The Difficult Beginnings Of A Superstar

An ancient symbol of war, because of its reddish color, Mars started with a low profile in the gallery of inhabited worlds. Up till the 19th century, it could bear no comparison with the Moon.In his Itinerarium exstaticum (1656), Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) proposed an inferno-colored Mars: flaming volcanoes, glowing rivers, a sulfur and arsenic soil, bitumen and naphtha lakes, an atmosphere smothered by fetid whirlwinds.Of all the planets in the solar system, it was precisely Mars that least drew the attention and sympathy of Fontenelle. He evoked it very hastily in his Dialogues on the Plurality of Worlds, his only concern being to find a practical means of lightening the Martian nights (the two little "moons" of Mars were discovered later, in 1877). The writer allowed for an option between "huge, towering rocks made of natural phosphorus which, in daytime, store light they send forth during the night" and shining birds that, "as soon as night falls, scatter all around, ready to propagate a new day." For whom is that illumination intended, anyway? There are no inhabitants in that fairy world – at least Fontenelle does not say a word about it, hurrying to depart from that uninteresting planet.Same disdain in Voltaire's Micromégas. An inhabitant of Sirius and a Saturnian who, on their voyage to Earth, fly past the planet Mars, "found it to be so small that they were afraid they wouldn't find a place to sleep, and they continued their travel, like two voyagers who spurn a bad village tavern and proceed to the next town." At least Voltaire found a solution to the illumination of Mars, more logical than Fontenelle's rocks and shining birds – the two "moons" already in place long before their astronomic discovery. A curious intuition, previously evinced by Kepler and Swift.Definitely, writers made more efforts to lighten Mars than to people it. There are Martians, of course, in several 18th century novels – for example, in Marie-Anne de Roumier's, or the German authors' Eberhard Christian Kindermann and Carl Ignaz Geiger –, but those scarce and quite conventional Martians were far from being able to tip the balance of world plurality in Mars's favor. Even later, about 1840, Pierre Boitard peopled Mars with inhabitants who were "the living image of the Negroes from Congo", which, in the language of the epoch, was not exactly a compliment.Who could then foresee that the future belonged to this unworthy planet? Little by little, the factors accumulated that would turn Mars into the greatest space superstar ever. THE DISCOVERY OF A NEW EARTH Mars was revealing to the astronomers a more and more terrestrial look. Francesco Fontana was the first to draw the general lines of its surface (between 1636 and 1638). Jean-Dominique Cassini (1625-1712) discovered other details, among which the polar caps (in 1666). It was also noticed that a Martian day was actually equal to a terrestrial day. But it was notably the great English astronomer William Herschel who imposed a certain image of Mars. He observed it during the oppositions[1] of 1777, 1779, 1781 and 1783 and came to the conclusion that its polar caps were identical to those on Earth – masses of ice and snow partially thawing in spring and in summer. Also, Mars must have had a considerable atmosphere that closely resembled the Earth's. Herschel's point of view was clearly formulated: the analogy between Mars and the Earth was unquestionably the most evident among all the planets of the solar system. The brilliant career of Mars was about to start.On the first map of Mars (1840), made by the German astronomers Wilhelm Beer (1797-1850) and Johann Heinrich Mädler (1794-1874), who had already drawn the map of the Moon, there were continents and seas, geographic forms very similar to the Earth's. Richard Proctor published in 1865 the first Martian map with a precise nomenclature. On his map, most continents, seas, oceans, islands had British names. A new world open to British expansionism? Victoria – Empress of Mars?Curious enough, everything – even the most novel and sophisticated scientific methods – concurred in rendering Mars ever so similar to the Earth. Even spectral analysis: applied to Mars by the German astrophysicist Hermann Karl Vogel, it "proved" the existence of a terrestrial-type atmosphere. Mars was becoming a duplicate of the Earth.Was it the imperfection of scientific means and methods? Yes and no. Mars is quite remote, and the confusing, changing spots that can be observed on its surface could be interpreted in different ways. The problem is that all these approximate elements, which should at least have raised certain doubts, were deemed sufficient to invent a very precise geography and climatology – moreover, they