My 10 Favorite Mars Novels

Renowned sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson reviews a century of Mars fiction

This is part of IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?

We asked Kim Stanley Robinson, the author of several highly regarded Mars novels, to guide us through the incredibly rich body of Mars literature. He was too modest to include his own books, so we’ll do it here: Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars), which describes the colonization and terraforming of Mars by engineers and scientists, is published by Bantam Spectra.

The best Mars novels have always tried to reflect our current scientific understanding of Mars, which over the years has meant very different planets. My favorites come from all periods and illustrate these changes in what we thought Mars was like.

The first big outpouring of fiction about Mars followed astronomer Percival Lowell’s book Mars, in 1895. What he said he saw through his powerful telescope in Flagstaff, Ariz.—a planetwide complex of canals—turned out to be science fiction already, but for many years that wasn’t obvious. Writers all over the world were inspired to fill in the implications of Lowell’s account, according to their own characters, interests, and national styles. H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars (1917) were part of this international response, but my favorites from the Lowell era are by a German and a Russian.

  • 1. Auf zwei Planeten (1897), translated as Two Planets (1971). In Kurd Lasswitz’s novel, advanced Martians come to Earth and try to help us. The Martians live in a technological utopia in which life is enriched by fine food, rapid transit, and flying artworks. The book’s stiff, 19th-century utopian style takes some getting used to, but the prescient ideas on every page and the powerful vision of a prosperous life created by following the rational ways of science are still very attractive. The book is a fun read, and it had a huge impact in its day: Lasswitz clubs sprang up all over Germany.

    Young men inspired by the book went on to found a German rocket society, the Verein für Raumschiffahrt. Among them were Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun. This genealogy—Lowell to Lasswitz to von Braun to NASA—suggests that we might not have made it to the moon in the 20th century without Lowell’s hallucinated Mars and the resulting clutch of Martian romances.

  • 2. Red Star, by Alexander Bogdanov, was published in 1908, and its sequel Engineer Menni in 1913 (English translations of both appeared in 1984). These books describe the interaction between a backward Earth and an advanced communist utopia on Mars. Hugely popular in pre-WWI Russia, they inspired many in the revolutionary movement. The story’s central romance—Martian hero meets Earth girl and takes her home for a long tutorial—is hokey in the manner typical of utopias. But laughter at its clunkiness is part of a larger pleasure in its intelligence and foresight, and the Martians’ struggles to help Earth get through its primitive capitalist phase eerily foreshadow current problems. Bogdanov (real name: Alexander Malinovsky) went on to tangle with Lenin and write influential works on systems theory. Later, when Stalin began killing ideological rivals, Bogdanov saw the writing on the wall and gave his blood in a transfusion exchange with a young man suffering from malaria and tuberculosis. Bogdanov died shortly thereafter, while the youth lived on for half a century.

  • 3. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury (1950). By the 1930s, telescopes and radio astronomy made it seem that Mars lacked both water and oxygen, and so the Lowell dream began to die. One of the first and greatest responses to this “dry Mars” realization was Ray Bradbury’s masterpiece. A series of linked stories, it was the first Mars fiction to suggest that whatever we find on Mars, we will be bringing our old dreams of the place along to haunt us. And the book’s final image will always express another basic Martian truth: We are the Martians we seek.

  • 4. With the Lowell dream dead, Mars fiction fully entered its dry phase, in which colonists were depicted as struggling on a harsh and dry world. One of the best of these books is Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars (1951), in which Clarke spices up the rigors of the desert life with a local population of kangaroo-like creatures. Clarke’s human characters are not much more advanced than those of Bogdanov and Lasswitz, and his vision of Mars itself is about as vague, but the attempt to tell a story consistent with the science of the time is interesting.

  • 5. A good companion to Clarke’s novel is Outpost Mars (1952) by Cyril Judd, which was a pseudonym for C.M. Kornbluth and Judith Merril in collaboration. A detailed description of a first Martian colony’s struggles, the book offers a feminist perspective that brings a new emphasis on family and relationships, raising the standard of Martian fiction to a level so character-driven that a 1961 reprint was titled Sin in Space. The story includes the first narrative of a baby being born on Mars, and its descriptions of the landscape are as evocative as the tense relationships among the colonists. A hidden gem among Mars novels.

  • 6. Farewell, Earth’s Bliss, by D.G. Compton (1966). Mars’s dry period continued in the 1960s with bleak novels by Compton and Philip K. Dick in which Mars is a powerful metaphor for the “20th-century wasteland” that so obsessed modernist culture. In Compton’s dark tale, Mars is a prison colony, and the prisoners have to struggle to stay alive, construct a tolerable society, and deal with the native Martians, who are like underground rabbits. Beautifully written, like all Compton’s novels, the book has a powerful and cruel ending that will not easily be forgotten.

  • 7. Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip (1964) is one of his best novels and one of the best Martian novels, too. This time the colonists are trying their best to be ordinary American suburbanites, led by the head of the plumbers’ union, but their effort is failing. The native Martians, the Bleekmen, are wizened primitives, aborigines who wander the surface. They live in a different time and interact better with an autistic boy than with the sane but desperate colonists. Funny, sad, compact, and moving, this one shouldn’t be missed. Dick also set a similar colony of desperate suburbanites on Mars in a novel from 1965, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Try both together for a bracing dose of PKD and Mars.

  • 8. The excellent collection Mars, We Love You, edited by Jane Hipolito and Willis E. McNelly (published in 1971 and rereleased in 1976 as The Book of Mars), allows me to mention some of the really great short stories written about Mars through the years. Many of them are collected here, including Stanley G. Weinbaum’s fine “A Martian Odyssey” (1934). Not in this book, alas, but well worth hunting for, are C.L. Moore’s “Shambleau” (1933), Walter M. Miller Jr.’s haunting “Crucifixus Etiam” (1953), and Roger Zelazny’s “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” (1963), which bids a fond farewell to the watery Lowell Mars.

  • 9. In the 1970s, everything Martian hovered on the brink of major change. The Mariner satellites had photographed the surface, Carl Sagan and others began talking about the possibility of terraforming Mars, and then the Viking missions changed our image of Mars forever. At this moment, Frederik Pohl used the Mariner findings to portray a very realistic Mars and ask the question, How far would we go to adapt ourselves to the place, rather than the place to us? The chilling answers found in Man Plus (1976) make it one of Pohl’s best novels.

  • 10. Genesis, an Epic Poem, by Frederick Turner (1988). It doesn’t seem like an epic poem about the terraforming of Mars, using characters modeled partly on Greek mythology, would be a recipe for success. But Turner is an exceptionally skillful poet, who when he wrote this book had already completed a fascinating Mars novel, A Double Shadow (1978), and another fine book-length narrative poem, The New World (1985). Here, the Olympian grandeur of the characters and plot match well with the Martian landscape, which under its rapid terraforming is still recognizably a place established in the popular imagination by the Viking landers. The result is a triumph that deserves to be better known.

In the 1990s there was a veritable flood of Mars novels, but I was so busy writing my own that I never read them! Someone else will have to sort out that part of the story. But as you can see from the above, by then we were working in a very rich tradition.

For more articles, go to Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?

About the Author

KIM STANLEY ROBINSON made his mark as a science-fiction writer with the 1990s Mars Trilogy: Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. For this issue, he sifts through more than a century’s worth of fiction on the Red Planet.

To Probe Further

For more on movies from Mars, see “Mars movies: the good, the bad, the ridiculous.”

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