Life on Mars
A CultureMap®
by James Waller
Published on 7/10/13

Is there life on Mars? The short answer is maybe. Or maybe there was at some time during the arid, cold planet’s more hospitable past. Among the objectives of unmanned missions to Mars is to search for “biosignatures”—chemical evidence living organisms leave behind. But any Martian life the rovers discover won’t have progressed beyond a very simple level or be anywhere near as interesting as the Martians found in popular culture.

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The War of the Worlds  (H.G. Wells | novel | 1898)
to  Mars Science Laboratory

It has been well over a century since H.G. Wells, in The War of the Worlds, imagined interplanetary travel by living beings and more than 60 years since Ray Bradbury foresaw humans inhabiting Mars in the near future (The Martian Chronicles originally took place from 1999 to 2026, but the dates were moved further into the future in later editions). So for space-exploration enthusiasts it’s more than a little disappointing that a manned voyage to Mars still won’t happen for another couple of decades at the very least.

Until human beings set foot on Mars, unmanned missions do the work of exploring the red planet—work that’s been going on since the 1960s, when the USSR and then the U.S. began sending space probes on Mars flybys. In ensuing decades spacecraft orbited and landed on Mars, but the Mars Pathfinder craft became the first, in 1997, to release a robotic rover capable of moving about the planet’s surface to conduct experiments. In 2012 NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory successfully landed the Curiosity rover in Mars’s Gale Crater. One of Curiosity’s tasks is to analyze soil samples for organic compounds that could serve as building blocks for Martian life.

The War of the Worlds  (H.G. Wells | novel | 1898)
to  My Favorite Martian  (TV series | 1963–1966)

Martians have been imagined as terrifying (in The War of the Worlds and most Mars-invades-Earth scenarios) and adorable (the animated Martian young’uns in Simon Wells’s 2011 box-office black hole Mars Needs Moms). But only one Martian is avuncular: the title character played by Ray Walston in the mid-1960s sitcom My Favorite Martian, one of several space-themed shows—including Lost in Space, I Dream of Jeannie and, of course, Star Trek—that hit American airwaves during the space program’s heyday. Walston had played a nonhuman in human-looking guise before—he’d starred as the devil in the original Broadway (1955) and film (1958) versions of the musical Damn Yankees—so he’s nicely cast as a “professor of anthropology from Mars.” Finding himself “marooned on this backward planet,” he takes young newspaper reporter Tim O’Hara (Bill Bixby) under his wing, offering Tim guidance through numerous crises professional and romantic. Although Uncle Martin—which is how Tim introduces him to unsuspecting humans—is telepathic, occasionally sprouts antennae and can make himself invisible, he’s no more bizarre than some other sitcom characters of the era, including a talking horse (Mr. Ed) and an antique automobile with a human soul (My Mother the Car).

The War of the Worlds  (H.G. Wells | novel | 1898)
to  Mars Attacks!  (Tim Burton (dir.) | film | 1996)

The Martians who invade Earth in H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds aren’t cute little green men—they’re big, oily-skinned blobs, their mouths surrounded by “Gorgon groups of tentacles.” Arriving in cylinders shot from Mars’s surface, they assemble towering war machines to mount an all-out assault on humankind. Their ultimate purpose: to nourish themselves with human blood. Wells’s book proved vastly influential. Not only has it been adapted many times—notably the Mercury Theatre’s 1938 radio version, which was broadcast as a straight news report and provoked widespread panic—but Wells’s ideas have been mined by countless sci-fi creators. The notion of human beings as alien cuisine shows up, for example, in the darkly comic “To Serve Man,” a favorite episode of TV’s Twilight Zone (1959–1964). Tim Burton’s even blacker comedy Mars Attacks! is, like The War of the Worlds, premised on Martians’ genocidal hostility. In a twist on Wells’s extraterrestrials, who succumb to an infection by bacteria to which they have no immunity, Burton’s Martians are ultimately defeated by broadcasts of Slim Whitman’s countrified show tune “Indian Love Call.” Their green-slime-filled heads simply explode when they hear Whitman’s excruciating yodel.

The Martian Chronicles  (Ray Bradbury | novel | 1950)
to  The War of the Worlds  (H.G. Wells | novel | 1898)

For his Martian Chronicles, which imaginatively documents the human colonization of the red planet, Ray Bradbury (1920–2012) borrowed liberally from earlier science-fiction writers’ accounts of human-Martian encounters, including H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. But Bradbury’s fanciful tone couldn’t be more different from Wells’s reportorial deadpan. Several vignettes included in Chronicles read more like prose poems than straight narrative fiction. In Bradbury’s book it’s not the Martians but the earthlings—specifically American earthlings—who are the aggressors. Not that the Martians don’t put up a fight. The first three U.S. expeditions to the red planet fail—the third spectacularly, as the Martians engage in psychological warfare against their invaders. Still, Bradbury’s Martians are doomed for the very same reason as Wells’s: a lack of resistance to human disease. Just as The War of the Worlds evinced pre–World War I Britons’ worries about a possible invasion of their country, Chronicles brims with Cold War–era geopolitical nervousness, especially over the nuclear arms race. Such Bradbury stories as “There Will Come Soft Rains” recount not the beginnings of human life on Mars but the cataclysmic end of human life on Earth.

