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February, 2004 : Sub-Genre Spotlight:

Mars Science Fiction

Mars is a busy place these days.

As I write this article, there are no less than three robotic rovers (Britain's Beagle 2, NASA's Spirit, and NASA's Opportunity) roaming (or attempting to roam) the surface, and four information-gathering satellites (NASA's Mars Global Surveyor, NASA's Mars Odyssey, JAXA's Nozomi, and ESA's Mars Express) orbiting the planet.  Everything hasn't gone smoothly; there has been no contact as of yet with Beagle 2, and Spirit experienced some temporary technical difficulties, but there have been some exciting discoveries already.  One of the most promising find thus far has been the conclusive proof discovered by the Mars Express that there is, or at least once was, water on Mars.

And if that wasn't enough to buzz about, in mid-January President Bush announced that by 2020 the United States would once again land men on the Moon and that a manned mission to Mars was in the near future as well.  So Mars has been generating a lot of excitement recently.  But science fiction writers have been excited about Mars for years.

Perhaps the first significant work about Mars was Two Planets by Kurd Lasswitz (1888), which was originally published in German, but was not translated into English until 1971.  Ten years later, in 1898, came H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds, which shaped much of the Mars fiction that was to come after, and it had a huge effect on the genre as a whole.  It is, however, a book about Martian invaders and not a book about Mars, so it is not truly a part of this sub-genre.

In 1912, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs was published.  This was the first of what were called "planetary romances," adventure stories set on other planets in which no real effort is made to maintain any level of scientific accuracy.  Many others took to writing this sort of popular adventure story, including: Ray Bradbury, Leigh Brackett, Michael Moorcock, Robert A. Heinlein, and Lin Carter.  The most noteworthy planetary romances include: Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, Roger Zelazny's "A Rose for Ecclesiastes," and Burroughs's Barsoom novels.

One of the first real attempts to write about a realistic exploration of the planet Mars came in 1951 with Arthur C. Clarke's The Sands of Mars.  But while it may have been considered a Hard SF novel at the time it was written, by today's standards the science is rather dated (for this reason it has been grouped with the planetary romances in the recommendations below).  The first true Hard SF novels about Mars emerged in the 70s, after the first data started arriving from the Mariner missions, which revealed Mars to be a cold, desolate planet with very little atmosphere.  Perhaps the first to realistically explore the possibilities of the colonization of Mars was Man Plus by Frederik Pohl, in which a man's body is altered cybernetically so that he can survive in Mars's hostile environment.  Later, many authors, such as Kim Stanley Robinson in his Mars trilogy, take the opposite tactic and instead alter the environment of Mars to suit humanity.

While for many years to follow, Mars SF novels seemed to focus on stories revolving around the colonization of Mars, in the 90s came a boom of near-future mission to Mars stories—stories that realistically extrapolated what a manned mission to Mars would be like.  Among these, Mars by Ben Bova, Labyrinth of Night by Allen Steele, and The Martian Race by Gregory Benford stand out.  Notable early mission to Mars stories include "In the Hall of the Martian Kings" by John Varley (1977) and The Far Call by Gordon R. Dickson (1978).

For a more comprehensive overview of the history of Mars SF, check out the Mars SF Bibliography by Christine Hawkins at, and her two excellent articles: Voyages to Mars I: From Edgar Rice Burroughs to Philip K. Dick and Voyages to Mars II: In Fact and Fiction Since Mariner IV.  While you're at, be sure to peruse their up-to-date list of Mars SF, which proved to be quite useful in the writing of this article.  Also useful to me was Mars in the Mind of Earth's bibliography of short fiction and poetry.  For further reading about the history of the sub-genre, I recommend the "Mars" section of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls.

The recommendations that follow focus on the Hard SF stories written in the post-Mariner age.  But also included for the sake of completeness (and historical curiosity) is a list of recommended planetary romances.

Mars in the Post-Mariner Age:
Hard Science Fiction

Essential Novels

Voyage by Stephen Baxter
An alternate history tale in which John F. Kennedy lives and so does NASA's manned space flight program—which leads to a manned Mars mission in 1986.
Moving Mars by Greg Bear
The tale of a revolution on Mars that leads to Mars's secession—not only from government, but from the Solar System itself.
The Martian Race by Gregory Benford
The Mars Prize—$30 billion—is offered to the crew of the first successful manned mission to Mars.  With NASA floundering in its bureaucracy, John Axelrod leads a privately-funded team that strives to win the race, and be the first to step foot on the Red Planet.  For Axelrod, it's all about the money; but for astronauts Julia, Viktor, Marc, and Raoul, it's a chance to do some real science and perhaps discover if life ever existed on Mars.  Expanded from "A Cold, Dry Cradle."
Voyage to the Red Planet by Terry Bisson
Disney buys NASA and plans to shoot a new movie about Mars—on location.
Mars (et seq.) by Ben Bova
The tale of an international Mars mission: from the politicking it takes to get the mission off the ground, to the Martian surface, where astronauts face meteor showers and an inexplicable virus.
The Far Call by Gordon R. Dickson
An international Mars mission goes terribly wrong due to the political machinations of the nations involved.
Mars Crossing by Geoffrey A. Landis
After the first two manned missions to Mars fail, a third mission attempts to be the first to land and return, but they must travel 3,000 miles from their landing site to the only functioning return module on the surface.
Secret of Life by Paul J. McAuley
A Chinese mission to Mars is suspected of being the source of the mysterious fungus-like organism that's wreaking havoc in the Pacific Ocean.  A NASA mission to Mars is commissioned to discover the truth.
Man Plus (et seq.) by Frederik Pohl
Instead of terraforming Mars to suit humans, humans are altered to suit Mars. 
Red Mars | Green Mars | Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
This trilogy details the transformation of Mars from the desolate Red Planet that it is today into a living, breathing world inhabited by humans.
Frontera by Lewis Shiner
The first permanent settlement on Mars is abandoned by Earth, but when the remaining residents of Frontera develop matter transporting technology, Earth's interest in the colony is suddenly rekindled.  Expanded from "Soldier, Sailor."
Labyrinth of Night by Allen Steele
A manned mission investigates the Cydonia region and discovers the truth behind the mysterious "Face on Mars."
The Martian Inca by Ian Watson
A Martian virus infects a village in the Andes which leads the people to rebellion.  Meanwhile, an American mission to Mars is infected by the same virus, with similar results.

