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Volume 3926
National Post ~ March 13, 2012 ~ Scott Van Wynsberghe
As John Carter plays in the theatres, 
Scott Van Wynsberghe steps readers through 135 years of Red-planet mania.

Mars, the most obsessed-about extraterrestrial body in the universe, has come our way again. On March 9, Hollywood unveiled John Carter, the first film adaptation of a famous series of Martian adventures written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, better known as the creator of the jungle hero Tarzan. Burroughs's Martian yarns act as a portal to 135 years of cultural history that really is out of this world. 

Devil Girl from Mars 
A black and white 1954 British science fiction film, directed by David Macdonald.
It was adapated from a stage play and became a cult favourite.

The bizarre story of humanity's modern entanglement with the Red Planet began in 1877, when Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported the existence of “canali” on the Martian surface. In Italian, that word can mean both "channels," which are natural formations, and "canals," which are not. According to science writer John Noble Wilford, that ambiguity was never cleared up. 

The chance that there was somebody out there to build canals was not lost on the public. In 1880, British writer Percy Greg brought out the novel Across the Zodiac, which tells of a man who builds a spaceship, visits Mars and finds an ancient civilization. 

Although creaky and eccentric, Across the Zodiac is still recognizable as science fiction. But other more obscure literary movements were just as active at that time. Robert Crossley, an expert on Martian writings, has highlighted Henry Gaston’s occult book Mars Revealed (also 1880), which unveiled visions of Mars supposedly obtained through contact with a spirit. Crossley tracked this strain of Martian mysticism as far as 1938, when C.S. Lewis (of Narnia fame) issued his novel Out of the Silent Planet

Caught between science fiction and the supernatural, actual scientists were in trouble. French astronomer Camille Flammarion, for example, alternately wrote about Mars and reincarnation (1889) and Mars and science (1892). In 1900, the inventor Nikola Tesla announced that he had monitored transmissions from either Mars or Venus, but he was jeered (biographer Margaret Cheney thinks he was just detecting natural electromagnetic patterns in space). In 1921, radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi thought he had received a signal from Mars, but that, too, went nowhere. The biggest offender, however, was American astronomer Percival Lowell

In 1895, Lowell released the first of a series of books proclaiming that Mars was inhabited. The canali, he said, really were canals, supporting a civilization struggling to survive on a dying globe. Although rightly scorned by other astronomers, Lowell was a superb writer and a frequent lecturer — Robert Goddard, the father of American rocketry, heard him speak — so his message spread. (And, in a way, it is still spreading: Think of that recent, muchdebunked conspiracy theory about a giant, sculpted face on the Martian surface.) 

After Lowells's proclamation, a Martian storm struck. In 1897, German writer Kurd Lasswitz brought out the novel Two Planets, which remains obscure in the English-speaking world — it was not translated into English until 1971 — but was very influential. The book, which depicts the complex, sometimes violent, first contact between Martians and humans, motivated a generation of German rocketry enthusiasts, including Wernher von Braun, who went on to build missiles for the Nazis and then was used by the U.S. space agency NASA to put a man on the moon in the 1960s. 

1897 also witnessed the magazine serialization of what remains the best-known Martian novel, The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells. This narrative describes a Martian invasion that almost exterminates humanity and is stopped only by terrestrial germs deadly to the Martians. The yarn was so popular in its day that it was extensively pirated in the United States, where one newspaper even commissioned an unauthorized sequel, written by one Garrett P. Serviss. (The aforementioned rocketry guru Robert Goddard later rhapsodized about both the original novel and Serviss’s knock-off.) 

Wells's book would spawn two movies (released in 1952 and 2005), a TV show (19881990) and the notorious 1938 radio play by Orson Welles. The latter production was not a deliberate hoax — there was actually a commercial break halfway through — but it was so intense that it sparked hysteria in parts of the United States. (In fairness, a 2001 volume edited by Brian Holmsten and Alex Lubertozzi points out that some of the panickers thought what really was happening was a German or Japanese attack.) A 1975 TV movie dramatized the embarrassing event. 

Ironically, one person who would claim ignorance of The War of the Worlds was none other than Edgar Rice Burroughs. Born in 1875, Burroughs wandered through his first 36 years, drifting from mundane military service to dead-end jobs. Exactly what drew him to Mars is unknown. One biographer, Richard Lupoff, has suggested a 1905 Martian novel by Edwin L. Arnold, but Bill Hillman, co-creator of the invaluable Erbzine website, is skeptical. In fact, both Hillman and a second biographer, John Taliaferro, have settled on Percival Lowell himself as the likeliest inspiration. (Hillman also points out that Burroughs suffered a surprising number of concussions during his life, causing vivid nightmares and hallucinations that may have played a role.) 