were almost identical to the conditions on Earth. Once again, the key to the issue is in the realm of the imaginary, of a tendency favorable to life on Mars.On the frontispiece of Flammarion's book on The Plurality of Inhabited Worlds, Mars and the Earth are pictured face to face. Mars had already earned a particular right in the system of world plurality. The creatures that populated a planet so similar to ours, Flammarion believed, must have resembled us more or less. The demonstration was logical: a quasi-terrestrial world must have engendered quasi-terrestrial beings. There lay the heart of the matter. The physical conditions on Mars were, of course, interesting in themselves, but mostly because of their implications. At the end of the road we might have hit upon a Martian humanity.In his Celestial Wonders, Flammarion invited the reader to a puzzling voyage: "The world of Mars is so much alike the world on Earth that, had we traveled thither someday and forgotten our route, it would be almost impossible for us to tell which of the two is our native planet. Without the Moon, which would mercifully relieve our incertitude, we would run the enormous risk of calling upon the natives of Mars while assuming we have landed in Europe or in some terrestrial neighborhood." This time, the resemblance was turning into identity.It is true, with gravity at 37% of the Earth's, all forms of life might have been larger than on our planet. Starting from the same cause, one might have found, perhaps, winged species, including flying "men". In The Earths in the Sky, Flammarion suggests the possibility of a lighter, airier than ours, Martian atmosphere.His English colleague, Richard Proctor, described Mars, in Other Worlds than Ours, as a miniature Earth, a smaller world, yet identical in its essentials. He thought it was riskier to speculate on a dead Mars than on a living one. That world possessed all the attributes of the Earth: atmosphere, water, clouds, air currents, rain, rivers, volcanic eruptions, mountains and valleys, seas and continents. The same scenery as the Earth. How could one not believe, under the circumstances, in the existence, whether in the past, present or future, of various forms of life? THE ENIGMA OF THE CANALS: SCHIAPARELLI AND LOWELL The stage was set – already favorable to Martian life – when sensational findings occurred. 1877 occasioned a breakthrough. It was the year when the American astronomer Asaph Hall (1829-1907) observed, for the first time, the two "moons" of Mars. Only later was it discovered that those satellites are only humble rocks of insignificant size, nothing comparable to our Moon. But, for the time being, the prestige of Mars was definitely on the rise. It had been too blamed for the absence of a satellite to brighten its nights; now it was taking revenge of its critics by acquiring not one, but two Moons at one shot. It was Earth's turn to feel denuded.But it was the second discovery that turned out the more spectacular and rich in consequences. During the 1877 opposition, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli (1835-1910), director of the Milan observatory, detected on Mars an entire canal network crisscrossing the surface of the planet. A few canals had been previously noticed by John Herschel (toward 1830) and by Secchi (in 1858), but it was for the first time that a real system, covering the whole planet, was being observed. Schiaparelli published his results in 1878, in a work on Martian topography. Initially, he had considered them to be rather irregular "waterways" crossing the continental expanses and linking the Martian seas.However, soon enough the evolution of the canals became alarming. They displayed an obvious tendency to "capture" the whole Martian surface, like a spider web. The seas were receding inch by inch, the canal network developed and, most important, they became increasingly geometrical. Already in 1879, subsequent to the new observations, Schiaparelli was sketching more rectilinear paths, and by 1881 the whole network presented itself as a very intricate play of straight lines. The Italian astronomer did not take the last consequences of his discovery. He bequeathed to others the glory, as well as the risk.In 1892, William H. Pickering made another important discovery, as a completion of Schiaparelli's, which gave the canal issue new dimensions. He remarked the presence of lines that crossed the Martian seas, which meant that those were not actual seas (as Flammarion, Proctor and other astronomers continued to believe). Pickering also noted the existence of "oases", points that were visible at the intersection of lines.What was the key of the canals, the key to the Martian mystery? The world that had been considered so similar to the Earth seemed