Eric Rabkin ar­gues that de­pic­tions of Mars in lit­er­a­ture and film – both as the cra­dle of hideous in­vaders, and hu­man­ity’s po­ten­tial saviour – fre­quently re­flect the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate back on Earth

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HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds ar­rived in a pe­riod in which wars of em­pire raged across the globe In­tro­duc­ing the world to hideous, ten­ta­cled Mar­tians – who lay waste to mankind with dev­as­tat­ing heat-ray guns – it’s hardly sur­pris­ing that HG Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds made quite an im­pact when it was pub­lished in hard­back in 1898.

The novel tapped into a cli­mate of global anx­i­ety, as the world’s im­pe­rial pow­ers con­tin­ued to flex their mus­cles but en­coun­tered in­creas­ingly de­ter­mined op­po­si­tion as they did so. The Cuban War of In­de­pen­dence, the Philip­pine Rev­o­lu­tion and the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War were just three of the con­flicts to rage in the dy­ing days of the 19th cen­tury.

The War of the Worlds was one in a long line of Bri­tish in­va­sion nar­ra­tives – be­gin­ning with Ge­orge Tomkyns Ch­es­ney’s The Bat­tle of Dork­ing in 1871, a fic­tional ac­count of a Ger­man at­tack on Bri­tain.

An in­va­sion dom­i­nates Wells’s novel too. But, in this case, it’s not hu­mans re­spon­si­ble for it. When Mar­tian forces make a sur­prise crash-land­ing in south­ern Eng­land, Bri­tish troops are help­less to stop their re­lent­less and bloody ad­vance. “With in­fi­nite com­pla­cency, men went to and fro about the globe, con­fi­dent of our em­pire over this world,” the novel’s nar­ra­tor tells us. “Yet across the gulf of space, in­tel­lects vast and cool and un­sym­pa­thetic re­garded our planet with en­vi­ous eyes and slowly, and surely, drew their plans against us.”

As Bri­tain stood on the brink of a sec­ond con­flict with the Bo­ers of south­ern Africa, and with ten­sions ris­ing that would end in the First World War, it was but a small step to sub­sti­tute Mar­tian in­vaders with hu­man armies.


A fab­ri­cated Mar­tian in­va­sion hit a raw nerve in a coun­try fac­ing the prospect of war Just af­ter 8.30pm on 30 Oc­to­ber 1938, the thou­sands of Amer­i­cans tuned to the ra­dio show ‘Mercury Theater on the Air’ sud­denly heard an alarm­ing news flash: huge Mar­tian fight­ing-ma­chines were emerg­ing from me­teor-like space­craft that had landed near Grover’s Mill, New

Jer­sey. What they were lis­ten­ing to was an adap­ta­tion of HG Wells’s The War of

the Worlds. Many, how­ever, mis­took it for an in­va­sion on Amer­i­can soil.

“Some­thing’s wrig­gling out of the shadow like a gray snake,” a des­per­ate voice shouted down the air­waves. “Now it’s another one, and another. They look like ten­ta­cles to me… There’s a jet of flame spring­ing from the mirror, and it leaps right at the ad­vanc­ing men. It strikes them head on! Good Lord, they’re turn­ing into flame!… En­emy now turns east… Ev­i­dent ob­jec­tive is New York City…”

The so-called Panic Broad­cast, di­rected and nar­rated by 23-year-old ra­dio ac­tor

and fu­ture film­maker Or­son Welles, caught Amer­ica at a vul­ner­a­ble mo­ment. Still be­sieged by the Great De­pres­sion, which had seen half of its banks close and un­em­ploy­ment soar to 25 per cent, the na­tion was strug­gling, and many peo­ple felt them­selves just a short mis­chance from dis­as­ter.

