Can John Carter make the red planet cool again?
Spoken like a true imperialist! Through pure desire—the Manifest Destiny oozing from his pores—Carter beams up.
He finds Mars in the kind of decay Lowell described. But Mars, which the locals call Barsoom, also has great airborne navies and rifles that can fire accurately at a range of 200 miles. Carter sets out to become the planet’s earthling master. He learns to pilot a ship. He teaches the savage Martians empathy—while mastering their art of telepathy. (He can read their minds, but through a trick that’s never quite explained, they can’t read his.) Carter deflowers the beautiful Martian princess Dejah Thoris, who exclaims, “Can it be that all Earth men are as you?”
If Wells gave us Conquering Mars, Burroughs was offering Conquerable Mars. But nearly a century after its publication, what’s amazing about A Princess of Mars is the detail. From Mars’ Jeddak leaders (a word surely borrowed by Burroughs fan George Lucas) to the mod hairstyle of red Martians (square in back, banged in front), Mars is a fully-formed world. Robert Zubrin, president of The Mars Society, a group that promotes Martian exploration, calls Burroughs’ vision “sensuous”—the perfect word.* Sensuous Mars is a place of living color.
“On one level—the obvious level—Burroughs’ novels are fantasy,” says Zubrin. “But on another level, they carry an inner truth which is profound, which is the basic idea that there are other worlds.” After reading the Burroughs books as a kid, the astronomer Carl Sagan found himself gazing at Mars in the night sky, arms outstretched, hoping he would be beamed up, too.
Ray Bradbury was a sensuous writer, but his primary interest in Mars was in painting a cautionary tale for the folks back home. Call Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) Earth Mars. In an opening chapter, a Martian husband and wife are having a spat: They’re Archie and Edith, as aliens. The wife telepathically senses that earthlings are headed their way on a rocket. The husband, patting her head, gets a gun and kills them.
Scores of human astronauts are killed off in similar fashion. Then the Martians themselves are done in by chicken pox. The Martian Chronicles is the best-written book about Mars, full of water-filled canals and Bradbury’s Midwestern warmth. But an elegiac spirit settles over the whole thing. Humans eventually leave Mars to fight a great war back home. The final chapter features a human family that has come to Mars just before Earth was destroyed. The Earth “strangled itself with its own hands,” a character says. Bradbury is positing not just the destruction of one civilization but two.
The sensuous period ended right about there. Science spoiled the fun. In 1965, the Mariner 4 spacecraft passed by the planet. “We see many impact craters,” Carl Sagan sighed, “but we find no canals. None at all.” (His TV special was called “Blues for a Red Planet.”) Suddenly, the outsized literary dreams of Burroughs and Wells and Bradbury gave way to a less romantic search for microbial life. What came next was Downsized Mars.
The human colonists in Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) aren’t struck by Martian wonders. They’re bored out of their gourds. They pop CAN-D, a hallucinogen that allows them to transport themselves into Barbie-like dream houses. That allows them to act out their idealized life on Earth, a life rapidly receding as—Dick informs us—global warming plays havoc with the planet. Dick’s idea was anti-romantic: That living on Mars, should you be unlucky enough to be sent there, would be grindingly dull. The solution was to drop out. Welcome, dude, to High Mars.
A lot of the later Mars books are like this. We were escaping the destruction of our planet—from rising oceans, nuclear war, you name it—for a new home. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, published between 1992 and 1996, took the idea of a new Earth and hammered out the specifics of governance and environmental upkeep. It’s Model U.N. Mars—devoted, in the same spirit of the Star Trek movies, to ways we might save ourselves.
Besides a stray movie like Total Recall (also based on Dick), most Mars entertainments around the turn of the century stunk. See Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (which at least had a great death scene), and The Red Planet. In the run-up to his 2004 campaign, George W. Bush announced a manned mission to Mars. Like Newt Gingrich’s moon base, the trip was seen as a boondoggle, a shuttle to nowhere, and the idea was dropped. Steven Spielberg made his War of the Worlds in 2005 … and scrubbed the word “Mars” from the script entirely. As Spielberg explained, he saw the metallic monsters coming from a more distant—which is to say, more romantic—world.
What imagination writers once poured into Mars has been redirected to the other places in the solar system that might support life—like Jupiter’s moon Europa, the setting of an upcoming movie. Or else the writers have taken Burroughs’ mandate for sensuous worlds, full of aliens and strange customs, and created Vulcan, Pandora, Tatooine.
These days, if you want a really romantic vision of Mars, don’t ask a writer. Ask a scientist. “The interest of most science fiction is human or intelligent life, where as we’re talking about microbes,” says Bruce Jakosky, a scientist who’s working on NASA’s next Mars orbiter. “To me, they’re the same thing.” When he was an engineer at Martin Marietta, Robert Zubrin of The Mars Society designed a balloon that was to sail over the Martian surface. “The reason I was excited about that mission was its social-intellectual effect,” he says. “Balloons get a bird’s-eye view. You can see mountains from the side. You can see canyons.”
“It really conveys that this is another world,” Zubrin continues. “It’s not a point of light in the sky … It’s an exciting world worthy of exploration, and perhaps where human beings can someday make a home.”
Let’s call that the final vision: Real Mars. It’s no wonder that a 95-year-old Edgar Rice Burroughs novel feels anachronistic when plopped onto the big screen. For a single image from the Mars Lander is more spectacular than any sentence ever written by Burroughs, and it pulls at us with the same force Mars once pulled at John Carter. “I believe there is going to be human civilization on Mars,” Zubrin says. “Burroughs was right. He just had the dates wrong.”
Correction, March 8, 2012: This article originally misspelled the last name of Robert Zubrin. (Return to the corrected sentence)
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.