Mars, the red planet, named for the Roman god of war, has often captivated and inspired literature, as wide and varying as space western, scientific survival story, classic science fiction, philosophical novel, and popular dystopia. Here are what I consider essential Martian tales.
The Martian by Andy Weir
Once upon a time, in the not-so-distant future of 2035, Mark Watney and his crew were on Mars and forced to abort their mission due to a massive dust storm on the planet. While walking to the shuttle, Watney was impaled by an antenna torn loose in the dust storm and believed dead by his crew. When he woke up the next morning, with a not-so-fatal wound in his hip, he found himself abandoned in one of the most inhospitable places in the solar system with only his skills as a botanist and engineer (the best and only on the planet, naturally) to keep him alive years beyond the remaining supplies. While this book is science heavy, it comes from Mark’s point of view, and Mark is a hilarious narrator, from waxing poetic on how NASA cannot improve upon duct tape, how in space no one can hear you scream like a little girl, and how traveling on Mars means, legally, you are a “space pirate”. This book will compel you to keep reading, as Mark’s survival is constantly, and sometimes hilariously in question. The book was recently adapted into a great film starring Matt Damon!
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
You may love it or you may hate it, and many of my friends have gotten into heated arguments over this book, but reading Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is essential reading for fans of science fiction. Even if the author disliked the label of “the most famous Science Fiction Novel ever written,” this book has earned a Hugo Award for best novel and was included in the Library of Congress list of “Books that Shaped America”. At this novel’s center is Valentine Michael Smith, who was born during a manned expedition to Mars and raised by Martians after the ship lost contact and the crew perished. Discovered twenty-five years later, he returns to an Earth where religious organizations are very politically powerful. Considered the heir of Mars, Smith demonstrates psychic abilities and superhuman intelligence through his Martian upbringing, and forms his own religion, the Church of All Worlds, which makes him a substantial political threat. The novel follows his introduction to Earth culture, his rise in Earth society, and his persecution as an outsider and a threat to the status quo. In popular culture, this novel introduced the word “grok” to the English language, a concept which has many meanings in the book, but roughly means “to understand intuitively or by empathy, to establish rapport with” (OED). This novel explores philosophy, social satire, and religion, and inspired the creation of an actual Church of All Worlds.
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
This classic Mars adventure story begins with Burroughs, in a preface, telling the reader about his uncle, John Carter. Carter lived a mysterious life and in his will asked Burroughs, his heir, for one request: that he be buried in a mausoleum of his own construction with a door that only locks from the inside. The tale that follows centers around a young Carter, a Confederate soldier who tries to escape the demons of war by living in the wilderness and searching for gold. When he wanders into a cave he becomes frozen on the spot and falls, his gaze locked on the planet Mars seen outside in the night sky. His consciousness leaves his body and he is transported to the planet, called Barsoom by its inhabitants, where he meets Tars Tarkas, an honorable leader of the cruel, warlike, green-skinned and six-limbed race of Tharks. Taken captive by the Tharks, Carter gains prestige among them when, with his superhuman strength due to Mars’ low gravity, he defeats two of their warriors. However, his time with the Tharks changes from ally to adversary when they take captive the humanoid red-skinned princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris. Carter falls in love with her and his journey changes from survival among the warlike race to politics and war as he allies himself with Tars Tarkas, whose desire to rule the Tharks is a matter of revenge against the leader who tortured and murdered the mother of his child, and a matter of honor to change the wanton brutality of Tharkian society. This story is one of the ultimate space adventures, very much like a western. The 2012 movie, titled John Carter, was a sadly underrated film when it was released and I highly recommend it, too!
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
This book, a National Book Award winner, was published in 1950, and is a classic of Martian magnitude. The book is actually a collection of Martian short stories Bradbury had been writing, which had been published in numerous magazines from 1946-1950, and some that were written just for the collected edition. The stories are dated by month and year, starting with “January 2030: Rocket Summer”, which sets up a poetic tone of frigid winter coming into a summer season due to rocket launches, where everything was opened, doors, windows, and people spent time outside on their porches, viewing the first rockets that would take off for Mars. It would set up a very American fever to escape, to be somewhere else, to colonize, and to start over with fresh possibility. But what would happen to Mars, full of Martians that early on welcomed and then destroyed the first rockets and the first men? Yet the rockets kept coming, and some men went mad at the thought of destroying a beautiful red and jeweled land with imperialism, and killed their fellow man. The Martians, who could communicate via telepathy, felt them coming, found themselves singing strange songs in languages they did not know. What happened to them after that, whether they were wiped out by man, or hid from them and no more were ever seen, no one knew; great, empty cities were left to the elements. As time went on and Earth became dramatically depopulated, divisive, and torn apart by nuclear war, those on their paradise of Mars looked on Earth with pity and longing when Earth begged them to come home. This collection of tales are beautiful and, at times, heartbreaking.
Red Rising Trilogy by Pierce Brown
This series is set in a distant future that spans our solar system, beginning on Mars. The main character, Darrow, is a Red, and on the lowest caste of society run by the Golds. After his wife Eo is killed by Augustus, the Gold Archgovernor of Mars, for singing a forbidden song, Darrow is saved from the same death by the Sons of Ares. The Sons are a fringe group made up of all colors seeking to overthrow the Golds whose rule subjugates lower castes with impunity. They modify Darrow’s weak Red physiology to that of a godlike Golds to attend their battle command school, where he earns the name Reaper. He has to win and gain the patronage of Augustus to position himself in a place of power where he can tear down the Society from the inside. Darrow learns the meaning of power and true leadership at this school, and discovers that not all Golds are the monsters he believed them to be. Throughout the series, Darrow questions whether he can retain the spirit of vengeance for Eo that made him undertake the task, even as he makes true friends and allies with other Golds and inspires heroic deeds out of all colors. Among Eo’s last words to him was the idea to “live for more,” and his journey through the books Red Rising, Golden Son, and Morning Star explores the idea of living for more as a Gold on the eve of revolution, where friends and loved ones will be won and lost in the battle for Darrow’s soul and the soul of the Society. This series has many allusions to literature, not only to the Roman deities such as Mars and Bellona, but also features a spaceship named, of course, Dejah Thoris. These books also have some of the most intense political and battle strategy scenes and some of the most heartbreaking deaths, rivaling anything you may experience watching Game of Thrones.