Adding to the sense of dread was the rise of Ger­man im­pe­ri­al­ism across the At­lantic. Hitler was now the dark colos­sus of Europe, an­nex­ing Aus­tria just a few months be­fore Welles’s broad­cast. Fol­low­ing the Nurem­berg Laws of 1935 (which en­shrined anti-Semitic Nazi doc­trine in law), New York, a city with some 1.7 mil­lion Jews, seemed an ob­vi­ous tar­get for Ger­man ag­gres­sion. An in­va­sion, Mar­tian or other­wise, was no longer un­think­able.

Pa­pers such as The New York Times seized on Welles’s broad­cast (which you can lis­ten to at watch?v=Xs0K4ApWl4g), spark­ing a pop­u­lar out­cry against fake news. Congress even con­sid­ered lim­it­ing free­dom of speech, while the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion to see if any laws had been bro­ken. Ul­ti­mately, the real-life fears of 1938 over­shad­owed the fic­tional, and Welles es­caped with an on-air apol­ogy.


Amid anti-com­mu­nist witch­hunts, films and nov­els of­fered con­trast­ing por­tray­als of Mars As Nazism was con­signed to his­tory in 1945, so too – for a short while at least – was film-mak­ers’ fascination with Mars. Hol­ly­wood now turned in­ward, look­ing for re­lief and es­cape af­ter the hor­rors of war and eco­nomic tur­moil. Mars was no longer deemed in­ter­est­ing sub­ject mat­ter and no the­atri­cal films be­tween 1945 and 1950 used Mars in their ti­tles.

But by the start of the fifties a new en­emy had emerged, strik­ing fear into Amer­i­cans: com­mu­nism and the USSR. For years the two su­per­pow­ers leapfrogged in an arms race that saw the US pro­duce atomic and hy­dro­gen bombs and the USSR launch a man into space. Po­lit­i­cally, they fought by proxy in the Korean War (1950–53); do­mes­ti­cally, they traded spies and speeches.

The trial and ex­e­cu­tion of Julius and Ethel Rosen­berg, Amer­i­cans con­victed of pass­ing top-se­cret in­for­ma­tion about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union, only served to fan anti-com­mu­nist feel­ings. The pair were in­ves­ti­gated as part of Se­na­tor Joseph McCarthy’s ‘Red Hunt’. Any­one dis­cov­ered to be a ‘Red’ – named for the colour of the USSR’s flag and that of in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nism – could be im­pris­oned or black-listed for em­ploy­ment.

From 1950 un­til McCarthy was cen­sured as a dem­a­gogue by the Se­nate in 1954, Mars, as the red planet, was only ever filmed in a sin­is­ter light. In­vaders

from Mars (1953) and Devil Girl from Mars

(1954) are just two of the films that cast it as the cra­dle of malev­o­lent forces.

While cinema tended to por­tray Mars as a source of evil, in nov­els the planet of­ten of­fered hu­man­ity re­demp­tion. Ray Brad­bury’s 1950 linked-story col­lec­tion,

The Mar­tian Chron­i­cles, is an out­stand­ing ex­am­ple of a tra­di­tion go­ing back at least to the turn of the cen­tury in which Mars, in prose, of­fers mankind the chance to oc­cupy a new Eden. One story, ‘The Green Morn­ing’, sees the pro­tag­o­nist, Ben­jamin Driscoll, plant seeds that grow mag­i­cally overnight into lush trees that oxy­genate the Mar­tian at­mos­phere.

“It rained steadily for two hours and then stopped. The stars came out, freshly washed and cleaner than ever…”


One “gi­ant leap for mankind” put the red planet firmly back on the cul­tural agenda Af­ter man first set foot on the moon on 20 July 1969, hu­mans walk­ing on Mars – rather than Mar­tians walk­ing on Earth – seemed more of a dis­tinct, if dis­tant, pos­si­bil­ity.

The moon land­ing had a global psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact. For the first time, hu­man­ity could claim to have found, walked on and pho­tographed a truly new land.

