How many authors have looked up into the sky and received inspiration from that pretty red object hovering above us? Plenty, that's for sure. The nearness of Mars has perhaps been the reason that so many writers of fiction have had humans visiting Mars and Martians visiting us.
H.G. Wells and War of the Worlds
The very first novel to feature Martians visiting to Earth as a major plot device was the grandaddy of all Martian novels and one that still inspires filmmakers today, as can be witnessed by at least two cinematic versions of War of the Worlds in the past decade. H.G. Wells' novel set the standard for portraying aliens, Martians in this case, as deadened invaders intent on devastating Earth's populace and taking over control of the planet. Almost as startlingly original as the plotline of aliens from another planet invading the country was Wells' choice for how the Martians were defeated: not by weapons, but because they lack an immunity to the smallest bacteria native to Earth. Although War of the Worlds has been filmed multiple times and is often assigned reading in schools, it is perhaps most famous for the Orson Welles' radio version that scared thousands of Americas into actually believing a Martian invasion was taking place near October 1938.
Edgar Rice Burroughs and His Martian Series
Edgar Rice Burroughs is probably more famous for having created Tarzan than for his series of 11 novels about Mars, but his influence on science fiction writers is incalculable. Beginning with A Princess of Mars in 1917, Burroughs wrote about the adventures of John Carter and his family and friends who are on the side of good in an ongoing battle with evil. The Mars of Burroughs' imagination bears absolutely no relation to the barren landscape we know from the NASA missions to the Red Planet. Carter and his family land on a lush planet that is almost more at home in one of Burroughs' Tarzan novels. In addition, these novels are high on romance and include ugly green Martians from whom beautiful and lusty damsels must be saved from a life of distress.
Ray Bradbury and The Martian Chronicles
In 1950, everything changed about Martian science fiction literature. Ray Bradbury changed the game by writing in the midst of the Cold War. The science in science fiction about Mars became far more important that insane flights of fancy and Bradbury even peered into the future of a scientific attempt to carve out life on the rugged Martian landscape. The plot of the Martian Chronicles is highly metaphorical and its message of the dangers of American assimilation of foreign culture has perhaps never been relevant.
Arthur C. Clarke and The Sands of Mars
Arthur C. Clarke wrote of Martian creates that were of subhuman intelligence and resembled kangaroos, but he moved the concept of Martian novels even further into the realm of the scientifically accure. The Mars in Clarke's novel is appropriately cold and dry, and prefigures contemporary plans to one day terraform the surface of the Red Planet into a place that would be hospitable for human colonization.
Philip K. Dick and Martian Time-Slip
One of the most fascinating novels about Mars of all time is Philip K. Dick's Martian Time-Slip. In this novel Earth's colonization of Mars is already in full swing. Mars acts as kind of a frontier civilization not unlike the Wild West of American of the late 1800s. There is a political aspect to the novel as well, however, that transforms it into something far more than just another novel set on Mars. The Red Planet is being raped by land speculators and is also being exploited as a convenient dumping ground for mental defectives. The potential for human colonization on Mars seems highly improbable for most people and both of Dick's concerns are social problems that need to be addressed as the impetus for a manned mission to Mars continues to grow.
Robert Heinlein and Stranger in a Strange Land
Often referred to as the most famous science fiction novel ever written, Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land is an in-your-face consideration of perhaps the single most important element involved in the potential visitation of aliens: how does a Martian coming to our plant corresepond the world's religious views about God and our place in His grand scheme of things. One theory behind the possibility that governments of the world have been hiding evidence of extra-terrestrial life is that the revelation of intelligent species from other planets would be devastating to psyche of society at large because it would undermine our determination of ethics, morality, principles and the afterlife.
Kim Stanley Robinson and his Mars Trilogy
The hardest science in fiction about Mars that has landed a wide audience is probably the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. The three books in this series are titled Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. Stanley's novels may one day be viewed as prescient as they detail the centuries-spanning effort to terraform Mars because Earth has been suffering the undue effects of ecological problems and overpopulation. The third installment, Blue Mars, is especially intriguing because it represents the cumaltive effects of the colonization process in a way that speaks directly to contemporary exploration of Mars: the necessity for creating rivers, lakers and oceans to realize the full potential of human colonization.
How Modern Exploration of Mars Correlates to Fiction
Science fiction has always been ahead of science fact. Rockets to the distant planets were first imagined not by scientists, but by writers. And from science fiction has come many technological breakthroughs. NASA's Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter in November 2008 made the extraordinary discovery that glaciers that lay buried beneath the surface of Mars extend for dozens of miles. While Burroughs' damsels in distress may not be waiting to be rescued by intrepid space explorers and while we perhaps should not immediately fear that the Department of Homeland Security will drop the ball when it comes to protecting us from Wells' Martian invaders, those glaciers may actually one day play a role not terribly far removed from Robinson's terraforming ideas to produce vast lakes to be used by colonists.