Mars captured the imagination of a world which was in the throes of massive sociopolitical changes and coming to terms with equally massive technological progress. From it  sprang the grand space adventure genre, sword and sandal.

In this six-part series, A Hero Is Born, we span a hundred years of science and science fiction finding the answers to questions like: What does an Italian astronomer and a rich, eccentric American from the turn of the previous century have to do with fantasy and space opera? How many times can an officer go to Mars before the public takes notice? Is there Life on Mars? What does any of this have to do with Star Wars?

We turn our attention back to the story of the canali and the belief that Mars was home to sentient life. It’s an incredibly important idea in literature, in particular for its influence on HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds as well as of course Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter series, both of which rode on the public’s interest in Mars, drew on the scientific observations of their times and filled in the blanks with their vivid imaginations.

Indeed Mars was very much in vogue with the ‘scientifiction’ writers of the day, and what we now know as space opera can be said to have started in 1880 when Percy Greg published Across the Zodiac: The Story of a Wrecked Record. “Deciphered, Translated and Edited by Percy Greg” as it says on the title page, and as the title itself also indicates, its framing device is the retelling of a supposedly real 1830s event. The travelogue/journal-like approach was very popular to the telling of fantastic yarns in the late 1800s and early 1900s, bringing back some of the shadowy places and mysteries of the world which were dissipating with the forward march of civilization.

Most importantly for our path through the history of science fiction and in particular the sword and planet genre, the book revolves around ‘one of the most renowned officers of irregular cavalry in the late Confederate service,’ known simply as ‘Colonel A————’, who thanks to the creation of an anti-gravitational substance known as ‘apergy’, builds a spaceship and undertakes an amazing trip to the planet Mars. Apergy by the way was reused by John Jacob Astor IV in his utopian account A Journey in Other Worlds (1894) of life on Earth in the year 2000.

Colonel A meanwhile finds a planet rich with life, much of it like that on Earth. It’s populated by an advanced civilization, which refuses to believe in alien life, and thinks that he is nothing more than a deranged, slightly odd Martian. Aside from also coining the word ‘Astronaut’ (astro = stars, naut = sailor), the name Colonel A chooses for his spaceship, Across the Zodiac is remarkable for being both the first instance of a detailed alien language used in a science fiction novel as well as the first attempt at properly describing what space flight was thought to be like. It delved into details as esoteric as dealing with food, muscle atrophy, the coldness of space and much more. The martian societies represent facets of earthly ideals, communism, polygamy, and the like, taken to extremes, and Colonel A ultimately connects with a secretive group of martians that have tried to hold on to their old ideals. He marries a martian woman and joins in an uprising against the powers that be, before he finally returns to Earth. Here he relays the story to the author, who some fifty years later published it.

A contemporary review regretted that:

There is really no reason, save the want of a sufficient undiscovered continent, why the adventure should not as well have taken place on the earth. Nor is there any that we can see why Mr. Percy Greg should not write an interesting and successful terrestrial romance if he chose; which, after all, is a more legitimate and enduring form of literary art.[1]

As the same reviewer so truthfully says, ‘it would be tiresome’ to try and chronicle all of the fantastic fiction of the time, and to trace their history ‘it might be difficult to stop short of the Odyssey’. But we can thank Mr. Percy Greg for not placing his romance adventure on Earth, and in retrospect Percy’s ‘want of a sufficient undiscovered continent’ gave birth to a whole new genre of fiction which over time and many subsequence adventures, led us to Star Wars.

While it’s forgotten by all but science fiction historians and the more hardcore fans of the so-called Sword & Planet genre, Across the Zodiac helped set in motion the literary Mars fascination which would last for many decades after, well into the next century. It’s remarkable for having been published prior to Percival Lowell’s entry on the Astronomy scene, though whether it drew on Schiaparelli’s findings is hard to say; there doesn’t seem to be much to support it, but it’s hard to imagine that Percy Greg wasn’t at least aware of Schiaparelli’s findings.

On a side note, the rather expansive, and well-to-do Greg family had had several other members who published books, including Percy Greg’s father, essayist William Rathbone Greg, who in 1873 had published Enigmas of Life. While the mode of expression was quite different, and Percy’s take somewhat dystopic, it seems the apple did fall far from the tree when it came to pondering of the future; here an excerpt from Enigmas of Life":

It sure is not too Utopian to fancy that our children or our grand-children at least may see a civil state in which wise and effective legislation, backed by adequate administration, shall have made all violation of law – all habitual crime – obviously, inevitably, and instantly a losing game, and therefore an extinct profession; when property shall be respected and not coveted, because possessed or attainable by all; when the distribution of wealth shall receive both from Statesman and Economist, that sedulous attention which is now concentrated exclusively on its acquisition; and when, though relative poverty may still remain, actual and unmerited destitution shall everywhere be as completely eliminated as it has been already in one or two fortunate and limited communities. [p28, 2]

The older Greg’s optimism turned out in time to be perhaps slightly naive, and his assumptions about humanity and society more than a little off.

