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.