what makes a good mars story?
liam hankins

Lowell's Mars

I have come back to the Old Solar System, as it seems like I always do over the years, but this time fully prepared to build an OSS-inspired world. To prepare for this, over the past couple of months my girlfriend and I have been reading Old Mars edited by George RR Martin, the cream of the crop of the NOSS - or at least, the most popular.

viable martians

And as we read the stories, we began to categorize.  With the bevy of the Mars stories we were afforded, it was easy to trace together similar plot points and features, to home in on what made a good Mars story.

(However, reading past reviews about Old Mars, it seems we liked a few stories disliked by the site's curators, and disliked a few that were liked. Uh oh!)

This won't be a full review, but rather our opinion of what makes a Mars story, a Mars story. I will mention some that performed poorly or well according to our tastes, and avoid mentioning spoilers.

The most important thing we found was the status of the Martians themselves. We came up with designations similar to but not quite that of SSH - no fancy names, just Phase One, Phase Two, and of course the (irrelevant) Phase Three. To summarize, Phase One is, or is in the vein of, the first Mars stories - Burroughs and In the Courts of the Crimson kings - mostly with the Red Planet’s condition not as vibrant or lush as it once was but definitely a far cry from 'fallen', the Martians still alive and well but their societies varying from massive, powerful states to poor clans pushed to the edges of the Canals. Phase One Mars stories will be the topic of this little treatise. (And it's my personal favorite genre of Mars story.)

Phase Two is in the vein of Bradbury- the Martians are reduced, or maybe alive, in some psychic crystals or as living ghosts or a hidden abode or something else - or maybe just dead altogether. The story falls to the Earthmen - and we found ourselves skipping the stories in this category, at least the very depressing ones.  We read a few and found some of them (despite their down-beat atmosphere) successful as tales, some of them just okay.

Phase Three is the real Mars - Martians having never existed, or at least not more than some bacterium. Dry. Dead. Desolate. Kim Stanley Robinson and all that. Colonization and terraforming of a world that never lived.  This isn’t covered in Old Mars, or on this website.

My girlfriend says she's seen a Phase Four - where it's been so long and humanity is so diverged from its original state that things loop around - in the vein of Star Wars, but I've never heard of any stories or media like that which explicitly take place on Mars proper. I suppose it would work, but as of yet it is unwritten.  [Note from Zendexor: the far-future Longtail saga by Xiangjun Zeng fits this bill.  See also Rocklynne's Far-Future Mars.]

suitable titles

Something that is applicable to not just every phase but also every portrayed world is the title of the work. Now, there are successful books that fall outside this category - but most of them, or the more notable books, follow this guide. I have noticed that Mars titles include almost always the actual word Mars, and sometimes the word red or a variation on the color, and, rarely, aridity.

For instance, the John Carter titles almost include the word Mars, although there are two exceptions, of which the first, Llana of Gathol, doesn’t sound like a Mars story - the problem of using fictional names in your book-title. Titles with aridity alone could be fantasy, Conanesque, Dying Earth - many options. If the word ‘Desert’ or ‘Sands’ is included, it should have ‘Mars’ or a variation on the color red in the same title. Skeleton Men of Jupiter is, however, the perfect name for a Jupiter book - short and succinct, and it sounds very pulpy.


Color is also important. S.M. Stirling’s In the Courts of the Crimson Kings relies on it alone - and works well. It’s not as popular as just having Mars somewhere, but when combined it can greatly add to a title. Kim Stanley Robinson seemingly figured this out; his Mars trilogy’s names correspond with the predominant color of the world in that book. However, color can be more iffy. For instance - is Venus the white of its clouds, the yellow of the sulfurous surface, or green with jungles? Much less Saturn and Jupiter or Mercury - pretty bland. Identification by color is perhaps largely limited to the sun, Mars, and the moon, their colors being well-known, although I think it can work with the blue outer giants.

the four main beats

Other than the phases and titles, we found several beats that greatly enhance a Mars story. I made a short checklist version, for easy rating of various stories. There are four main points we identified.

#1: Earth must be around, and/or there must be humans who have been to Earth at some point.

#2: Martian society must be declining from a previous high point, but the Martians are still around, easily interacted with, but disadvantaged compared to Earth.

#3: The Earthmen have to brush shoulders with the Martians, and interact with them heavily.

#4: Any sympathetic Earthman character has to become Martian in some important fundamental way.

