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Collection Finding Our Place in the Cosmos: From Galileo to Sagan and Beyond

Envisioning Martian Civilizations

In the trailer from the 1951 film Flight to Mars, visitors from Earth to the red planet find a dying, but technologically advanced, civilization that has been listening in on radio communications from Earth. Many of the same ideas are evident in the 1910 short film Pa's Trip to Mars and in Flash Gordon's 1936 visit to the red planet. Where did such ideas about martian civilizations come from?

Movies like Flight to Mars show how persistent ideas about Mars as home of a dying technologically advanced civilization became. Trailer – Flight to Mars. 1951. Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division

Debates about life on Mars between scientists and science fiction writers spurred a range of creative interpretations of the possibility of civilization on Mars. There is significant dialog between fiction and science. Ultimately, the mythology of martian civilization becomes a creative way to reflect on humanity's future. 

Astronomer's Notions of Advanced Martian Civilization

Before Percival Lowell ever wrote about canals on Mars, astronomers were speculating about martian civilization. These speculations brought about motifs that became part of the basis for the narratives of martian civilization.

For example, astronomer Elias Colbert in his 1871 Star-studies: What we know of the universe outside the Earth explained that Mars is "adapted as a residence for rational beings, like ourselves; and it may be that they have attained to a higher stage of mental development than we have, for the double reason that the planet appears to have been habitable some thousands of years longer than our Earth, and also that the extremes of temperature are greater—the latter stimulating inventive ingenuity, as in a lesser degree than ourselves" (78).

Colbert was drawing on now debunked anthropological ideas, which suggested that European civilizations were more advanced because colder temperatures had forced them to become more savvy with technology. This supported the notion that Mars, with a cooler temperature, would have an ancient technological civilization, more advanced than that of Earth.

When Martians Attack, Edison Goes to War

The idea that technologically advanced martian's might attack the Earth was made most popular by H.G. Wells' book War of the Worlds.  In it squid- like aliens in robotic suits devastate the Earth in an attack. Demonstrating the interplay between science and emerging science fiction, Garrett P. Serviss, an American astronomer wrote a lesser known, but in its time quite popular, version of a follow up story to a martian attack. In Edison's Conquest of Mars, Thomas Edison leads the charge to take the fight to the martians. Originally serialized for the New York Journal, the entire work was published in ten Sunday editions of The Los Angeles Herald (You can read each part online; Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part SevenPart Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten)

The story begins in the aftermath of the martian's devastation of Earth. After the martians retreat, the people of Earth are convinced that it was only a matter of time before they would strike again. To protect the Earth, Queen Victoria, the Kaiser and the Mikado come to Washington D.C. to talk strategy. The worlds scientists, first and foremost the inventor Thomas Edison, are given large sums of money to develop weapons to strike back. Studying martian technology, Edison produces a disintegrator ray and an antigravity device. With these technologies in hand, a fleet of 100 space ships is created to take the fight to Mars. Edison and company ultimately destroy the water works system that delivers water around the planet. The civilization runs on an extensive canal system, in keeping with Percival Lowell's ideas. This floods the planet killing millions of martians. In a break-down of negotiations for surrender the Earth delegation disintegrates the emperor of Mars. Because it was written by an astronomer, Edison's Conquest of Mars folds ideas from astronomy into the narrative, helping to further shape the mythology of martian civilizations. 

H. G. Wells: Logic & Fact of Martian Civilization

In the March 1907 issue of Cosmopolitan readers found a curious essay. A feature on the cover "Mars Inhabited?" promised commentary from both H.G. Wells and a Professor David Todd, who had participated in Percival Lowell's 1907 expedition to create photographs of the canals of Mars.

Wells' contribution to the magazine came with a long but descriptive title: "The Things that Live on Mars: A description, based upon scientific reasoning, of the flora and fauna of our neighboring planet. In conformity with the very latest astronomical revelations." Unlike his fictional work like War of the Worlds and The First Man in the Moon this was intended as a rigorous and logical speculation on what life will be like on Mars. He stresses that "Wild and extravagant as these dim visions of unseen creatures may seem, it is logic and ascertained fact that forces us toward the belief that some such creatures are living now." For Wells, it was incontrovertible that there was an advanced technologically sophisticated civilization on Mars.

