A Martian is a native inhabitant of the planet Mars. Although the search for evidence of life on Mars continues, many science fiction writers have imagined what extraterrestrial life on Mars might be like. Some writers also use the word Martian to describe a human colonist on Mars.
Martians in fiction
The earliest known instances of the word “Martian”, used as a noun instead of an adjective, were printed in late 1877. They appeared nearly simultaneously in England and the United States, in magazine articles detailing Asaph Hall‘s discovery of the moons of Mars in August of that year.
The next event to inspire the use of the noun Martian in print was the International Exposition of Electricity, which was hosted in Paris in the year 1881. During the four months of the exhibition, many people visited to witness such technological marvels as the incandescent light bulb and the telephone. One visitor came away wondering what kind of world such innovations might engender in the next 200 years. Writing anonymously, s/he assembled some speculations in an essay titled “The Year of Grace 2081”, which enjoyed wide circulation. The Martians enter the story late in the narrative. During a rest from international conflict on Earth, humans begin telecommunicating with Martians. “After a brief period passed in the exchange of polite messages”, says the essayist, humans will decide to war with the Martians on some pretence of honor. The war that results is cataclysmic:
[Humans] will unite all their energies for the fabrication of mammoth engines which will discharge oceans of water, metal and fire right into the face of Mars. In return, the Martians will pelt them with aeroliths weighing three thousand tons, which will chip whole mountains off the Himalayas and make a big hole where Mont Blanc now exists.
W. S. Lach-Szyrma‘s novel Aleriel, or A Voyage to Other Worlds (1883) was previously reputed to be the first published work to apply the word Martian as a noun. The usage is incidental; it occurs when Aleriel, the novel’s protagonist, lands on Mars in a spacecraft called an “ether-car” (an allusion to aether, which was once postulated as a gaseous medium in outer space). Aleriel buries the car in snow “so that it might not be disturbed by any Martian who might come across it.”
Fifteen years after Aleriel, H. G. Wells‘ landmark novel The War of the Worlds (1898) was published by William Heinemann, Ltd., then a relatively new publishing house. The novel was revised numerous times, and has since been translated into many languages. In the story, the Martians are a technologically advanced race of octopus-like extraterrestrials who invade Earth because Mars is becoming too cold to sustain them. The Martians’ undoing is a fatal vulnerability to Earth bacteria.
In his book Mars and Its Canals (1906), astronomer and businessman Percival Lowell conjectured that an extinct Martian race had once constructed a vast network of aqueducts to channel water to their settlements from Mars’ polar ice caps, Planum Australe and Planum Boreum. Lowell did not invent this Martian canal hypothesis, but he supported it. The belief that Mars had canals was based on observations Giovanni Schiaparelli made through his reflecting telescope. Although the telescope’s image was fuzzy, Schiaparelli thought he saw long, straight lines on the Martian surface; some astronomers came to believe that these lines were structures built by Martians. This idea inspired Lowell, who returned to the subject in Mars As the Abode of Life (1910), in which he wrote a fanciful description of what this Martian society may have been like. Although his description was based on almost no evidence, Lowell’s words evoked vivid pictures in his readers’ imaginations.
One of the people Lowell inspired was Edgar Rice Burroughs, who began writing his own story about Mars in the summer of 1911. The story is a planetary romance in which an American Civil War veteran named John Carter is transported to Mars when he walks inside a cave on Earth. He finds that Mars is populated by two species of warring humanoids, and he becomes embroiled in their conflict. In February 1912, an American pulp magazine called The All-Story published Burroughs’ story as the first installment of a serial novel, which the editor titled Under the Moons of Mars (retitled A Princess of Mars in subsequent editions). The book was the first in Burroughs’ Barsoom series.
Although the noun Martian can describe any organism from Mars, these and later works typically imagine Martians as a humanoid monoculture. Martian, in this sense, is more like the word human than the word Earthling. (Few writers describe a biodiverse Mars.) In science fiction, Martians are stereotypically imagined in one or more of the following ways: as alien invaders; as humanoids with a civilization that resembles one on Earth; as anthropomorphic animals; as beings with superhuman abilities; as humanoids with a lower intelligence than humans; as human colonists who adopt a Martian identity; and/or as an extinct race who possessed high intelligence.
