Martian Canals and Science Fiction

By Carole Stott

Of all the planets, Mars is the one that has intrigued the non-scientist as much as the scientist. For over two hundred years there has been speculation that life exists on Mars. If extraterrestrial life does exist, or has ever existed, in the solar system, Mars is the likely home. Astronomers of the past fed this understanding with accounts of observations they made, and the belief in Martians was then fuelled by science fiction books and magazines.

The Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli studied the planet closely in the late nineteenth century. He saw changes in the colour and markings on Mars's disc, and in 1877 described linear features as 'canali' (Italian for channels). His choice of word was unfortunate as it was interpreted by some to mean canals, made presumably by some form of intelligent life on Mars. Although other astronomers could not see them, it was argued that the canali were too small to be seen but visible dark markings were areas of vegetation irrigated by the canals.

The idea of Martian canals was popularised by the American astronomer Percival Lowell. In the 1890s he mapped a network of canals across the Martian surface. He believed they carried water from the poles where it was plentiful to drier regions around the equator.

His book Mars and its Canals and his other writings and lectures spread his ideas. The canals have subsequently been shown to be a result of the play of light on the Martian surface and a desire to believe in Martians.

Almost immediately, Martians appeared in fiction books. The English author H G Wells wrote vivid descriptions of the invasion of Earth by a Martian fighting force in his 1898 book The War of the Worlds. In the early twentieth century Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote a series of eleven novels about Mars starting with The Princess of Mars. Such works inspired later science fiction writers such as Ray Bradbury who wrote The Martian Chronicles in 1950.

A broadcast of The War of the Worlds on American radio in 1938 was so realistic that people tuning into the play midway believed they were listening to a news report and their country really was being invaded by Martians. In more recent times Martians have been portrayed on the cinema screen: bubble-headed Martians starred in the 1996 film Mars Attacks! Even though space probes have visited the planet and no life has been found, Martians have entered the public consciousness and continue to exist in popular culture.