What Wells Knew About Martian Civilization

It's easy to write off Wells' ideas because, today, we know that there is no intelligent life on Mars. But at the time Percival Lowell's work, Mars and its Canals, had convinced Wells that Mars "is inhabited by creatures of sufficient energy and engineering science to make canals beside which our greatest human achievements pale into insignificance" (335) Wells was certain that the martian's were more technologically advanced than we were. In this respect they represented a possible future for us.

Given the scale of the canals on Mars, Wells explains that the martians "have taken Mars in hand to rule and order and cultivate systematically and completely" as he believes "someday man will take this Earth" (340) Wells' vision was to, like the martians, use agricultural technologies to take complete control of the Earth's natural resources. He considers that the martian's use of these resources might have had a negative impact on the diversity of species on their planet, suggesting, "perhaps they will have exterminated all those other forms of animal life as man is said to be exterminating all other forms of animal life here." In this case the idea of martian civilization is a mirror for exploring and imagining the future of humanity's progress and problems with technology.

Martians Look Down on Earth and Judge

A lavishly illustrated full-page piece from the January 10, 1915 edition of the Washington Herald asked readers, "What do the Martians think of us now?" The essay suggests the ways that martians in a technologically advanced civilization would look down on the people of Earth for the senseless violence like WWI. After describing what war might look like to the martian observer's the author suggests, "It's a pretty mess that the martians may see upon the face of old Mother Earth."

This editorial focuses on the possibility of a technologically advanced martian civilization and holds it up as a mirror to our own civilization. "Do the martians realize that a war is going on full swing on old planet Earth? Or, being the occupants of an older planet, have they progressed so far in intelligence and civilization that they have actually forgotten there can be such a thing as war?" The key point being that intelligence and progress would bring about a world in which the very concept of war might disappear.

The progress of martian civilization would translate into a place without war. The author explains, "All their tribal, national and racial wars were fought out long ago. Their interest, surprise and disgust toward Earth at this time must be tremendous. If they have any word worse than "barbarians" they have unquestionably been hurling it down at us night and day for the past five months." Martians become a rhetorical device for distancing ourselves from disagreements on this planet, allowing us to step back and try and see the world from a distant perspective.

This brief tour of the mythology of martian civilization demonstrates how a set of ideas from astronomers came to life in works of science fiction. In the realm of fiction, these portraits of advanced martian society became an arena for envisioning and commenting on the future terrestrial civilization. As scientists, like Carl Sagan, grew up in the 20th century, these notions of life on the Mars would play a formative role in their development.

Here an astronomer suggests the Martians may "have attained to a higher stage of mental development" than humans. Star-studies: What we know of the universe outside the earth. 1871. p. 76. General Collections.
An illustration of the space ship Edison helped create with his anti-gravity device returning from its test flight to the moon where the crew discovered evidence of ancient giant aliens who lived on the moon. Edison's Conquest of Mars Los Angles Herald, February 06, 1898, Image 22, Chronicling America. Serials and Government Publications Division.
A depiction of one of the Martians from Edison's Trip to Mars. In the story the Martians were 14 feet tall and had advanced enough technology that they had visited the Earth 9,000 years earlier. Edison's Conquest of Mars Los Angles Herald February 27, 1898, Image 22 Serials and Government Publications Division.
Cover image shows a woman with a magnifying glass considering and studying the Martian globe. The planet is covered with Lowell's clear lines for Martian canals, which Percival Lowell had argued for years were clear indications that there was advanced intelligent life on the planet. 1907, The Things that Live on Mars, Cosmopolitan. Magazine.  Serials and Government Publications Division.
This illustration from Wells' 1907 essay presents a view of what these Martian's might look like. These big-eyed spindly creatures were imagined to be well suited to the low gravity of mars. Beyond the balcony, we see the spires of the advanced Martian Civilization, grounded in the writings of astronomer Percival Lowell, Wells was convinced must exist. 1907. The Things that Live on Mars, Cosmopolitan. Magazine. Serials and Government Publications Division.
Martians from a technologically advanced civilization looking down in judgment as human societies do battle in the First World War. The Washington Herald., January 10, 1915, Feature Section, Image 48  Serials and Government Publication Division.
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