Martians as invaders of Earth
H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds (1898) and its various adaptations have been an extraordinary influence on science fiction writers for more than 100 years. Wells’ Martians are a technologically advanced species with an ancient civilization. They somewhat resemble cephalopods, with large, bulky brown bodies and sixteen snake-like tentacles, in two groups of eight, around a quivering V-shaped mouth; they move around in 100 feet tall tripod fighting-machines they assemble upon landing, killing everything in their path. They invade Earth because Mars is dying, and they need a warmer planet to live on. They attack cities in southern England, including London, with a deadly heat-ray they fire from a camera-like device on an articulated arm attached to their tripods; they also employ chemical warfare, using a poisonous “black smoke” launched from gun-like tubes. Mankind is saved by Earth bacteria, which kill the Martians within three weeks of their landing on Earth.
In Last and First Men (1930) Olaf Stapledon revisited Wells’ theme of Martian invasion. Last and First Men summarizes tens of thousands of years of invasions and war between Martians and humans. Eventually, humans destroy the Martians’ empire.
William Cameron Menzies‘ film Invaders from Mars (1953) fuses the tentacles of Wells’ Martians with the idea of little green men to conceive a Martian Mastermind who enslaves tall, green, humanoid mutants. Tobe Hooper‘s remake of the film was released in 1986,
In his 1955 comic novel Martians, Go Home, Fredric Brown spoofs the Wellsian invasion, and reinterprets the Martian invader as a rude house guest with ulterior motives. Brown, too, employs the “little green men” trope to describe his annoying Martians.
Little green men recur in the 2009 video game Stalin vs. Martians, a spoof of earlier strategy video games. As the president of the Soviet Union, the player defends Earth from Martian invasion. This time the caricature of the Martians appears to be influenced by H. R. Giger.
In 1948, Warner Bros. introduced a new villain to their animated films: Marvin the Martian, a short, slender figure with comically oversized eyes, hands, and feet, but with no visible mouth. His big, spherical head is either completely black or overshadowed by his crested helmet. His clothing is patterned on that of Mars, the god of war in Roman mythology. In Marvin’s film debut, Haredevil Hare (1948), he attempts to blow up Earth because it “obscures [his] view of Venus“, but is thwarted by Bugs Bunny.
Another film that imagines Martians as ineffectual invaders is Mars Attacks! (1996), a black comedy based on a Topps trading card series. Here, the Martian invaders are loud, irritating, and dim-witted, despite having oversized heads with extremely large, protruding brains. The film was written by Jonathan Gems, and directed by Tim Burton.
In the Superman story “Black Magic on Mars” (1950), the conception of Martians is more grave: The Martian invaders Superman faces are led by a dictator called Martler, who is an admirer of Adolf Hitler.
In “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?“, a 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone, Martians attempt to colonize Earth, but are thwarted by Venusians. Here, the Martians are disguised as humans, but towards the end of the episode we see that they have three arms.
In Mars Needs Moms (2007), a picture book by Berkeley Breathed, Martians are squat, humanoid beings with antennae and skin color that varies by individual. When they travel to Earth, they wear transparent helmets and a bulbous, ribbed outer garment. In the story, a five-year-old boy learns to appreciate his mother after three Martians kidnap her while he sleeps. Writer-director Simon Wells and his wife Wendy adapted the picture book into the film Mars Needs Moms (2011).
Martians as civilized humanoids
In April 1911, about a year before The All-Story published the first installment of Burroughs’ Under the Moons of Mars, Modern Electrics began publishing Hugo Gernsback‘s own romance, Ralph 124C 41+, which takes place on Earth. Gernsback’s Martians live among the humans on Earth; they are taller and physically stronger than humans, with green skin and large eyes. The serial wasn’t republished as a book until 1925.
1923 saw the publication of Aelita, or The Decline of Mars, a novel that is equally science fiction and political fiction. Its author, Soviet Russian writer Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy, tells a story of a Soviet engineer who builds a rocket and invites an acquaintance to accompany him in it to Mars. There they find a humanoid race of Martians who are the offspring of both an elder Martian species and of humans from Atlantis. The Martians live in a class society; the workers rise up against the ruling class, but the revolution fails. All the while, Mars is entering a phase of climate change that threatens disaster for the population.
