Mars season on BBC Radio 4

Mars, always in our sights but always just out of reach. Always? Probably. For now, anyway. Of course, named after the Roman God of war, Mars is one of the most visible bodies in the night sky and was first recorded by the ancient Egyptians. It was known to Aristotle and Ptolemy in Greece, and recorded by ancient Indian and Chinese astronomers. Everything changed in 1877 when Giovanni Schiaparelli created a map of Mars that appeared to show regions connected by lines[1]. According to Synder and many others, Schiaparelli “assumed that these lines were natural landscape features”.  Schiaparelli called them “canali”; the Italian for “groove.”  However, the Anglicisation of the word meant that the idea of canals and therefore Martians was born. Despite going to the moon in 1969 and early 1970s, human achievement has never quite reached the red planet. However, the likes of Elon Musk have made promises of getting there within our lifetime.

In March, BBC Radio 4 has a week-long series of programmes that explores our fascination with Mars. What can you expect to see? The series takes place from March 4 to March 11 and features drama and documentaries. The highlight is perhaps the 2-part Mars: War of the Worlds. Dramatised by Melissa Murray and featuring a full cast, this play both examines and reflects the Victorian times in which Wells wrote the original novel. The question is asked, what if we (Britain) were colonised? There is an examination of the fear of a technologically advanced invader. There is also a depiction, of course, of Well’s view of suburban England and that feeling that the apocalypse might just arrive on the last day of 1999. The show is on Saturday 4 March and Saturday 11 March, 2.30pm-3.30pm.

From Monday 6 March to Friday 10 March, from 1.45pm to 2pm, Francis Spufford walks in the footsteps of Wells’ Martians, in Following the Martian Invasion as they left Woking and headed to Primrose Hill in London.

Of course, Well’s novel is one of the most famous books featuring the red planet, but Mars has long been an inspiration and source of much fiction. While some early authors mentioned Mars in passing (such as Emanuel Swedenborg, 1688-1772), the first serious mention was by Voltaire in Micromegas (1752). Voltaire noted that Mars had 2 moons, although astronomers had not discovered them yet (Phobos and Deimos were not discovered until 1877). The little-known oddity Orrin Lindsay’s Plan Of Aerial Navigation Edited by J. L. Riddell, M.D. (1847) concludes with the idea that Mars should be a destination for exploration. It is a story that really puts science front and centre. Science was moving quickly around this period, but fiction was obsessed with the idea of Martians.

The first proper visit to the Martian surface was in 1971 (the Soviet Mars 2 lander). Percy Greg’s Across the Zodiac was the first human visitor in fiction. Published in 1880, the book’s narrator meets Martians but is unable to convince them that he’s from Earth.

From here on in there was a veritable explosion of interest in Mars as stories and novels became ever more popular. Peaceful, inferior Martians feature in Mr. Stranger’s Sealed Packet (1889) by Hugh MacColl, a somewhat reversal of Wells’ 1898 classic. There was an opportunity for the Russians to exploit Mars for their own propaganda: Red Star by Alexander Bogdanov (1908) features Martians with a socialist ideology. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912) was the next of the novels that really captured the public’s imagination – although hero John Carter didn’t travel there by any scientific method. By now, proper observation had just about put to rest the idea of canals and aliens (Alfred Russel Wallace, for example, argued that Mars must be uninhabitable), but authors’ obsession with life on Mars continued. Rice Burroughs populated Mars with an abundance of life, and several sentient beings (the Red Martians, Green Martians and other coloured species).

On Monday 6 March, from 9pm-10pm, Monica Grady, a planetary scientist, examines the history of our search for life on the red planet. She studied the famous meteorite from Mars – I saw it myself at the National History Museum at the time it hit the headlines – in 1996. She talks to other Martian hunters too, including NASA’s Penny Boston, a caver who naturally thinks that caves would be the best place to look for life on Mars.

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis was published in 1938. Owing a debt to A Martian Odyssey (1934) by Stanley G. Weinbaum and the aforementioned A Princess of Mars, Christian apologist Lewis’ protagonists find themselves on Malacandra, what we know as Mars. Rather than a story with a plot, this book is an elegantly written examination of potential alien life: sorns are very tall and very slender humanoids (they are scientists); hrossa resemble stretched otters, with their love of water and boating (artists); and pfifltriggi (the builders) look like insectile frogs. It is a book of character and allegory: the good follow a spiritual, inclusive path, while the immoral pursue science at any cost.

Even comic books were in on the act by the 1950s. J’onn J’onzz is better known as Martian Man Hunter. The character was created by Joseph Samachson and Joe Certa in 1955. From the DC stable, he became one of the first members of the Justice League. J’onn J’onzz is an example of the green skinned Martians popular at the time.

One of the best humans-on-Mars novel is Philip K Dick’s Martian Time Slip (1964). Emigration to Mars is common, but it has a profound psychological effect on those who make the journey. Dick took science seriously, especially its consequences on humans.

This obsession with putting humans on Mars in fiction and within our imaginations features on Tuesday 7 March – Thursday 9 March from 9am-9.45am with We are the Martians. This three-part series is all-embracing in its theme: the history of our relationship with it including our mythologies; the science of getting there, and exploring our future relationship with it.

There could be volumes written about the works of fiction featuring Mars and Martians. Other classics include Red Planet by Robert Heinlein (1949), The Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke (1951), The Martian Way by Isaac Asimov (1952) (all the classic authors were at it!), The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (1959); Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein (1962), Desolation Road by Ian McDonald (1990), Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (1993); The Martian by Andy Weir (2011) and many, many more! The obsession continues…Stephen Baxter has just published the official follow up to War of the Worlds with The Massacre of Mankind.

One of my personal favourites of the more recent novels is Gregory Benford’s The Martian Race (1999). In this story, a $30 billion prize is offered for the first private expedition to reach Mars. Life is discovered! Of course, the BBC series looks at the future of Martian exploration. Moving to the Red Planet (Tuesday 7 March, 9pm-10pm) sees Claudia Hammond investigating the mind-set of those who wish to visit Mars.

And we haven’t even mentioned Mars on film! At least you can spend some time with Radio 4 on Thursday 9 March at 4.30pm-5pm, when Francine Stock, Adam Rutherford and others discuss Mars at the movies, including the history of the idea of Martians as little green men, as exemplified by Martian Man Hunter. This show is recorded in front of a live guest audience.

The BBC have worked with several notable academics and writers on this series, including Sarah Dillon, Ken Hollings, Oliver Morton, Michael Moorcock, Dr Kevin Fong, Psychologist Claudia Hammond, Lewis Dartnell, astrobiologist at University of Westminster, Louisa Preston, astrobiologist at Birbeck University of London.

Head over to the special page set up on the BBC website dedicated the event


Image credit: War of the Worlds original cover: By Illustrated by Frank R. Paul [1] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

GS Blogger: Ian J Simpson

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