more and more original and different. It was precisely its resemblance to the Earth that had generated the premise of a quasi-terrestrial life. Would the emerging dissimilarity kill that prospect? Not at all: up till that moment, Martian humanity had enjoyed only hypothetical existence; now, owing to the canals, its existence was becoming certain – provided, of course, one began to accept this premise.Therein comes Percival Lowell's stroke of genius. Schiaparelli had discovered a world, but, like another Columbus (Lowell's own comparison), he had not derived any profit. It was for the American to become the master of that new world.Having developed a passion for Mars, Lowell sought and found the ideal site for observing the red planet. He set up an observatory in a mountainous area of Arizona, at an altitude of 2,200 m., near the village of Flagstaff. Excellent conditions, a dry atmosphere, and clear skies. The observatory, which started to operate in May 1894, became one of the most renowned in the world. The work done there was varied, of course, but for twenty years, until Lowell's death, the real obsession remained the same: Mars, Mars and its canals, Mars and its inhabitants.An enthusiastic team assisted Lowell in his research. The most brilliant of its members was Andrew Ellicott Douglass (1867-1962), who in 1894 adjusted Pickering's 1892 discovery: the lines that crossed the "seas", still irregular in Pickering's view, were now straight, absolutely identical to the continental canals. That meant the system was unique – which spelt the doom of Martian seas, and brought about the triumph of the canals that embraced the whole planetary surface for good.Pickering himself worked in the beginning, for a short interval, at Flagstaff; but he did not possess either Lowell or Douglass's visual acuity, allegedly being incapable of seeing a rectilinear network of canals, but only winding stripes. A new team was formed after Douglass's departure in 1901; among its new members: Vesto Melvin Slipher (1875-1969), who became a famous astronomer, his brother Earl C. Slipher, and Carl Otto Lampland (1873-1951). Lampland developed the technique of Martian photography, and in 1905 a great event took place: the first photographs of Mars and its canals were taken at the Flagstaff observatory. During the 1907 opposition, Lampland obtained no less than 3,000 photographic images – and that was not all. At the same time, Lowell organized an astronomic expedition to Chile, under the supervision of David Todd (1855-1939) who, together with Earl C. Slipher, brought back 13,000 photographs.As a matter of fact, 1907 was the climax of what may be rightfully called "the Martian rage". The public, excited by all the revelations, followed the evolution of the researches with passion. The scientists were divided in two camps, favorable or opposed to the system of canals and, implicitly, to the Martian "humanity". Lowell had succeeded: Mars was the in the spotlight and could successfully compete with any "terrestrial" event.Of all those observations and researches, a theory came out, a simple and logical one, a seducing theory. It was formulated and developed by Lowell in his three books – Mars (1895), Mars and its Canals (1906) and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908). According to this theory, Mars is another Earth, but an already aged Earth, much more advanced than ours in its vital cycle, representing, in a way, an intermediate situation between our planet and the Moon.Lowell began his demonstration (which we shall follow throughout his book on Mars and its canals) by studying minutely the polar caps of the planet. He remarked their extreme variations: between their maximum and their minimum the ratio was 1000 to 1. In winter, they descend to latitude 50-60°, but in summer they only cover 5-6 degrees of latitude down from the poles. Lowell thought the average temperature of Mars to be significantly lower than Earth's, but in any case higher than 0°. In addition, as the seasons' duration is double, the Martian year lasting two terrestrial years, the heat could accumulate during the summer.Another important issue was the Martian "seas". The same thing had happened to the seas of Mars and the seas of the Moon, Lowell claimed: they lost their marine features. Even if, at their origins, these spaces had been real seas, nowadays they were areas covered with vegetation, which explained their blue-green color, as well as the variations of that color. The ochre-red-colored areas, which took up the remaining three fifths of the planetary surface, were deserts in continual progression. Consequently, the conditions of life were rough, but Mars remained inhabitable anyhow.After this description of the great geographic patterns and general life