How One Misunderstanding in the 1870s Created an Entire Sci-Fi Subgenre

martianThe year: 1877. The discovery: life on Mars.

At least, life was thought to have been discovered on Mars. Here’s the story of how a single misunderstood word had a large and lasting impact on the world of Mars-centric science fiction (an example of which is pictured below on your left).

During the 19th century, increasingly large telescopes were constructed in observatories worldwide, and the discoveries that resulted were astronomical in both senses of the world. One Italian astronomer, Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli, began to map out locations on Mars from his observatory in Milan in 1877.

We might be able to reproduce the craters on Pluto in gifs today, but the technology of the 1870s could barely handle the difference between darker and lighter spots on Earth’s neighboring red planet. A topographical optimist, Schiaparelli labeled the dark spots “Martian seas” and the light spots “Martian continents.”

Many of Schiaparelli’s names, often drawn from Greek and Christian mythology, are still used by scientists today, and NASA even named a 2018 Mars lander after the guy.

After observing what he thought to be channels on the surface of Mars, Schiaparelli referred to them as “canali.” That’s the Italian word for “channel,” but it looks incredibly similar to the English word “canal.” English versions of Schiaparelli’s notes didn’t make the distinction, making it seem as if the respected astronomer had documented structures built by intelligent life on Mars.

The recently constructed Suez Canal was still viewed as the pinnacle of modern engineering across the world, so the concept of canals was well-known. And now, Martians were apparently creating them!

American astronomer Percival Lowell became obsessed with the concept in the 1890s, building an observatory in Arizona and publishing three books featuring his extensive maps of hundreds of canals that he believed Martians had built in order to transport water from the polar ice caps to the Martian equator.

Even at that time, astronomers disputed Lowell’s claims, and his intricate networks of Martian innovation have never been replicated. Today, historians are not quite sure whether Lowell was seeing optical illusions or even mapping the blood vessels inside his own eye. The channels Schiaparelli thought he saw, meanwhile, were probably the result of a telescope without the resolution to tell a series of dark spots from a line marking a trench in the planet’s surface.

Science fiction generally follows science facts, even if those facts are wildly inaccurate: inspired by the ruckus about canals, one enterprising young author, H.G. Wells, published The War of the Worlds in 1898.

“Had our instruments permitted it, we might have seen the gathering trouble far back in the 19th century,” Wells writes in the first chapter, noting, “[m]en like Schiaparelli watched the red planet.” The book proved popular, perhaps partially due to canal-based paranoia, and it remains one of the best known “alien invasion” stories more than a century later.

Edgar Rice Burroughs is another major early science fiction author who name-checks the Italian astronomer’s work in his books. The John Carter of Mars series features green-skinned Martians who live in regions of Mars given the same titles that Schiaparelli first dubbed them with, even though they refer to the planet as “Barsoom.”

The sci-fi subgenre imagining a Martian civilization was too popular to die out, even as the concept died a quiet death in the scientific community. C.L. Moore published a popular short story in 1933, “Shambleau,” featuring a Medusa-like Martian vampire woman. John Wyndham wrote Stowaways to Mars in 1935, and C.S. Lewis published Out of the Silent Planet in 1938, and from through the 1940s to the 1960s, Leigh Brackett penned a whole series of novels set on Mars.

In a foreword to one of her Mars-set novels, Brackett is sure to mention that her stories are in opposition to “cold, hard fact,” but playfully invites “all dreary realities to keep a respectful distance” for the duration of her story.

Ray Bradbury firmly agreed, writing in 1948, “the fiction writer is, first and foremost, an emotionalist.” His acclaimed The Martian Chronicles draws on the mythology of Mars colonization to explore themes of family, hopes, and loneliness.

Since the 1960s, interest in science fiction about Martians has died down, but the planet itself is still doing well: head to the theaters this October to see Matt Damon in Ridley Scott’s survival film The Martian, based on the popular novel by Andy Weir.

Spoilers: Damon does not dig any canals.

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