The red planet has always held a type of sway over Earth. Its mystical red glow attracted amateur stargazers who could see the shimmering rogue color when Mars was close enough to show its face in the night sky, the first astronomers with their weakly powered telescopes, science fiction writers, and astronomers in addition to astronauts of the modern age. While even early astronomers knew that Venus was technically closer to Earth in terms of mere miles between, Mars still always attracted more attention. We now know that Mars is the more likely candidate for exploration (and even very ancient single celled life forms) since Venus runs at roughly smoldering 1600 degrees Fahrenheit (900 degrees Celsius) and has enough pressure from its dense gas filled atmosphere and clouds to crush most of our spacecraft that could get us there while Mars has significantly low air pressure and is just very cold like the rest of space since temperature goes between -140 degrees Fahrenheit (-100 degrees Celsius) and 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius). Before we sent probes to actually investigate the surface of the planet—finding fossil evidence of microorganisms—mankind always thought that if there was life out there in the vastness of the universe then Mars would be a decent place to start looking. This thought made the imaginations and theorizing brains of humans go wild with anticipation about someday encountering Martians.
War of the Worlds
H. G. Wells published one of his most popular novels in 1898. His War of the Worlds became a phenomenon with Orson Welles reading from his novel on public broadcast radio as if a Martian attack from the book was actually in progress on October 30, 1938. The panic caused by this broadcast is still notorious today as it has become the textbook example for mass hysteria or mass delusion. In Wells's novel, Martians are an ancient race who have forever been envious of the warm blue and green planet that was their nearest neighbor in the solar system. The Martians are also incredibly advanced in this particular depiction of our alien brethren. They are so advanced that they easily plan an attack on Earth with their vastly superior technology. The Martians invade with huge tripodal machines of war that are armed with powerful heat rays and a poisonous black gas. Human armies are completely helpless to the force. Their physical appearance is similar to Earth's cephalopods (like an octopus or squid) with numerous tentacles. The Martians cultivate a type of red weed (giving their original planet its own red color) and use humans as a source of nourishment for the weed which is the Martians' primary food source. These amazingly advanced Martians are only taken down by Earth's many terrestrial microbes rather than mankind.
Edgar Rice Burroughs (the creator of the Tarzan character) wrote a series of novels in the early 1900s that is a fictionalization of the planet Mars. He refers to Mars as Barsoom, the name of the planet from the eyes of the natives rather than from the residents of Earth. Barsoom is a very romantic, swept away vision of the Red Planet during its dying days. The Martians of Burroughs's description are actually composed of multiple races who fight with each other over the slowly dwindling resources of the planet. While they do have some advanced technological advances and some extreme inventions, the majority of the world's inhabitants live along the savage “frontier land” where physical fighting occurs constantly with those who have superior martial skills being highly valued. Ancient secrets and countless lost cities abound on Barsoom, making this depiction of Martians more like a romanticized version of a Earth based fantasy or a mystic fantasy on a made up world. Also, like most of the fictional work of Burroughs, it is written like a travelogue along the surface of the planet.
Last and First Men
Written by Olaf Stapledon, the novel Last and First Men was published in 1930. It was written as a compendium of the vast future history of Earth. In this novel of the future of our planet, Stapledon actually detailed several Martian invasions over the span of the many tens of thousands of years covered in the book. Stapledon's depictions of the physical entities from Mars are what makes his collection of tales over the future history truly unique though. Pulling far away from Wells's cephalopods and Burroughs's humanoids, the Martians who invaded Earth multiple times over the ages were sentient cloud like beings that were composed of millions upon millions of microscopic particles. These Martians used their cloudlet forms in very practical ways for the invasions as their physical bodies allowed them to drift across space between planets. These Martian invasions are similar to that in War of the Worlds. Mars is drying out and dying. Therefore, the cloud based Martians try to travel to Earth and take over the warmer and wetter planet. Toward the end of this future history though, Earth starts to die itself, making us human Earthlings try to invade Venus and wipe out the sentient beings living there.
Seeds of the Dusk
Raymond Z. Gallun wrote his novel Seeds of the Dusk in 1938, taking ideas of Martians frm both Wells and Stapledon. There are some major differences though. In the distant future, Earth comes under attack by Martians. The Martians in this story though are sentient plant life forms known as Itorloo. Their specialty is to invade and take over planet which are in their “dusk,” meaning planets that are still habitable but on the downhill slide. They actually are not even the original inhabitants of Mars as they originated on the planet known as Ganymede in the very distant past and had plans to move on to Venus once Earth died if the occupation of the blue and green planet succeeded. Distant descendants of mankind are killed by a microbe virus invented by the Itorloo, but the sentient plants ignore sentient birds and rodents who were sharing Earth with the descendants of humans. The Itorloo share Earth with these sentient creatures just like the humans, creating a type of balance.
Idea of Intelligent Martians Outside of Fiction
Most of these depictions of sentient Martians began with the sparks started by one man—Percival Lowell who was a mathematician, businessman, and astronomer during the late 1800s and early 1900s. He was the man who fueled speculation about canals (or what he called “non-natural features”) on Mars that he thought indicated a way intelligent life forms to sustain themselves on the Red Planet. Most of the astronomy community scoffed at his ideas, could not see the extensive markings Lowell claimed were canals, and even later discovered that the features were natural patterns of erosion. However, the idea already took hold in the public and fueled a burst in creative thoughts about sentient beings living on Mars that humans on Earth could maybe one day in the future meet or interact with if the Martians who built the “canals” invented interplanetary space flight or if the human race could develop spacecrafts that would make it to Mars to meet the sentient beings there.