conditions on the planet, Lowell tackled the key issue of the canals. Schiaparelli had discovered 79 canals. At Flagstaff, only in 1894, no less than 183 were observed, of which 116 were new and uncharted by Schiaparelli. By 1906, when Lowell's cited work was published, their number had increased to 400, of which 51 had doubled on various occasions, a curious phenomenon already noticed by Schiaparelli; besides, 186 "oases" were put on the list. Subsequent observations made the number yet higher. In the end, more than 700 canals were recorded.The canals were extremely geometric lines – straight, equally wide, and of considerable length: often 3000, or even 5000 kilometers. Their length was easy to estimate, but the width posed a problem. Taking into account the distance that separates Mars from the Earth, too thin lines may have been invisible. Lowell considered their minimum width to be 2-3 kilometers, but the maximum might have reached 25-30 kilometers. Rivers – Proctor's conjecture – were out of the question, due to their strictly geometric character, but so were canals, in the strict sense of the word. Then what?At Flagstaff, it was noticed that the canals used to pop up and vanish, or get bigger and smaller. The oases, with a diameter of 25 to 160 kilometers, behaved in a similar fashion. And the cause of their invisibility was always the same: cold weather.There lay the key to the enigma. There is no permanent mass of water on Mars. The polar caps are the only repositories. The vegetation comes back to life with the ingress of water through the system of canals. It is not the canals that we can see, but strips of vegetation nourished by the water from the polar caps. The doubling phenomenon could indicate the parallel presence of twin canals through which water comes and goes. All this confirms the artificial origin of the canals and oases, a system whose ultimate purpose is to collect the water resulted from the thawing polar snow and disperse it all over the planet. It is understandable then why the canals become visible during the Martian summer and disappear in winter. The orientation of the canals towards the equator also demonstrates that water is being distributed artificially; we can even calculate its flowing rate – 80 kilometers a day.Consequently, we are looking at a gigantic undertaking of planetary proportions, destined to save and preserve life which, given the deterioration of physical conditions, could not subsist otherwise. The largest terrestrial enterprises seem dwarfish by comparison – small local businesses, Lowell says. One can only figure out the necessarily intelligent and peaceful nature of the race of creatures that share their globe in such a fair manner…In an olden world, where life conditions become harder, the population must be more and more intelligent in order to survive… The actual state of the planet conduces to the acknowledgment of highly intelligent life on Mars. A physical and moral evolution that may anticipate the future of our own planet.Lowell's demonstration is logical and captivating. He created a world. With his theory of intelligent Martians – much more intelligent than us, and morally more evolved, judging by their planetary cohesion –, he struck people's imagination. The "Martian rage" was justified. The canals were not just a simple geometric network, but the conclusive proof of Martian humanity. THE BATTLE OF THE CANALS As regards the canals, the scientific battle caused a stir. The masses were conquered, fascinated, but it would take more to convince the scientists. Not even the pioneers of this discovery remained faithful to the end. Schiaparelli's attitude is emblematic. He was won over by Lowell's interpretation and developed some odd speculations on Martian humanity in a brochure published in 1895 (La Vita sul pianeta Marte). Later, however, he changed his view; in a 1907 letter to Cerulli, he declared himself a partisan of his compatriot's "optical" theory. Lowell regretted particularly the defection of his precious collaborator, A. E. Douglass who, in his turn, spoke of the canal illusion in 1907.Indeed, few astronomers questioned Schiaparelli's discovery at first, although those who had really perceived the canals were sparse, and for a good reason. In 1882, the English astronomers William Henry Christie (1845-1922) and Edward Walter Maunder (1851-1928) disputed the mysterious doubling phenomenon, while confirming the presence of some canals. R. A. Proctor was more categorical: he did not agree to this geometric system.Moreover, after 1894, confronted with the offensive of the Flagstaff team, the opposition began to line up. Among the opponents – renowned astronomers, chiefly Lowell's compatriots Edward S. Holden (1846-1914), William W. Campbell (1862-1938), Edward