The Martian Chronicles  (Ray Bradbury | novel | 1950)
to  Mars Attacks!  (Tim Burton (dir.) | film | 1996)

The Martians of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles are gentle-seeming creatures, with “fair, brownish skin,” “yellow coin eyes” and “soft musical voices.” They are also capable of shape-shifting, using telepathic brainwashing to project very different appearances when the need arises—as it does when one doomed group of easy-to-dupe earthlings arrives on their planet. Ever since Dr. Jekyll morphed into Mr. Hyde, shape-shifting has been a staple of science fiction. Star Trek films and television shows have, over the franchise’s deathlessly long haul, featured numerous morph-ready aliens, and shape-shifting is an essential talent of comic-book superheroes such as the Hulk. Whether the Martians of Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!—who, with their distended brain-shaped skulls and “akk-akk” language, are anything but gentle-seeming—can actually shape-shift is, like so much else in the movie, a tad unclear. But they certainly go in for clever disguises, as when one of them gains entrance to the White House by masquerading as a preternaturally buxom and bouffanted blond (played with aplomb by Lisa Marie). And Burton’s Martians like to toy with others’ appearances, too: When they capture a clueless television talk-show host (Sarah Jessica Parker), they transplant her head onto the body of her pet Chihuahua.

Canals of Mars
to  Mars Science Laboratory

Scientific knowledge about the red planet has come a long way over the past century, which is almost a shame. The vision of a once-inhabited, civilized, canal-latticed Mars, promulgated by astronomer Percival Lowell, has been eclipsed by a much more desolate picture. Much remains to be discovered about Mars, including, most important, whether Mars now supports or has ever supported life. But many basic facts about Mars had been established long before the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover landed on the planet in summer 2012. To wit: Mars is dry, bleak and rocky, with a thin atmosphere sometimes riddled by dust storms. It’s also very cold, with surface temperatures usually deep in the minuses. If life exists or has ever existed there, it is or was of a very primitive kind, possibly akin to certain bacteria that survive under extremely harsh conditions on Earth. In other words, there are no Martians worthy of the name. How depressing! Luckily, the human imagination can take flight unsupported by facts, which is why the Martians of popular culture remain so compelling. But any real extraterrestrials will, it seems, have to be found elsewhere.

Canals of Mars
to  A Princess of Mars  (Edgar Rice Burroughs | novel | 1917)

The moon, it turns out, is not made of green cheese. But unlike the green-cheese hypothesis, the idea that the Martian surface is crisscrossed by canals—possibly irrigation works engineered by an advanced civilization—once enjoyed a certain degree of scientific credibility. The purported canals of Mars were first observed in 1877 by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who assigned names to several dozen of them. Not all scientists accepted his reports, but Schiaparelli found a believer in the person of American astronomer Percival Lowell, the discoverer of Pluto. Lowell made drawings of the canals based on his own observations, and between 1895 and 1908 he published three books arguing for the existence of intelligent life on Mars. Later research proved the channel-like striations perceived by Schiaparelli and Lowell were optical illusions and that Mars now has little to no surface water. But the idea, widely disseminated in newspapers, that Mars was home to a race of canal-building beings had taken hold of the popular imagination—and gotten science-fiction writers’ creative juices flowing. The farmlands of the arid, though hardly waterless, red planet described in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Princess of Mars are irrigated by the “so-called Martian canals.”

A Princess of Mars  (Edgar Rice Burroughs | novel | 1917)
to  The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust  (David Bowie | album | 1972)

The “planet of paradoxes” is what John Carter, the narrator-hero of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Princess of Mars, calls the red planet. But as imagined by Burroughs in this and subsequent volumes of his Barsoom series (the name his Martians give their world), Mars is a planet of implausibility and inconsistency. The logical leaps and narrative flaws of Burroughs’s writing didn’t bother his horde of mostly young, mostly male fans, who ate up these otherworldly Westerns, in which the savages have green skin (and six limbs) and there’s almost always a comely damsel—including Dejah Thoris, the titular princess of the first Barsoom book—in need of rescue by a hunky earthling.

In Burroughs’s John Carter stories—adapted for Andrew Stanton’s film John Carter (2012)—Mars is a dying planet where multiple humanoid races compete for dwindling resources. In the story loosely framed by David Bowie’s Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, it’s Earth that’s dying. “We’ve got five years,” the opening song explains, and our planet’s would-be rescuer is an androgynous glam rocker (a.k.a. Ziggy Stardust) with a messiah complex. Implausible premises, it seems, make for good sci-fi and epic rock and roll.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust  (David Bowie | album | 1972)
to  Tracy K. Smith  (b. 1972 | American poet)

The half-human, half-alien persona David Bowie invented for Ziggy Stardust and the corresponding 1972 to 1973 tour by Bowie and his Spiders from Mars band was, as the album’s closer reveals, a “rock ’n’ roll suicide.” Crazed fans and incorporeal extraterrestrial beings, who require Ziggy’s flesh to make themselves visible, tear him apart, Orpheus-style. Bowie and his band, in costumes inspired by the futuristic outfits worn by Alex and his “droogs” in Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (1971), brought space-age theatrics to rock.

In her Pulitzer Prize–winning third collection of poems, Life on Mars (2011), Tracy K. Smith deploys imagery borrowed from “disaster porn” news reports, film noir and sci-fi cinema—including Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)—to present a picture of mundane American life permeated by the uncanny, the mystical, the beyond. Bowie, in “Life on Mars?”—a song from Hunky Dory (1971) that foreshadows Ziggy Stardust—plaintively hopes life elsewhere may be more interesting than life on Earth. But in Smith’s poem “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” an eternal, interstellar Bowie appears as a “cosmic ace hovering, swaying, aching to make us see” that an alien universe already shimmers within the everyday world we inhabit.