What Did Early Science Fiction Writers Think of Mars?

A lot! We spoke with Mike Ashley about 'Lost Mars: Stories from the Golden Age of the Red Planet.'

Every day, it seems, we’re presented with new, exciting information about space. As technology advances, we can go further, experiment more boldly, and imagine new possibilities. It’s as if there’s a driving force encouraging us to seek out the great beyond. Life on other planets has long fascinated humankind, but the more we come to realize the fragility of Earth and the urgency of climate change, the greater becomes our desire to colonize the stars.

The need to leave Earth didn’t feel as pressing a century ago, but that’s when Mars began to take center stage in the science-fiction cannon. Writers and readers alike couldn’t get enough of the Red Planet and its mysteries. Mike Ashely, a prolific editor of anthologies, put together Lost Mars: Stories from the Golden Age of the Red Planet, an anthology of stories about the Red Planet, and the first volume in the British Library Science Fiction Classics series. Since the 1880s, writers of science fiction have delighted in speculating on what life on Mars might look like and what might happen should we make contact with the planet’s inhabitants. These stories reveal much about how we understand our place in the universe.

I was able to email with Ashley and discuss what makes our species so enthralled with Mars, and how we might be able to continue our exploration, among the stars and on the page.

Sara Cutaia

There are so many wonderful science-fiction stories out there, many that deal with space. What made you choose Mars as the defining theme for this anthology?

Mike Ashley

This arose from a suggestion by the British Library who were at an early stage in giving some thought to the idea of a Science Fiction Classics series to run alongside the Classic Crime series. They asked me whether there was enough good short fiction published before the Moon landing in 1969 and the probes to Mars in the 1960s to make up two anthologies. There certainly were plenty and it provided an opportunity to show how science fiction had regarded Mars and the Moon over the decades from the earliest days and so highlight some lesser known stories and writers who nevertheless presented original ideas.

Sara Cutaia

What shifts are you seeing in Martian and space stories, both short and novel-length?

Mike Ashley

Writers of good and responsible science fiction have always tried to keep up with the scientific discoveries in astronomy and planetary research. So ever since the earliest lunar and Martian probes writers have brought realism into science fiction alongside the need to both inform and entertain the reader. Keeping that balance between genuine and speculative science and writing a good story is always a challenge but when it works it works very well. Probably the best known example recently has been The Martian by Andy Weir, which not only utilizes all of the current knowledge about Mars but weaves that into a tense and very entertaining novel. Writers now have so much information about Mars that can feed into further speculation that the opportunity for developing new creative fiction has greatly increased. For example, there’s Kim Stanley Robinson’s series about the colonization and terraforming of Mars, Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars which, even though it’s now over twenty years old, nevertheless brings together all the then-current thinking on how to convert Mars into an Earth-like environment but also explores the ethics of doing this and the longer term consequences.

Sara Cutaia

Ray Bradbury wrote an entire collection about Mars called The Martian Chronicles. Why did “Ylla” get the green light above any of the others?

Mike Ashley

I wanted a story that looked at the human exploration of Mars from the viewpoint of a Martian. Back in the 1930s and 1940s so much science fiction was about conquest rather than considering how this affected the native population.

Sara Cutaia

Even with the advancement of technology and the new information we get seemingly every day, our fascination with Mars as a planet continues to grow, as strong as or stronger even than when we first explored it through a telescope. What parallels have you observed among real-life advancements and fictional explorations of the Red Planet that might speak to this persistent wonder?

Mike Ashley

I think it has much to do with that age-old question, “Are we alone in the universe?”  Here we are with one of our nearest neighbors which may seem very Earth-like when you watch the pictures sent back by the various probes and yet is too inhospitable at present to support human life. Yet we cannot help but ask, did it once support life? And authors inevitably explore that, such as Ben Bova in Mars and Return to Mars. Or maybe there is some form of microbial life that could infect explorers or even find its way back to Earth as Paul McAuley considers in The Secret of Life. Or maybe we can adapt humans to live on Mars as Frederik Pohl did in Man Plus. All the ideas behind these books are also being explored and discussed by NASA and other space scientists. What’s more, the romantic image that some scientist could build his own rocket and explore Mars has never gone away even when it was believed that only wealthy nations had the wherewithal to finance space exploration. But now we have individuals like Robert Zubrin who established the Mars Society in 1996 and Elon Musk with SpaceX, founded in 2002, both intent on findings ways to reach and colonize Mars. After all, if we can’t find a way to live on the nearest relatively hospitable planet in our Solar System, what hope do we have of ever establishing life beyond the Earth?  It’s not just a romantic dream any more. It’s about the future of the human race.

Sara Cutaia

Why was the cutoff for this anthology the 1960s? Were there scientific discoveries that changed the way authors wrote about Mars after this?

Mike Ashley

The whole idea was to see how writers had envisaged Mars before the series of probes began to take closer images of the planet and actually land there. Every scientific discovery changes the way writers view the planet and in fact they encourage writers to seek new ways of envisaging the planet and facing the challenge of establishing a base there. Whereas in the 1930s it seemed easy to build a rocket, fly to Mars and have adventures, science has placed hurdle after hurdle in the way, to show just how difficult it is. And the writers find ways round those hurdles so that the dream never dies.

Sara Cutaia

Do you have a favorite Mars story? If not, then which in this collection are you most drawn to?

Mike Ashley

Oh, I have plenty of favorite Mars stories spread over the years, depending on when I read them. Back in the early 1960s when I first read Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles I was taken by the final story, “The Million-Year Picnic,” which created this astonishing image of a human family on Mars and the children discovering that they are now the Martians. It’s such a powerful image and a romantic ideal. As for this anthology, I have a special place for P. Schuyler Miller’s “The Forgotten Man of Space,” because this was one of the first stories to consider the ecology of Mars and reminds us that we need to look after whatever we discover, not simply plunder the planet for any rare resources.


Lost Mars: Stories from the Golden Age of the Red Planet
Edited by Mike Ashley
University of Chicago Press
Published October 19, 2018

Mike Ashley is the editor of the Mammoth Book series of short story anthologies; several anthologies of science fiction, horror, and fantasy stories; and many more single-author collections. He is also the winner of an Edgar Award.

1 comment on “What Did Early Science Fiction Writers Think of Mars?

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