The moon it­self was rarely taken se­ri­ously as a pos­si­ble home. In­stead, in the af­ter­math of Neil Arm­strong’s ‘gi­ant leap’, it opened up the tan­ta­lis­ing pos­si­bil­ity of hu­mans colonis­ing Mars. If only the at­mos­phere were not too thin; if only there were wa­ter.

Ter­raform­ing – the process of mod­i­fy­ing another planet’s en­vi­ron­ment to make it hos­pitable to hu­mans – was a word first used in a 1949 short story, but it be­came a sta­ple con­cept of science fic­tion nov­els from the 1970s on­wards. One of the most fa­mous ex­am­ples is Kim Stan­ley Robin­son’s Mars tril­ogy (1993–96). This cen­turies-long saga drew on con­tem­po­rary sci­en­tific and philo­soph­i­cal de­vel­op­ments to take read­ers from the touch­down of the first 100 peo­ple on Mars to their sub­ter­ranean habi­tat, the drilling of deep holes to re­lease heat and wa­ter, and the ul­ti­mate thick­en­ing of the at­mos­phere.


Could hu­man­ity’s sal­va­tion lie on Mars’s rocky ex­te­rior? In 1976, Mars was back in the news once again, cour­tesy of the Nasa Vik­ing 1 mis­sion’s ‘dis­cov­ery’ of what ap­peared to be an enor­mous hu­man head, nearly two miles long, on the sur­face of the planet. Al­though re­fined imag­ing showed the ‘face’ to be noth­ing more than a clus­ter of rocks, with each new ad­vance, Mars be­came more ap­proach­able.

Re­cent films and books, such as the 2015 movie The Mar­tian, based on a 2011 book by Andy Weir, treat the chal­lenge of Mars not as that of a god of war but a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment that can be over­come by hu­man tenac­ity and science. The film sees as­tro­naut Mark Wat­ney stranded on Mars and forced to find a way to sur­vive un­til a res­cue mis­sion can be sent.

But fu­ture ex­pe­di­tions to Mars might not be con­fined to fic­tion. Back in the real world, the Mars One or­gan­i­sa­tion aims to have landed hu­mans on the planet by 2032, with the pur­pose of cre­at­ing “a sec­ond home for hu­man­ity”.

Elon Musk, founder and owner of SpaceX – which de­vel­ops rock­ets and sells launch ser­vices to fund ef­forts to reach and in­habit Mars – has de­clared: “The fu­ture of hu­man­ity is go­ing to bi­fur­cate in two di­rec­tions: ei­ther it’s go­ing to be­come mul­ti­plan­e­tary, or it’s go­ing to re­main con­fined to one planet and even­tu­ally there’s go­ing to be an ex­tinc­tion event.”

We may de­velop the tech­nol­ogy to ex­plore Mars’s en­vi­ron­ment; we may not. Ei­ther way, there’s lit­tle doubt that we’ve long viewed the planet through the prism of our own en­vi­ron­ment here on Earth.

Eric Rabkin is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of English lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan. His books in­clude Mars: A Tour of

the Hu­man Imag­i­na­tion (Praeger, 2005)

New York­ers heckle the city’s 1951 com­mu­nist May Day pa­rade TOP: A poster for 1954’s sci-fi film Devil Girl from Mars

Global un­rest fed into HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Here the Boxer re­bel­lion is de­picted in a French il­lus­tra­tion from 1900

Po­lice dis­trib­ute food to needy New York­ers. Or­son Welles’s Panic Broad­cast preyed on the fears of a frag­ile na­tion

Scan this QR Code for the au­dio reader A de­tail from a poster pro­mot­ing Wil­liam Cameron Men­zies’ 1953 hor­ror film In­vaders from Mars, above an im­age of the red planet. Mars has ex­erted a pow­er­ful hold over the res­i­dents of Earth for mil­len­nia

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon in 1969. Sud­denly Mars didn’t seem so unattain­able

Nasa’s 1976 im­age of what ap­peared to be an enor­mous hu­man face on Mars reignited in­ter­est in the planet

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