So this is where I will bring up various stories.  The archetypal example, John Carter, hits all of these beats, but not each to the same degree. For instance, Earth is hardly relevant in most of the John Carter books - there is no chance of Earth (or Barsoom) inventing something that allows mass transit between the worlds. #2 could be argued, what with the abundance of ruins, as being a characteristic of Barsoom, but for its aspects of high technology.  #4 fits well: it would not be a John Carter story without the Earthmen abandoning Earth for life on Mars. (Don't think I forgot Ulysses Paxton!)

The first point I would like to expand on with examples from Old Mars: the simple status of Earth can be vital. Martian Blood is at the far end of the Earth spectrum - Earthmen have come to Mars, and are building cities and casinos and displacing the native Martians.  Of course, this interacts heavily with the later checklist, with the status of Earth impacting the course of the story. These walls, both real and imaginary, between the Earth colonies and the native Martians prevent the main Earthman-character from actually reaching out and getting to know the Martians: no princesses, no cities to become king of; little room for adventure.

The other way, with less of Earth, is best seen in two stories.  Mariner gives us an Earthman stranded on a Mars in a different dimension: Earth is present, but it could be literally anything, removing the question of return.  The main character has no choice but to integrate into the Martian culture he finds, which takes something out of it for me. In my eyes it should be a choice, and in this tale it wasn't a choice.

Out of Scarlight is at the extreme end of lessened Earth involvement: Earth not mentioned, the main character a native Martian, with no Earth in sight. It feels like Mars enough, sure, but after finishing it, we realized: Earth's absence was visible. Where along the timescale of the Solar System was this? Several centuries ago? In the modern era, with Earth never coming to Mars? The far future, which real magic seems to indicate? Just so many questions, which could have been answered easily by one or two lines about the state of Earth. For that matter, it might possibly not even have been Mars at all; might have been a cold and arid Dying Earth - although perhaps that is too harsh a judgement. Anyhow it serves as a powerful example of how, paradoxically, Earth should be present in a Mars story.

But, of course, the state of Mars is more important than that of Earth: Martian society having declined from a previous high point, but with the Martians still around, easily interacted with, though disadvantaged compared to Earth. I prefer large, powerful native Martian states, but my girlfriend likes the Human-dominated society featured in The Sunstone with a roughly equal Martian-Human population, so other views are equally valid. (Remember, I am not covering Phase Two stories in this article; I am assuming the presence of living Martians.)

red city paolo puggioniRed City by Paolo Puggioni

John Carter is interesting in this regard.  While Martians were seemingly more populous in the past, they appear to have been less technologically advanced than at present.  Mars across the series seems to be at its peak, technologically, while newer authors - such as SM Stirling and the Space 1889 authors - have it so that Mars was more populous and more technologically advanced in the past. I prefer the latter approach myself - ancient weaponry and engines serving as literal plot devices.

As I mentioned in an above reference to Martian Blood, in which the indigenous Martian aborigines are not that populous or technologically advanced, allowing an Earth with reliable interplanetary transportation to displace them to remote regions to... build casinos and vacation spots, this sort of scenario just doesn't do it well - it writes a tense story with no good outcome, sure, but to me it just doesn't work as a good Mars story.

Swords of Zar-tu-Kan is the only short story that I could say performed well in this regard - written by Stirling, in the same universe as In the Courts of the Crimson Kings and The Sky People. The Martians feel real, Mars feels real, the people with a language with no taboos, the living buildings and talking dogs. My girlfriend thinks they feel truly alien - to me, they were the only ones who feel real.

Mariner and In the Tombs of the Martian Kings do a good enough job, but the stories in those aren't about the native Martian society. In Mariner, you have a bunch of pirates at the edge of Martian civilization, only affected secondhand by the decisions of states and empires. In In the Tombs of the Martian Kings, the bit in Martian civilization is slow, and we just see a pile of Solar citizens- all we know about Martians from that story, really, is that their civilization is over a million years old, and they have more toes than a human. I wish it was explored more, but regretfully it was not.

Onto the next story beat - the Earthmen must be in easy contact with the Martians, and must do so over the course of the story. I don't think this is arguable.  What would John Carter be if the Martians were hard to interact with? I suppose at this point I won't overtly mention Phase Two stories - no use ranking a story with a metric designed for another one - but there were a handful.

Mariner does this well - even if I disagree with the aquatic nature of their Martians, at least you get a sense of the Martian Culture. Swords of Zar-tu-Kan does it perhaps the best: drunk Martians stumbling past, playing their chess, or cooking burritos in microwaves and attending college lectures. Not much - but it makes me want to read In the Courts of the Crimson Kings again.

