Courtesy NASA

As long as humankind has been able to lift their eyes, our imaginations have been filling the apparent void in the night sky. The heavens are full of all sorts of wonders, and the closer a celestial body is to our own, the more often it serves as inspiration. That’s part of the reason why Mars featured so prominently in early science fiction, and continues to captivate readers new and old to this day.

One hundred years ago, Edgar Rice Burroughs got into the serial business with his short stories featuring a man named John Carter. Taking a cue from Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court, Carter was a Civil War soldier transported to the surface of Mars where lower gravity gave him superpowers. While an immortal man traveling to another planet via astral projection may seem a bit odd by today’s standards, Burroughs’ work is consistent with the pulpy, unashamed adventure that was prevalent at the time in other works such as Tom Swift, Buck Rogers, and later, Flash Gordon. He was one of the first to truly popularize science fiction as a genre, and Mars was a big part of his work.

Likewise, luminary Ray Bradbury took us to the red planet. His Martian Chronicles were a bit more grounded than the adventures of John Carter, dealing with the necessary colonization of Mars after we as a species degrade and erode our home planet to the point of inhabitability. Speculative fiction often has the earmarks of cautionary tales, and the many short stories that link together to form the future history of our relationship with the red planet are no exception. The fact that Mars was inhabited long before humans showed up allowed Bradbury to examine the follies of historical colonization as well as how we as a species did, and continue to, face annihilation at our own hands. Just as Heinlein would use the moon to espouse his viewpoints, Bradbury’s tales of Mars communicate an unflinching view on human nature and the perils of xenophobia.

Even when Mars isn’t encompassing all aspects of a story, it still serves as an inspiration. The desolation and quiet peace of the planet makes one of the key scenes in Watchmen all the more powerful. The film Total Recall used it as not only an exotic location but part of the story’s questioning of reality and perception. As a world much closer (and, it turns out, more hospitable) than Venus, Mars often represents a clean slate for those willing to brave it, as well as presenting its share of mysteries and opportunities.

What are some of your favorite Martian tales?