And who could forget Marvin the Martian.
The students who took the class were interested, engaged, and keen to talk about Mars, representations of the alien, and what the planet has come to represent in the popular imagination. A fabulous group.
Beginning with Greek and Roman mythology, we discussed ways the red planet has entered the literary and cultural imagination—the seat of war and conflict, the home of dead civilizations, and an imminent threat to Earth. We examined the history of the exploration of Mars, as well as sections from the less than scientific Mars and its Canals by Percival Lowell.
Here’s a brief list of books to get you started on your own exploration of the red planet:
War of the Worlds, By H. G. Wells,
John Carter and the Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs,
Out of the Silent Planet, by C. S. Lewis,
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury,
The Sands of Mars, by Arthur C. Clarke,
Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson,
The Martian, by Andy Weir,
Red Planet Blues, by Robert J. Sawyer,
Second Going, by James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Bradley Sheldon).
You’ll notice only the last book in this list was written by a woman. Mars remains, unfortunately, largely the territory of male writers. As you read, check out the many images of the red planet on NASA’s website. And most of all, look up into the night sky this summer, find the baleful eye of Mars looking back, and let your imagination play over the possibilities.