BBC Culture, 15 September 2015

Some of the earliest storytellers were inspired – just as modern storytellers are – by looking up at the night skies. While many of us look to the heavens and wonder how many stars there could be, and how far away they are, others look up and think: I wonder who lives there? And do they have antennae?

The 2nd century satirist, Lucian, can lay a pretty convincing claim to writing the first science-fiction. In his True History, Lucian takes his heroes on a trip to the moon, which they reach after being carried into the air by a whirlwind which lasts for seven days. Lucian is often cited as the predecessor of Jules Verne, but he neatly presages Dorothy’s transport to Oz, too. Once they arrive on the moon, our heroes are startled to see men riding three-headed vultures as though they were horses. The unusual steeds are only the first strange creatures they encounter: a short while later, warriors arrive on fleas the size of twelve elephants. The king of the moon and the king of the sun are engaged in all-out war.

Whatever objects the Greeks could see in the sky, they constructed stories about them. It begins with gods: Helios, the god of the sun, and his sister, Selene, goddess of the moon, who both traverse the sky with their chariots. One of the most celebrated sculptures of the Parthenon Frieze – which once decorated the Acropolis of Athens – is that of Selene’s horse from the east pediment. After a long night dragging the moon across the firmament, the horse looks exhausted: his eyes bulge, his nostrils flare, his jaw sags open in a desperate bid for air. In other words, the moon-goddess isn’t just a flowery shorthand for the moon. Her story has texture and detail, right down to her weary horse.

The idea of people on, or from, the moon is not unique to western culture. The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is a Japanese story dating back to the tenth century. A radiantly beautiful girl, Kaguya-hime, is found inside a bamboo plant. When she grows up, she reveals that she has come from the moon, and must return there. If Lucian’s aliens were horrifying in their strangeness, Kaguya-hime is one of the earliest stories of aliens who are anthropomorphic, but somehow better than human (Superman being one of the more celebrated recent examples).

But the moon was only the beginning of our extraterrestrial inspiration. Mars is visible to the naked eye, so it’s no surprise that it drew the attention of early astronomers and story-tellers. The red colour was unavoidably reminiscent of war to the ancients, and thus Mars shares its name with the Roman god of war. The martial nature of the planet’s inhabitants was perfectly clear to Chuck Jones, who presented Marvin the Martian (though he didn’t yet have that name) in Haredevil Hare, in 1948.

Marvin’s outfit is a plumed helmet, like a Roman soldier might have worn, though in a bright, alien green. He also sports a skirt, divided by slits. It doesn’t hang down to his knees as a centurion’s might have done, but fans out like a demented tutu. Unusually, for one of Bugs Bunny’s nemeses, he is actually quite alarming, possessing as he does a degree of competence which eludes, say, Elmer Fudd. So he is both Martian and martial: that is, of the planet Mars, and bellicose to boot.

Perhaps one of the easiest ways to detect whether a person’s outlook is positive or negative is to ask them how they feel about aliens. For the optimist, aliens are ET, or Mork, or Mr Spock. For the pessimist, outer space is full of Facehuggers and the diminutive sadists in Mars Attacks!. Every time scientists send a probe into the unknown reaches of the galaxy, I find myself agreeing with Stephen Hawking (who this year helped launch the Breakthrough Listen project, to try and find alien intelligence). Although he’s keen to find signs of alien life, Hawking has pointed out that an advanced alien civilisation might well destroy us without hesitation, regarding us as a lower species.

Surely the greatest vision of Martians is also one of the earliest, in HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Mars came into its own – culturally speaking – when Giovanni Schiaparelli trained his telescope on the planet and examined it in detail in 1877. He saw what he believed to be channels or grooves on the surface of the planet, which he called ‘canali’. It was all too easy for the word to be mistranslated by a fascinated English-speaking audience: were there canals on Mars? If so, someone must have built them.

Although some writers had previously speculated about life on Mars, the images Schiaparelli produced fired many imaginations. In 1881, a newspaper called London Truth published a story about a Martian invasion, which envisaged us declaring war on the Martians, who would retaliate by using missiles to take huge chunks out of the Himalayas and leave a giant hole where Mont Blanc once stood. But only in 1893 did the word ‘Martian’ – meaning an inhabitant of Mars – really take off in Alerie or A Voyage to Other Worlds, a story by the Reverend Wladyslaw Lach Szyrma. Aleriel himself is a Venusian, and the Martians he meets are vegetarian, nine feet tall, and have a somewhat leonine appearance.

Then in 1892, people claimed to have seen flashes of light emanating from the red planet. Were these messages coming from Martians? Did they now have canals and torches? In 1895, HG Wells would begin work on The War of the Worlds, which was first serialised in 1897. His Martians travelled inside huge tripods (a sculpture of one stands in Woking, a small town near London which the Martians devastated as best they could). The aliens are a terrifying bunch, ‘at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous.’ They prove too strong for the soldiers who try to resist them. Luckily, bacteria ex machina save the day, and the planet.

By 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs was imagining the trip in reverse: John Carter is from Virginia (though he has an alien quality of seeming agelessness), and makes his journey to Mars (called Barsoom by the locals) by some sort of strange astral projection. Like his fictional predecessors in Lucian, he finds himself in the midst of warring alien beings. Carter’s experience fighting in the American Civil War has prepared him for the sacrifices required in such circumstances.

Burroughs wrote about John Carter for decades. And throughout the twentieth century, writers, artists, composers and film-makers returned again and again to our closest planetary neighbour. Exploration to and invasion from Mars have provided tremendous cinematic and science fictional material. Or science fact, as the trailer for Robinson Crusoe on Mars, released in 1964, boldly claimed.

By 1964, when a man was stranded on Mars, he did have aliens to fear, but not Martians. Humanoids from Orion – using Mars for mining missions – were the source of peril for Kit Draper and the only fellow-survivor (a monkey) of his aborted space flight: ‘This film is scientifically authentic,’ read the blurb at the beginning and end of the trailer. ‘It is only one step ahead of present reality!’ But still it revealed something important: the more we discovered about Mars, the more it changed the way people wrote about it, and shaped the kind of stories they could write.

Andy Weir’s The Martian was one of last year’s best-selling books, and the upcoming film adaptation is likely to repeat its success. Perhaps it’s a sign of our more sceptical times that the only Martian in this story is no alien, but an all-too-human NASA astronaut left behind by his crew. Even more so than Kit Draper, Mark Watney – the stranded engineer – is a man who must cope with the difficulties of being utterly alone in a landscape which is hostile, not because of alien inhabitants, but because of his own human frailty.

It took us so long to imagine the Martians, and our obsession with them has undoubtedly led to scientific progress that HG Wells could only have imagined. Even now, a NASA team is holed up in an isolated testing lab in Hawaii. They will live for a year in a dome measuring 36 feet in diameter, on the northern slopes of Mauna Loa. But the more we have discovered, the less we have been able to imagine. Where once writers could populate Mars with all manner of alien beings, now we have had to move those creatures further afield. We know too much – and crucially, so do readers and viewers – to keep pretending that the aliens are up there, digging their canals. Mars has lost none of its wonder, but it has certainly shed some of its mystery.