Emerson Barnard (1857-1923) and Simon Newcomb (1835-1909). Yet how could one deny the existence of the canals, indeed observed by Schiaparelli and other astronomers whose professional competence and probity were unquestionable? To Lowell's theory, the "optical" theory would be opposed.Already in 1894, E. W. Maunder considered that the canals were nothing but the sum of a complexity of details. Several years later, the Italian astronomer Vincenzo Cerulli (1859-1927) affirmed the same idea in Marte nel 1896-1897; in his opinion, with a weak instrument one could see canals even on the Moon. The canals were ideal lines joining scattered spots. An experiment made by Maunder in 1903 illustrated the mechanism of the illusion. Young people who, without prior warning, were asked to copy, from a certain distance, drawings without "canals" but strewn with various spots, came to sketch straight lines. In 1907, Newcomb reiterated the experiment with an identical result: the dots and the spots were changing into stripes. The optical theory was confirmed. Of course, Lowell produced not only drawings, but also, after 1905, photographs that should have constituted indisputable evidence. In spite of that, those thousands of photographs were indeed subject to interpretation. Not one canal jutted out, clear-cut. Those who believed in canals could see them, in photos as well as in telescopic images; those who did not, saw nothing but dots and irregular spots. The issue was going beyond pure observation, into the more delicate area of beliefs.1907 marks the apogee of the Martian wave and the climax of the battle between the partisans and the adversaries of the canals. After that, the initiative was taken decisively by the latter. The 1909 opposition strengthened their stand. The French astronomer E. M. Antoniadi (1870-1944), a repentant former partisan of the canals himself, scrutinized Mars with the large lunette of the Meudon observatory, one of the most powerful at the time. Direct observation only confirmed the theories of Maunder and Cerulli. Antoniadi published a lengthy report in the Bulletin of the Astronomical Society of France in which he wrote that the only details that could be perceived on Mars were "groupings of irregular blurs, lacking any organization, somewhat thinly scattered over the so-called continental regions of the planet." "It is evident," he continued, "that sparse groups of irregular spots, or inchoate blurs a thousand kilometers large, are not artificial canals… The geometry of Mars looks like an utter illusion."A witticism of the astronomer E. B. Frost (1866-1935), of the same year, cleverly defined the crux of the canal affair. To those who asked him whether he had seen or not the canals on Mars, the director of the Yerkes (Wisconsin) observatory answered, "Telescope Yerkes too powerful for canals!"The illusion could certainly be explained, to a degree, by the means of observation, or their relative flaws. A weak telescope would not have allowed any sighting, whereas to a very powerful telescope, the straight lines of the canals appeared as a profusion of dots and spots. In fact, it was the "medium"-power instruments of the epoch that had allowed watchers to see the canals.Notwithstanding, this purely technical explanation is not enough. The Martian canals are an optical illusion, but one determined by a mental outlook, a bias for the existence of canals, for the existence of a Martian humanity.The decline of the canals marked the defeat of the partisans of Martian humanity, but the canal issue and the life on Mars issue must not be mixed up. Life, even an evolved humanity, could still exist, independent from the canal system. Yet another interpretation was even more terrible: in 1897, the English scientist J. Johnstone Stoney had vented a different opinion on the chemical and biological composition of Mars, chiefly of its atmosphere. The polar caps – the cornerstone of Lowell's demonstration – were not made up of real snow, he contended, but carbonic snow, the solidified form of carbonic acid. This entailed a major change of terms. In J. Johnstone Stoney's interpretation, there is no water either on Mars or in its atmosphere; without water, vegetation such as ours cannot exist; without vegetation, there is no free oxygen, and the Martian atmosphere must be made up of nitrogen, argon and carbonic acid. It was not a second Earth any more, but a very different world, unsuitable for life – at least for a terrestrial type of life.Alfred Russel Wallace, an adversary of world plurality in general, attacked too the idea of Martian humanity and life on Mars, in his book Is Mars Habitable? (1907). In his opinion, Mars is too small to retain an atmosphere and a large expanse of water, its climate is too cold, and, aside from