Red Planet (1932), a play cowritten by John L. Balderston and John Hoare, also deals with radical environmental change on Mars, except in this case it occurs through terraforming. Balderston was one of the few playwrights of the 20th century to adopt Mars or Martians as a subject for the stage. He was, however, also a screenwriter who specialized in fantasy film and horror film. Many years later, United Artists bought a screen adaptation that Balderston and fellow screenwriter Anthony Veiller wrote. Harry Horner directed the film, called Red Planet Mars, and it was released to cinemas in 1952. In the film, a scientist communicates with Martians by radio, and they tell him that Mars is a utopia. When the news circulates, it causes widespread unrest among the people of Western nations. The US government tries to silence further messages, then later announces that the Martians have informed them that they must all worship God in order to save themselves. After millions of people revolt against their governments, it seems the Martian communiques may have been a hoax.
In four stories by Eric Frank Russell published in the early 1940s and collected in the classic Men, Martians and Machines (1955), a crew of humans and humanoid Martians are shipmates and compatriots on an interstellar voyage. During their travels, they encounter hostile aliens.
Ray Bradbury‘s novel The Martian Chronicles (1950) depicts Martians as a refined and artistic race of golden-skinned beings who closely resemble humans. The Martians are almost completely wiped out by the diseases brought to Mars by human invaders. At the end of the book, the human inhabitants of Mars realize that they are the new Martians. The novel’s themes and its portrayal of Martians resemble Bradbury’s 1949 short story “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed“.
Brothers Jim Thomas and John Thomas teamed with Graham Yost to write Mission to Mars (2000), a film that depicts Martians as tall, feminine, peaceful humanoids who left Mars to escape the havoc caused by a massive meteorite impact.
Edmond Hamilton’s “A Conquest of Two Worlds” describes Martians as humanoid creatures with stilt-like limbs and large, bulging chests and heads. They live in tribal groups centered on oases and occasionally fight among themselves. After an accidental confrontation sparks war, they are all killed or enslaved by the invading human population.
Martians as anthropomorphic animals
C. S. Lewis wrote, in Out of the Silent Planet (1938), about three humans who visit Mars and meet three different kinds of intelligent native creatures: The hrossa, the sorns/séroni, and the pfifltriggi. They are dying out, but are resigned to their fate. The books also describe a prey animal called hnakra, which is hunted. The planet is ruled by the Oyarsa, who are also called “eldil”.
As a writer for Doctor Who, Brian Hayles created a Martian species of reptilian humanoids called Ice Warriors, who move stiffly and speak in a husky whisper. Most of the Ice Warriors that the Doctor encounters are brutish and belligerent. As Mars’ climate becomes less favorable to sustaining them, the Ice Warriors seek a new planet.
These reptilians debuted in The Ice Warriors (1967), a Doctor Who television serial about an impending ice age in Earth’s future. As British scientists try to slow or avert a glacier encroaching on Great Britain, they find an Ice Warrior near their base, frozen in the glacier, and apparently in suspended animation. No one knows the being’s identity, but they understand that it is probably from another planet. When the Ice Warrior revives, he attacks Jamie McCrimmon and kidnaps Victoria Waterfield. Other stories set in the future show the Martians eventually become more peaceful and are members of the Galactic Federation, though some want to return to their warlike ways.
Martians and human colonists
Many of Robert A. Heinlein‘s Martian characters are humans born and raised on Mars. In Red Planet (1949), boys attend a boarding school in a human colony on Mars. A population of native Martians tolerates them until the colony administrator threatens a Martian child. The Martians demand that the humans leave Mars, but a human doctor convinces them to reconsider.
In Heinlein’s 1956 novel Double Star, humans have colonized the solar system, and a politician on Mars faces the civil rights issue of granting a native Martian species (who are second-class citizens) the right to vote.
In Philip K. Dick‘s novel Martian Time-Slip (1964), a human colony on Mars is trying to cope with arduous environmental conditions. They treat an aboriginal race, whom they call “Bleekmen”, with casual racism. In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Mars has no indigenous life. To cope with the sterile habitat, the human colonists abuse drugs such as “Can-D” and “Chew-Z”.
Dick previously published a shorter version of the story in 1963, called All We Marsmen. Like Heinlein’s Double Star, All We Marsmen was conceived at a time in US history when many marginalized people were fighting especially vehemently for more civil rights. US President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law on 2 July 1964.1
Total Recall (1990) is a science fiction action film about an apparently unsophisticated construction worker who turns out to be a freedom fighter from Mars who has been relocated to Earth. He later learns of an alien artifact that proves Mars harbored life before the human colonization.
