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Why are humans so obsessed with Mars?

For decades, writers and film-makers were fascinated by Martians—until Mars missions sowed another idea in our collective imagination

A lobby card from the 1951 movie ‘Flight To Mars’.
A lobby card from the 1951 movie ‘Flight To Mars’. (Getty Images)

Humans don’t live on Mars/ Nor do cats/ Or walruses/ There is no Perestroika on Mars/ Therefore no illusion/ No pollution/ Problems but no solutions/ No evolution, no revolution/ Go, go, go to Mars/ Go, go, go to Mars

Mangal Graha,

lyrics by Chandrabindoo

There’s something about Mars. Saturn has rings. Jupiter has 79 moons, maybe more. But Mars was always about Martians. It’s the only planet whose “inhabitants” captured our collective imagination for over a century. Martians were a thing in a way Venusians and Jovians never were.

While every Mars mission, from US space agency Nasa’s Viking to India’s Mangalyaan, might have expanded the frontiers of science, they have also sadly made us realise that there are no Martians, whether itching to start a War of the Worlds or provide refuge from our nuclear winter. Mars has become the back-up planet now, the one we will escape to when we have rendered Earth uninhabitable. The Mars One project promised to establish a colony, a scheme that was funded by a reality TV show but that has gone belly-up. Business magnate Elon Musk dreams of sending a million people to Mars by 2050. No less than 10,932,295 people sent their names to Nasa to “join” the 2020 Perseverance mission, their names carried to the red planet on microchips. Over 5,500,000 have added their names for a future mission and gotten a “boarding pass”. More than 270,000 names are from India, the most after the Philippines and the US. In a year when most of us have not gone anywhere at all, just holding a boarding pass, even one that takes us nowhere, feels exhilarating. But the Martians are missing.

It all probably started because of the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli. In 1877, he saw channel-like structures on the surface of Mars. His Italian canali, or channels, got translated as canals. In 1906, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story about Percival Lowell, an amateur astronomer who said he had discovered nearly 500 canals irrigating oases all over the planet. This was the time, writes Nathaniel Rich in Believer magazine, when canals, like the Suez and Panama, “had come to represent the pinnacle of human achievement”. Newspapers claimed Martians had built two immense canals in two years while earthlings had taken half a century to dig the Suez and Panama. An astronomy professor was sure that once we got advanced telescopes, we would be able to see Martian cities.

That canal fantasy so captivated us that Bengali writer Hemendra Kumar Roy fantasised in his novel, Meghduter Mortey Agomon, that Mars had green fields and jungles around 3,000- to 4,000-mile long canals while the rest of the planet was buffeted by red sandstorms. All that was debunked but, by then, the Martians had landed in our imagination.

In 1897, H.G. Wells had them levelling cities on Earth with lasers as they launched The War Of The Worlds. Decades later, when Satyajit Ray sent his Professor Shonku, the protagonist of his immensely popular Bengali sci-fi stories, to Mars along with his manservant Prahlad, his robot Bidhushekhar and his cat Newton, they too were attacked by an army of Martians. In Hemendra Kumar Roy’s world, the Martians were dwarfish, with huge triangular heads the same size as their thin bodies, highly evolved yet terrified of guns. They came to Earth to vacuum up samples—an entire pond, a banyan tree with a flock of monkeys, a steamer.

But not all Martians were hostile. Edgar Rice Burroughs discovered a princess on Mars, one that entranced his Confederate war hero turned Mars explorer John Carter. C.S. Lewis imagined a planet of great beauty with benign species bemused by the way humans were turning Earth into a wasteland. Lewis described three kinds of Martians—tall, thin, otter-like hrossa covered in thick black hair with a penchant for poetry, the 15ft-high feathered sorn who specialised in science, and the pfifltriggi, with tapir-like heads and frog-like bodies, who mined gold. None of the species thought they were superior to the others.

When they were not trying to destroy us, the Martians were trying to save us. Sometimes, though, we got to save them. Bengali science fiction writer Premendra Mitra’s Ghana Da was the master of tall tales. When he was kidnapped by a devious scientist and taken to Mars, he found a planet of swirling dust where all civilisation had moved underground. But—spoiler alert!—Ghana Da and his two companions, both men, found themselves hot commodities on a planet where the males had died out. Each female Martian was more exquisite than the next. But how come Martians looked exactly like humans? wondered a sceptical listener. “They aren’t humans. But who’s to say we aren’t Martians,” retorted Ghana Da. “That hundreds of thousands of years ago Martians didn’t come to earth to establish our ‘human’ civilization? Remember we have not found the missing link yet.”

For us, Martians were a kind of “missing link”, whether to a glorious past or a bleak future. In the 1950s-60s, Mars was a perfect backdrop to play out debates over colonisation that were raging on Earth. In Robert A. Heinlein’s Red Planet, Martians have second thoughts about whether they want to share their planet with colonising humans. The Sands Of Mars, Arthur C. Clarke’s first published novel, was set in a colony on Mars whose original inhabitants are plant-eating, kangaroo-like creatures of limited intelligence. In Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, the Martians hunt down the newly arrived earthlings but the humans have a secret weapon against which they are defenceless—chicken-pox germs.

Missions like Nasa’s Mariner 4 in 1965 and Viking, which landed on Mars in 1976, enthralled us but also sounded the death knell for the Martians. Mars slowly started shifting in our minds from the planet that belonged to Martians, to an empty terrain we could turn into Earth-II. Its landmarks were bestowed names like Olympus, Utopia, Elysium, names that sound almost like gated communities in Gurugram. Mars had once been a socialist utopia in the imagination of writers like Aleksandr Bogdanov, where men and women were nearly indistinguishable in their loose body suits and workers had an unlimited supply of goods. When Mariner 4 showed us the canals were an optical illusion, Mars became more of a dystopia, a place to be tamed.

When botanist astronaut Mark Watney (in Andy Weir’s The Martian) gets stranded on Mars, he tries to reclaim water and grow potato plants using his own bio-waste. In Mark Haddon’s The Woodpecker And The Wolf, an astronaut on a Mars station discovers she is pregnant and there are no supplies coming from Earth. Once we were worried about what the Martians wanted from us. The more we learnt about Mars, the more it turned into an extreme episode of Survivor.

Bradbury writes that when the men of Earth came to Mars, they were the Lonely Ones, who “were leaving bad wives or bad towns; they were coming to find something or leave something or get something, to dig up something or bury something”. Mars became part of the manifest destiny of us as human beings, a wild frontier we would tame into submission without post-colonial guilt.

As a boy, I remember lying on our rooftop in Kolkata on sultry power-cut summer nights looking up at the stars, imagining someone out there looking back at us. I only had access to a pocket-sized sky hemmed in by the water cisterns and television antennas of taller buildings all around us. But the imagination was unfettered, racing through the sky at the speed of light. At the time, I could never have thought that an Elon Musk would talk about setting up human colonies on Mars in my lifetime. But thanks to Isaac Asimov and Ghana Da stories, I fantasised about what Martians might be like.

Mars is back on our minds, thanks to Perseverance, but the Martians have vanished. And even as I marvel at the “selfies” from Percy, I can’t help but miss the Martians in whom we once saw the best and worst of ourselves.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.


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