that, what was taken for snow is in fact solidified carbonic acid.But the staunch partisans of world plurality held out in the raging storm. Abandoning Mars was all but unthinkable, it was their most precious gem, and the most reliable of the whole system. With or without canals, Martian life had to go on!It went on for Flammarion who, in 1892 and 1909, published his great synthesis, Planet Mars and its Conditions of Habitability. Flammarion had accepted the canal theory; as for the ancient "seas" and plains, he thought them to be rather marshlands covered with vegetation. "Mars would be something like an immense beach, invaded and abandoned alternatively, a bit like the shore of Mount Saint-Michel, but incomparably thinner, and with much lighter water; it would consist mainly of marshland covered with plants…"The canal theory – the concept of an aged Mars inhabited by an full-blown civilization – was the most celebrated and disputed, but not the only one. Solutions were being sought in all possible directions. Mars was becoming a vast experimental territory where all hypotheses were permitted, where flights of fancy broke loose. Here are two extreme interpretations that confirm the amplitude of the Martian "scope".In 1901, the German Ludwig Kann claimed that Mars, far from being an ancient and almost waterless world, was, on the contrary, "a younger world than the Earth, with an ocean covering all of its surface." At the surface of the "smooth as a mirror" ocean, algae multiply that make up a sort of carpeting (the Martian continents); the maritime streams "are drawing canals into the vegetal carpeting." Those were conditions that characterized the Earth in the Carboniferous period.Abbot Théophile Moreux, for his part, saw in Mars (Are the other Worlds Inhabited?) a much older world, even closer to the end of its vital cycle than the Mars imagined by Lowell. In reality, his interpretation of the Martian world did not contravene the general theory of the American astronomer: the same evolution towards a cold climate and the expansion of deserts, towards death, towards the "lunar" state of being; Moreux's Mars was only much more advanced, in this respect, than Lowell's. Abbot Moreux also believed that life existed on Mars, but the very rarefied atmosphere and the lack of liquid water no longer allowed large-scale vital development. As a result, life unfolded mainly, or solely, in its vegetal forms; the existence of animals was uncertain, and that of humanity totally ruled out. Mars is exhibiting for us the intermediate stage between the Earth and the Moon, and offering the image of the terminal signs of life on its way to extinction. However, like in the case of the Moon, an underground humanity, having taken refuge in caverns, might be conjectured. This hypothesis was exploited by Moreux in a novel, The Dark Mirror (1911).Life on Mars was only one step away from total annihilation. The step was made by Svante Arrhenius, who considered Mars "an absolute desert at 30°C below zero." TO EACH HIS OWN MARS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF MARTIAN LITERATURE The writers found in Mars an ideal world, malleable ad infinitum, which put no obstacles to their freedom of imagination. For the budding science fiction, Mars was the big chance: it was the chosen place, where everything could happen.The prevailing model – determined by the "scientific" verdict of a planet Mars similar, but older and more evolved than the Earth – remains that of human-like or quasi-human Martian civilizations more advanced than ours. However, variety is the rule. Eccentric forms of life or monsters are not infrequent in an exceptionally rich literature.The series was open by Henri de Parville with his 1865 novel An Inhabitant of Planet Mars. An "aerolith" enclosing a Martian mummy falls on Earth. The scientific explanation closely followed Flammarion and the theory of world plurality: "Mars enjoys almost the same biologic conditions as the Earth; one can see mountains, ice, oceans, continents; therefore, there is nothing as legitimate as surmising the existence of people very similar to ourselves."Parville's conclusions are indirect. But the English writer Percy Greg (1836-1898), in his novel Across the Zodiac (1880), invites the reader to a long voyage on the red planet. A dazzling confirmation of scientific hypotheses: rarefied atmosphere – yet, all in all, breathable; yellow-colored vegetation; terrestrial-like animals; ancient, full-fledged civilization.The discovery of canals generated an accumulation of Mars-inspired novels and short stories. Guy de Maupassant yielded to the fad with his short story The Man of Mars (1889), a rather scientific and didactic exposition of the Martian topic. The writer saw in Mars "a planet covered with plants, trees