Whatever the source, Burroughs's first novel, Under the Moons of Mars, was serialized in a magazine called The All-Story beginning in February 1912 — a century ago last month. (Published in book form in 1917, it was retitled A Princess of Mars.) The story is about John Carter, a dashing U.S. cavalryman who finds himself transported to Mars through a means so mysterious as to remind one of all those occult Martian books. Carter visits the famous canals, battles monsters and wins the heart of a beautiful, egg-laying princess (seriously). In all, Burroughs wrote almost a dozen colourful Martian novels — the first three are the best — and they remain in print today. Fittingly, a Martian crater is now named for him. 

One young fan of Burroughs’s escapism was Ray Bradbury. In the introduction to a 1975 biography of Burroughs by Irwin Porges, he would recall his boyhood obsession with John Carter. In the 1940s, Bradbury began writing his own Martian tales, many of which were collected into the 1951 volume The Martian Chronicles, one of the most-honoured books in science fiction. Bradbury’s Mars — a poetically surreal place that exposed human folly — was a far cry from John Carter's Mars, but it might not have come into being without Burroughs. 

Alas, while Bradbury helped open up Mars to different interpretations — thus clearing the way for dozens of authors in the decades to come, from Philip K. Dick to Kim Stanley Robinson — his achievement was overshadowed by Hollywood. Movies about Mars date back to at least 1913, when the stage play "A Message From Mars" was filmed. A few more pictures appeared up to the 1940s, but the 1950s started a phenomenon. "Flight to Mars" (1951), "Invaders From Mars" (1953), "Devil Girl From Mars" (1954) and others all begat "Mars Needs Women" (1967), "Capricorn One" (featuring yet another conspiracy theory; 1977), "Lobster Man From Mars" (a send-up of bad Martian movies; 1989), "Mars Attacks!" (inspired by 1960s bubblegum cards; 1996), "Red Planet" (2000) and more. 

Of course, all the above hinged on the possibility of life on Mars. But, in the 1960s, unmanned spacecraft from Earth found an apparent wasteland there, not canals. Many astronomers refused to give up, however, and some of them were steeped in Martian lore. According to biographer William Poundstone, Carl Sagan consumed the John Carter sagas as a boy. William K. Hartmann, meanwhile, has called Ray Bradbury his “childhood hero.” Both men helped with NASA’S Mariner 9 probe of Mars in 1971-1972, Sagan assisted the 1976 Viking mission and Hartmann was part of the team running the Mars Global Surveyor, which became operational in 1997. 

Their efforts led to subsequent forays that have brought us tantalizingly close to some sort of breakthrough. In 2011, NASA revealed that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which started work in 2006, had located 21 sites where water may be flowing freely, after all. Because water often means life, our strange Martian dream continues.

Scott Van Wynsberghe lives in Winnipeg, which has no canals either
©2012 National Post
I was born in Winnipeg in 1958 and, with one interruption, have lived there ever since. As a freelance writer, I have specialized in historical topics and popular culture. An avid book collector, I now have almost 10,000 volumes, which is way too much. And yes, I read Burroughs as a boy. I still remember specifying to my mother that I just had to have "Tarzan at the Earth's Core" for Christmas. (She found it, too -- although it was the Ballantine pocketbook edition, not the Ace version with the Frazetta cover, which is what I really wanted, darn it.)


Barsoom Atlas
Across the Zodiac by Percy Greg
Camille Flammarion
Burroughs' Barsoom and Lowell's Mars: A Map for the Interpretation of Barsoomian Geography 
Matching Mars: The Lost Canals of Percival Lowell
THE CANALS OF MARS 14th Runner-Up in the Seven Wonders of Barsoom
C.S. Lewis' Malacandra On Mars
Nikola Tesla
Mesa, Mormons, and Martians: The Possible Origins of Barsoomian History
Mars Fever
Mapping Barsoom III
The Secret of Thuria
Matching Mars and Barsoom
The War of the Worlds: Novel and Radio Script
Phra the Phoenician by Edwin Lester Arnold 
Burroughs Crater on Mars

   .ERBzine Weekly

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