The character designers for Futurama, a comical American animated series, imagine Mars after human colonization as being like the American frontier; native Martians inhabit zones analogous to Indian reservations. One of the series principal characters, Amy Wong, is a scientist of Chinese descent who was born on Mars. Her parents have amassed an enormous fortune and enterprise there.
Rebecca Bloomer’s novel Unearthed (2011), the first in a series, describes a futuristic human colony on Mars amidst the populations of native Martians.
Martians as an extinct race
For his Known Space series of novels, Larry Niven conceived humanoid Martians with a primitive material culture who inhabit an environment of red dust and nitric acid, and for whom water is lethal. In the 1973 novel Protector, a man named Jack Brennan allies himself with a ruthless, xenophobic humanoid species called the Pak. To preclude the possibility future competition for Pak offspring, Brennan engineers a Martian genocide by sending an ice-covered asteroid to collide with Mars.
Quatermass and the Pit (1958–59) is a British television serial in which a crashed spacecraft is discovered in London. The wreck evidences that the human population of Earth resulted from the experiments of a Martian civilisation, now long dead. A film remake was released in 1967.
Ghosts of Mars (2001) human invaders war with Martians in an attempt to conquer Mars.
In the Invader Zim episode “Battle of the Planets” (2001), Zim discovers that a Martian race died off after converting Mars into a giant spacecraft.
In Doom 3 (2004), the entire Martian race sacrificed itself many millennia ago in order to prevent a demonic invasion of our universe. By the year 2145, humanity has colonized Mars and begun excavating the ruins of their civilization, recovering several important artifacts. One of these artifacts – known as the Soul Cube – is the player’s most valuable tool in combating a second demonic invasion, as it is the only weapon capable of killing the Cyberdemon.
Martians as superbeings
Isaac Asimov‘s David Starr, Space Ranger, the first novel in the Lucky Starr series, features a race of Martians who have retreated into vast artificial underground caverns half a million years ago. These Martians are incorporeal, telepathic beings, peaceful yet curious about humanity. They have access to advanced technologies completely incomprehensible to human beings, like personal energy shield generators the size of a fabric mask.
In Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), a man raised by native Martians emigrates to Earth, where he must reacclimate. In the novel he functions as a Christ figure. Soon he demonstrates psychic powers, superhuman intelligence, and an ability to manipulate higher dimensions. He founds a church on Earth based on Martian philosophy, and starts a cultural shift. At the novel’s climax, he is murdered by a mob from a rival religious group.
In 1963, American television network CBS premiered a sitcom called My Favorite Martian. The series proved popular in the US, especially during the first season, and CBS broadcast more than one hundred episodes before canceling it when the third season ended in 1966. In this comedy, a Martian anthropologist (who passes for human in most respects) crashes on Earth, where he is harbored by an American man who keeps the Martian’s identity secret. Also secret are the Martian’s extraordinary abilities, not the least of which are invisibility and telepathy. CBS’s rival networks, NBC and ABC, did not fail to notice the success of My Favorite Martian, or the comic potential of a character with secret powers. In 1964, ABC introduced Bewitched (a sitcom about a married, suburban witch), and NBC countered the following year with I Dream of Jeannie, a sitcom about an astronaut who discovers and marries a genie.
In Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967–68), the Mysterons are a race of invisible superbeings from Mars who are at war with humans from Earth. The conflict begins when Captain Black, a human officer investigating radio signals from Mars, mistakes a surveillance camera for a weapon. In violation of his orders, he attacks, but the Mysterons immediately repair the damage he caused. The conflict escalates, and the Mysterons attempt to assassinate the president of Earth.
DC Comics introduced the first Martian superhero to the DC Universe in 1955. Martian Manhunter (J’onn J’onzz), a green humanoid who is believed to be the last of the peaceful Green Martians, joins the Justice League. Meanwhile, the warlike, shapeshifting White Martians regard the Green Martians as enemies. The White Martians adopt a humanoid form which, they say, expresses their distinctive philosophy. DC introduced a White Martian superhero, Miss Martian, in 2006. A third race, the Yellow Martians, may or may not have survived as long as the Green and White Martians.