and animals whose shapes we cannot even begin to imagine, and inhabited by large winged creatures."The great specialist in Mars, however, remained Flammarion, in literature as well as in science. He published two thick Martian novels – Urania, in 1889, and Stella, in 1897 –, reaching very personal conclusions. "Mars is older and more advanced than the Earth in its vital cycle; furthermore, we can say it is better qualified than our planet as far as habitability conditions on the whole are concerned… There, being less heavy, the bodies are less coarse too, more delicate, more sensitive, more ethereal, more unadulterated… The female sex is more beautiful and stronger (as force consists of the superiority of sensations) than the male sex, and it rules the world." A truly upside-down world in the eyes of the reader of 1900.A more terrestrial image is given in The Extraordinary Adventures of a Russian Scientist, a novel by G. Le Faure and H. de Graffigny. The travelers do not have the feeling they are on a different planet, since "traveling from Earth to Mars is simply a matter of changing latitudes." Everything is like in this world, except one thing: the absence of roads. A reasonable absence, if one takes a closer look at the Martians: they are flying creatures.The astronomers having already decreed Mars an aged world, some authors forced it to grow old. Here is an olden Mars, with worn relief, rarefied air and a semi-desert climate, with stunted forms of life, in Robert Cromie's novel A Plunge into Space (1890).The most famous Martian novels were published in 1897. The German writer Kurd Lasswitz (1848-1910) imagined, in his novel Auf zwei Planeten, a terrestrial-type Mars, only way more advanced. It is also, primarily, the year when H. G. Wells approached this planet in a story called The Crystal Egg and in his novel The War of the Worlds (issued in installments in 1897, and in a volume in 1898). The latter was unquestionably the best-known, and the most powerful of all the works of the genre. It imposed a certain image, a terrifying one, of the red planet, quite different from the traditional reassuring image.As always, Wells had started from a series of scientific hypotheses, which he exploited rigorously. The hypothesis that Mars is older than the Earth. The hypothesis that it is about to become improper for life, because of air rarefaction, water diminution, and refrigeration. The hypothesis that The Martians, more ancient than us, having undergone a longer evolution, are definitely superior as far as intelligence and technology are concerned. In that case, would they lie inactive in wait of their demise? Having at their disposal the necessary means of reaching and conquering the Earth, a water-rich planet, their only hope of survival, they would make an attempt. Unfortunately for them, their world was only akin to ours, not identical. It is not the humans (absolutely defenseless in front of these invaders), but the terrestrial microbes – absent on Mars – that will kill the Martians.With Wells, the peaceful, rational Mars is done with. It is time for war, violence and vengeance. In Edison's Conquest of Mars (1898), by Garrett Serviss – a kind of replica to Wells's novel –, it is the humans that chase the Martians to their planet. A good opportunity to relish the gigantic forms of life, the red soil and vegetation (which explains the color of the planet), the impressive canal network, and above all witness a merciless war between two hostile worlds.The Martian series continues, ever broadening its diversity. Classical Mars, with a flat ground, canals, advanced civilization. Luxuriant, tropical Mars. Chilly, polar Mars. Socialist (why not?) Mars. Warring Mars… The West no longer holds the monopoly. To each literature, its Martians. They even make it to Japan, chiefly in their warring version, where The History of the Future War between Martians and Men is published in 1908. There are enough Martians for all, everyone can get the Mars they desire or deserve.Still, if an attempt is made to put some order in this deceptive diversity, we shall come to the conclusion that, before 1900, Mars mainly inspired novels with a scientific or philosophical component. By and by, the accent shifts in favor of adventure. Mars is paying for its great, widespread success. Martian themes invade popular novels, while scientific scruples are dispatched: imagination breaks all barriers and astronomical arguments remain no more than pretexts. It is an exotic Mars emerging, a favored ground for monsters and outstanding heroes, for astounding adventures. Mars and the Martians enter the collective psyche forever. The myth is born.Here are a few examples. In 1906, the French writer Arnould Galopin (1863-1934) publishes Doctor Omega. The Fantastic