Falling of Mars: Science and fiction about the Red Planet

In a few years, we probably will see the first human on Mars. It is hard to imagine, but just a hundred years ago we thought a high civilization lives on the Red Planet. Astrophysics has made a huge step forward since then, but what was before: science or fantasy? Sometimes there is no difference: scientific ideas give birth to incredible fictions, and that dreams lead to the greatest discoveries.

The War of the Worlds

H.G. Wells, 1895–1897

At the end of the XIX century, human knowledge about Mars was very limited. We knew the planet is red, hot, and it’s far far away. In 1878, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli found strange objects on the Mars’ surface: straight lines all over the planet. He called them “canali”. Who built them? Are these creatures still alive? In this manner, “canali” lead to an idea about other civilization.

One of the first writers inspired by Schiaparelli’s suggestion was Herbert George Wells. He took the idea about aliens and mixed it with current political triggers. At that time, Britain was a colonial empire, and fears about invasion were spread in the country. Over 60 fictional stories about invasions were published between 1871 and 1914 years. “The War of the Worlds” was one of them, but invaders came from another planet.

In the book, we can’t see the Red Planet. Humanity is too weak and doesn’t able to reach it. But we have a close acquaintance with the Martians. They came on Earth in cylinders that rebuilt themselves in a horrible weapon. The Martians do not have a body, just an enormous brain, and tentacles to operate their machines. These creatures have no feelings, no sorrow or compassion. They burn and destroy everything on their way, and to survive, they need human blood. The Martians use the technology we have never imagined before, so humanity has no chance in an open confrontation.

After a while, we found out there is no civilization on Mars, and “canali” were just an optical illusion. But the book, especially the idea of space traveling in some kind of cylinders, inspired young Robert Hutchings Goddard. Later, he invented the first liquid-fuel rocket and became a preceder of the Space Age.

A Princess of Mars

Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1911–1914

Edgar Rice Burroughs, well-known as an author of the stories about Tarzan, showed us very different Martians. He found his inspiration in the idea about advanced, but dying civilization on the Red Planet. For scientific background, Burroughs used a book “Mars and its Canals”, published in 1906 by American astronomer Percival Lawrence Lowell. Lowell shared Schiaparelli’s ideas about life on the planet. He thought Martians needed canals to collect water from the ice poles and that the dark places on the Mars’ surface could be the green oases.

Burroughs’ Mars, or Barsoom, how local population calls the planet, is dying. It is a huge desert with many ruined sites of the past. The oceans have almost vanished, the atmosphere is almost destroyed, but two different races still exist. The first of them are Red Martians; they look like a human but have red skin. Their main cities — Helium and Zodanga — are at war. This permanent confrontation has stopped science development, so both cities are using a high technology of their ancestors. This race built canals to save the water and machine to generate the air.

Also, there are live nomadic barbarians — Tharks, or Green Martians. They are really green, three times taller than a human, and have four hands. Tharks live in the ruins of ancient cities and all their technologies are stolen from Red Martians. The main character, John Carter, a veteran of the American Civil War, reached the planet by using more magic and strange luck than technology. At the beginning of the XX century, human knowledge about the universe was still very poor.

“Mars has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears”, — said Carl Edward Sagan, one of the most famous world’s astronomers and a cosmologist, who found his inspiration in “A Princess of Mars”. Sagan researched surfaces of Mars, Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter; he was one of the scientists who sent the first message from humanity to the universe.

The Martian Chronicles

Ray Bradbury, 1950

In one article right before his death, Ray Bradbury wrote that “The Martian Chronicles” would “never happened” without “A Princess of Mars”. In Bradbury’s book, we also can find canals full of water and advanced civilization on Mars. Lowell’s science ideas, Burroughs’ imagination, current political problems influenced Bradbury’s work. Racism, censorship, and threat of nuclear war became the main topics of “The Martian Chronicles”.

Bradbury’s Martians are high civilized and beautiful creatures. They have brown skin and golden eyes, deep tender voice and small stature. Martians live in stunning sites, and they are using marvelous technology. For example, they are growing golden fruits on the crystal columns, using speaking books, flying cars, and even telepathy. Humanity in Bradbury’s novel looks like barbarians beside Martians.

In “The Martian Chronicles”, earthlings finally manage to reach the Red Planet using their own technologies. They come in the rockets not to discover, but to colonize, and make one mistake after another. Our ignorance leads to disaster, and people have to return on the devastated by nuclear war Earth. Bradbury asked his readers, is humanity ready to use high technology, like nuclear power, rockets, and spaceships?

The Martian

Andy Weir, 2009–2011

After almost 50 years another author gave his answer: “Yes, we are ready”. And we are ready not just to use high technology, but to unite for solving problems. Weir’s book based on modern knowledge and no more have we any illusions about life on the Red Planet. Mars is a dead desert here, how it supposed to be. But the book brightly shows how science, education, our possibilities, and our dreams changed during the last decades.

To write “The Martian”, Andy Weir, a computer programmer, self-studied the history of manned spaceflight, orbital mechanics, biology, chemistry, and astronomy. All the facts in the book are realistic enough. We can see the third mission on Mars in 2023, which finishes with disaster because of a dust storm. During the evacuation, an astronaut Mark Watney gets into an accident and stays alone on a whole planet.

He is trying to survive using all his knowledge and all possibilities. He is growing potatoes right on the floor of the station, burns hydrogen to make water and even manage to restore a connection with the Earth. Everything that he’s doing is theoretically possible. So we have just one question: where Watney found so much willpower to deal with all these problems? His last and very dangerous task is to drive more than 3 thousand kilometers to Schiaparelli crater (do you remember Giovanni Schiaparelli, who found “canali” in 1878?) to use equipment prepared for the next mission, which could help him to leave the planet.

This book makes our dreams about space travels are much more realistic. We don’t dream anymore about other civilization and fantastic worlds. In “The Martian” science and fiction are standing so close that sometimes we can’t see the difference.

You don’t want to believe in Watney’s adventures on Mars? Just look here.

That is an official Mars trek web tool from NASA. In section Bookmarks, you can find “The Martian Path” — detailed map of his trips on the Red Planet.

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