Queen of the Night's Aria, interestingly, does this poorly.  It’s a little story about a coalition of European powers fighting the next phase of The War of the Worlds. Reading it, the main character brushes shoulders with Martians many, many times - but only once does one speak, and never of the Martian species which the British seemed to have employed in their conquest of the Red Planet, despite their near-constant presence across the first half of the story. In fact, the Turkish forces on Mars appear in a role in which I would expect Martians to fill - as a sort of honor-bound warriors, which I do not get the reason for - why Turks, when Martians are right there?

Another story that does this poorly - but by and large nevertheless succeeds - is Moorcock's The Lost Canal. Not a single Martian appears in the story, but they influence it all the same. Both me and my girlfriend loved it, and I would say it was my favorite story out of the lot. I'm not exactly sure how it was done.  The reason most likely overlaps with the next point I shall deal with: that the characters, despite being of Terran stock, feel Martian enough.  One character is pointed out as being close in appearance to a Martian princess; another is wearing a harness out of John Carter. The main character isn't as Martian as the rest, but he comes into his own over the course of the story. The environment and wildlife are spot on, and it is just a good story in general, in our opinion.

The final of these beats is that any sympathetic main character must become Martian in some fundamental way, for this is a vital feature in the maintenance of sympathy and relation between the reader and the viewpoint character. A story can be good without this - the shortest stories in Old Mars don’t exactly need it, given their brevity, but it is a nice surprise whenever it pops up, and a full scale Mars book should have this native angle to an appreciable extent.  Imagine what John Carter would have been if he had never stopped pining for Earth and America, or attempted to enforce a United States of Barsoom upon the red planet (Sorry Pellucidar!). I just finished the Arabella Ashby series, sequel/full-on expansion of The Wreck of the Mars Adventure (Captain Kidd going to Mars) and the third book features a full defiance to Britain and its Crown in favor of Mars and the Martians.

In some stories - such as Martian Blood and Queen of the Night's Aria - this feels just plainly off the table due to the setup and culture of both Mars and the characters in the stories. Someone restricted by upper class British expectations, as in Queen of the Night's Aria, would not be seen fraternizing with common Martian soldiers. Martian Blood has more of the Martians being the ones closed off, but the Earthmen are not helping, building tacky casinos and tourist traps, attempting to build the vices of Earth on Mars with no thought for the Red Planet.

Only The Lost Canal and The Sunstone do this well. It's a small thing in other stories, or not spared any attention in Stirling's and Mariner, just a thing that can be inferred. The Lost Canal has the protagonist, an apparently selfish wretch, venture through lost halls with the still-thriving echoes of Old Mars, and come out a better man with a new respect for the world he called home. The Sunstone isn't quite as adventurous, but it definitely is a transformational journey, from Earthman to Martian - in fact that is what the story is centered around.

All of these beats work together, and from what I can find, in all the stories – except, oddly, Out of Scarlight - they are relevant. I have no doubt that you can make great stories while bending these beats, but they are good things to think about while both reading and writing about Old Mars. I just had to share what my girlfriend and I observed, and this was the only place I felt would appreciate it. Sorry for the length, and I am not quite done just yet: there is one more thing I have to cover.

The question of the environment of Mars cropped up as soon as I started thinking about these beats.  It was clearly important, as you wouldn't find something like jungles on Mars. The question of how it worked followed me for a long time. Arid and red, yes, but the canals seemed to break convention in a good way. Mars is often not hot, and that gave me another hint, that it could be either cold, or arid - specifically, I was thinking of regions at the edge of the polar regions; great mires like those found in Russia. They are wet, but they didn't feel out of place. There are some exceptions to the cold and aridity - there is a swampy region in John Carter, and in Space 1889, there are a few swamps in places where the canals have silted in and burst their banks, and streams wind sluggishly around the landscape.

The question remained until, overlooking some verdant chaparral in the hinterlands of California, the answer clicked to me after discussing with my girlfriend why this landscape would not be seen on Mars. The hills on Mars would be barren, and a reader may question where the water comes from; it doesn't just fall from the sky like on Earth, or if it does it is very rare, and the reader knows this. So, when writing about the landscapes of Mars, it is good to keep in mind how much water this region would get, the fertile canal banks being as acceptable as barren red hillscapes. I believe this works the same for Venus, but inverse in some way - not sure quite yet.


I hope everyone enjoyed this survey; it was a lot longer than I expected, but I just had to get it all down, once I started noticing common themes and ideas in the short stories found in Old Mars. I hope it can help some of you, in ventures relating to Old Mars - or even other worlds. A big thanks to my girlfriend for helping inspire me with this and proofreading it. My categorization of the phases of science fiction have pointed me in a very interesting direction toward the moon, and I intend to touch upon that next.

Old Mars