It may sound romantic, at the end of a decade which has witnessed perhaps the two most fierce and sanguinary wars in the world’s history [red. The Napoleonic Wars 1803–15 and The American Civil War 1861–65], to hope that this wretched and clumsy mode of settling national quarrels will ere long be obsolete ; but no one can doubt that the commencement of wiser estimates of national interests and needs, the growing devastation and slaughter of modern wars, the increased range and power of implements of destruction which as they are employable by all combatants will grow too tremendous to be employed by any, and the increasing horror with which a cultivated age cannot avoid regarding such scenes, are all clear, if feeble and inchoate, indications of a tendency towards this blessed consummation. [p31, 2]

But these were the lines that were being drawn, not only in fiction, but in the thinking and philosophizing about the future of mankind. On the one hand the utopians, and on the other the dystopians.

And while science fiction as we know it has many parents, the rising interest in utopianism, and as a consequence, dystopianism, in the late 1800s started laying the foundation for the kind of science fiction which dealt with our the consequences of technology and our choices as societies, our continued progress as a race and the future of civilization. This was a genre which dealt almost exclusively with showing how humanity would overcome obstacles of crime, poverty, oppression, secularism/religion and so on and so forth (and vice versa in dystopianism). And it wasn’t merely a fictional idea. Whole communities, sects and organizations did their best to bring the utopian idea to life throughout the 1800s (and some still exist to this day).

Fueled by scientific progress and a deep fascination with magnetism, eastern spiritualism, naturalism, occultism, hypnosis, and so on and so forth, the utopian novels also gave birth to the kinds of mental powers which would go on to inform everything from John Carter and its antecedents, to comic books and of course eventually the use of The Force in Star Wars.

Once such example is in 1881’s The Great Romance, an incredibly rare book published anonymously in New Zealand, and which has only a single surviving copy. In it, a mid 20th century scientist goes to a self-induced sleep of 193 years, awakening in the year 2143. In this future people have telepathic and telekinetic powers, he falls in love, and travels to Venus (in a segment seemingly inspired by Across the Zodiac’s attention to detail). The notion of sleeping and waking up in the far future is one we’ll see again in Buck Rogers. The Great Romance would inspire John Macnie’s The Diothas (1883), in which the protagonist undergoes ‘mesmerism’, a kind of hypnosis, and wakes up in the 96th century (it likely also inspired the kind of naming of cities Buck Rogers had, like New York becoming Nuiore).

And finally, in turn very much inspired by The Diothas (and several other books of the time), the book that triggered the utopian wave that followed, Looking Backward: 2000–1887 by Edward Bellamy, first published in 1887.

It was the third-largest bestseller of its time, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It influenced a large number of intellectuals, and appears by title in many of the major Marxist writings of the day. “It is one of the few books ever published that created almost immediately on its appearance a political mass movement”. In the United States alone, over 162 “Bellamy Clubs” sprang up to discuss and propagate the book’s ideas.[3]

In what is by now a riff on a familiar pattern, the main character Julien West falls into a hypnosis-induced sleep and wakes up 113 years later, where he learns about humanity’s advances through the acceptance of Marxism. Looking Backward caused an avalanche of sequels, parodies and ‘replies’, and forever left its mark on speculative fiction. From here on out, most of the books we’re going to look at, will in some way, shape or form, refer back to Looking Back or one of its ilk.

We skip over a number of books concerned with similar trips to Mars to have a look at Gustavus W. Pope’s wonderfully titled Journey to Mars the Wonderful World: Its Beauty and Splendor; Its Mighty Races and Kingdoms; Its Final Doom (1894). Much as the ‘awaken in the future’-pattern, in what will soon emerge as a cornerstone pattern of the Sword & Sandal genre, it concerns the travels of Lt. Frederick Hamilton officer of the US Navy, to the planet Mars. Though the setup is slightly different, with Hamilton shipwrecking on an island near Antarctica, and later waking up on board a spaceship bound for Mars. This is the first introduction of a Robinson Crusoe-like element to the ‘Martian Voyager’ stories, an element which is often seen repeated in subsequent stories.

Also new is the introduction of warring tribes in the red, yellow and blue Martians, echoed years later in John Carter’s warring races, all of which are also distinguished by their respective colors. And true to the genre, it features high adventure, swordplay, a fair princess, telepathic powers, anti-gravity vehicles and so on and so forth.

Pope followed up his Mars book with an equally long-titled sequel called Journey to Venus the Primeval World; Its Wonderful Creations and Gigantic Monsters in 1895.

Journey to Mars also goes full boar on integrating the then broadly accepted Lowellian canali, explaining them as being elongated cities, as well as the Lowellian idea of tragic Mars. And as the story draws to a close Lt. Hamilton returns to Earth in an attempt at finding a way to save the Martians from the impending doom of their home world.

As is evident by now, the concept of borrowing the ideas of others and using them to create quite similar stories is far from a modern concept. In fact, just to top of the 1800s section of our journey through history, it’s worth noting that a guy named Edwin Pallander wrote a book which was heavily inspired by Across the Zodiac in 1894, and called it… Across the Zodiac.

  1. From The Saturday Review, February 14, 1880

  2. Enigmas of Life by William Rathbone Greg. 1873, Trübner & Co.

  3. Wikipedia article on Looking Backward, retrieved July 4th, 2013.


Lieutenant Gullivar Jones: His Vacation

Michael Heilemann
Birth of a Hero

Channeling Mars

Michael Heilemann
Birth of a Hero