Adventures of Three Frenchmen on Planet Mars. A nice collection of freaks: aquatic "men", gnomes, batmen, and shark-headed birds.In 1908, H. Gayar publishes The Marvelous Adventures of Serge Myrandhal, in two volumes: On Planet Mars and The Robinsons of Planet Mars. The author accomplishes a tour de force: he combines the two extreme versions – a disintegrating world and a bountiful Martian nature. Mars is divided into two zones, each with its specific biologic structures.The best French creation of the genre belongs to Gustave Le Rouge (1867-1938), with his two-volume novel: The Prisoner on Planet Mars (1908) and The War of the Vampires (1909), reedited as Shipwrecked in Space and The Horror Star. Le Rouge introduces us to a real biologic feast. Never before had one resorted to such inventiveness in creating new, outlandish beings. At first sight, no essential distinction between Mars and the Earth: seas and continents, red and yellow forests, birds, etc. One has to see the two moons to realize he is on Mars. But this other Earth, so much alike ours, has the peculiarity of spawning monsters in large quantities and varieties, among which the Erloor, winged creatures, semi-human vampires, invisible vampires, people living undersea, flying plants and, on top of them all, "the great Martian Brain", the actual master of the planet.Le Rouge broke a French record; but the world record was undoubtedly attained by the American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950). Tarzan's creator made his literary debut with a novel the plot of which is set on the red planet: Under the Moons of Mars, published in installments in 1912, later in volume as A Princess of Mars. This was followed, between 1913 and 1964, by ten other novels, forming together the Martian cycle. Owing to its wide circulation, this cycle would institute a very distinct Martian formula, deviating from the initial scientific hypothesis – and not only in respect to Mars. Although he had some French forerunners, such as Le Rouge, Burroughs is thought to be the actual inventor of space opera, pure interplanetary adventures, with no connection to the scientific starting point. Thus Mars was at the origin of a new literary formula.Burroughs' biologic fantasy has no limits. Men are divided into several races, more numerous and varied than on Earth. There are also half-human creatures, curious hybrids, such as the green Martians (a man-animal crossbreed) and the plant-men, not to mention a rich collection of animals. With Burroughs, the Martian myth reaches its apogee, while losing its scientific basis and credibility.In fact, this "deterioration" was occurring in a period when Lowell's theories were being affected by growing skepticism. Literature and the public fantasy took over, in their own fashion, on a ground where scientists ventured less and less. Confronted with the failure of science incapable of proposing a unanimously accepted Mars, authors felt free from any scientific scruples.Let us at last make some order in the really confusing variety of this Martian world. One thing is certain: there was more than just one Mars. To each scientific certitude, to each ideology, to each utopia there corresponded a particular Mars. For a few decades, this planet became the favorite haunt of dreams, phantasms, and ideals. A main model existed, though, but it had many versions and exceptions. It was generally admitted that Mars was an ancient world, older than the Earth, closer to the end of its vital cycle. But when was this due? Some astronomers, not to mention writers, still believed in the existence of seas and rivers; others reduced available water to the polar caps and canal system; still others saw in Mars an almost completely dried, frozen world. Prejudice and imagination played up a kind of life very similar to the one we know. In most literary works, Mars appears not as a Sahara or Antarctica, but as a world very much like ours. There was always a vacillation between an identical Mars, and a similar, though different, or even very different, Mars. But the idea of a fundamental resemblance between the two planets and their life forms, their civilizations included, proved stronger and prevailed in the mentality of the period. From L'Exploration imaginaire de l'espace, La Découverte, Paris, 1987
[1] The distance between the Earth and Mars is very variable, hence the "erratic" character of Martian research. During the most favorable oppositions – with the two planets on the same side of the Sun –, this distance can shrink to about 56 million kilometers. The apparent diameter of the planet varies considerably, from 1 to 7, and its brightness from 1 to 60. This explains the decisive importance of some oppositions for the observation of Mars.

by Lucian Boia (b. 1944)