Essential Short Fiction

"The Empress of Mars" by Kage Baker
A bar owner struggles to make a life for herself on the Red Planet despite the government's meddling. [ Available online.]
"A Cold Dry Cradle" by Gregory Benford & Elisabeth Malartre
The Mars mission finds life—microbes in the Martian soil—almost immediately, but the later exploration of the Martian thermal vents yields an even greater discovery.  Later expanded into The Martian Race.
"Mount Olympus" by Ben Bova
When an astronaut is injured while collecting samples, a daring rescue is required to save the fallen scientist's life.  Extracted from Return to Mars.
"Pictures From an Expedition" by Alex Irvine
A manned mission to Mars as seen from the point of view of the astronauts, the media, the online community, and the Vegas oddsmakers (who take bets on which members of the mission will live or die). [ Available Online]
"The Hole Man" by Larry Niven
Scientists studying an ancient and abandoned alien base on Mars discover a quantum black hole inside an alien artifact.
"The Great Martian Pyramid Hoax" by Jerry Oltion
A humorous tale of two astronauts on a Mars mission who find little of note and so decide to make the Red Planet a little more interesting to ensure future missions will be funded.  But when their efforts to alter the appearance of the "Face on Mars" are mysteriously repaired overnight, further investigation into the matter yields a discovery that will take future missions to other planets instead.
"Green Mars" by Kim Stanley Robinson
On a terraformed Mars, a group of mountaineers climbs the tallest mountain in the solar system, Olympus Mons.
"Danny Goes to Mars" by Pamela Sargent
A humorous alternate history tale in which Vice-President Dan Quayle is sent on a mission to Mars by President Bush to help ensure a Republican will remain in the White House after Bush's second term expires.  But the publicity stunt goes awry when the other members of the expedition die from a mysterious illness, leaving Danny to fend for himself.
"In the Hall of the Martian Kings" by John Varley
A manned mission to Mars suffers a terrible setback when the crew's habitat dome is destroyed.  There are many casualties, including the pilot, which leaves the Martian explorers stranded on the surface.  And with a rescue mission more than a year away, the crew soon discovers that adaptation is the key to survival.

Essential Collections & Anthologies

Mars Probes edited by Peter Crowther
17 original stories about the Red Planet, including standout stories from Allen Steele and Paul McAuley. [Contents]
Isaac Asimov's Mars edited by Gardner Dozois
9-story reprint anthology containing the best Mars stories originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction. [Contents]
The Martians by Kim Stanley Robinson
A collection of short fiction and poetry (originals and reprints) about Robinson's Mars. [Contents]

Other Recommended Novels

Other Recommended Short Fiction

Between the Hard SF and Planetary Romance stories of Mars falls this one interesting tale that serves as a sort of bridge between the two: "The First Mars Mission" by Robert F. Young (1979).  "The First Mars Mission" tells of a group of young boys who build a space ship in their backyard and take a fanciful trip of the imagination to Mars.  But when one of the young boys grows up to be an astronaut and travels to Mars for real, he discovers that his boyhood fantasy journey may not have been so fantastic after all.  This story—half fantasy, half science fiction—first appeared, appropriately enough, in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Mars in the Pre-Mariner Age:
Planetary Romances

Recommended Novels

Recommended Collections & Anthologies

Recommended Short Fiction

Copyright © 2004, John Joseph Adams. All Rights Reserved.

About John Joseph Adams

John Joseph Adams is the editorial assistant at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and the audiobook reviewer for Locus Magazine. His non-fiction has appeared in The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Science Fiction Weekly, Locus Online, and Amazing Stories. For a complete list of publications, visit his website at


Feb 21, 20:45 by John Frost
Did John Joseph Adams miss any of your favorites? What else should be on the list?
Feb 22, 22:41 by Philipp Keller
Did John Joseph Adams miss any of your favorites? What else should be on the list?
Feb 23, 15:56 by John Joseph Adams
I realized a link in the article got dropped for:

"The Three Unknowns" by Severna Park (forthcoming in March)

With no link, it's not clear *where* it's forthcoming from. The answer: it'll appear in SCIFICTION (

Nov 4, 14:32 by Lag
Has the article been added back?

Pressure Washing Fredericksburg VA

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