The planet Mars, often our nearest planetary neighbour, holds a special fascination for those of us whose attention is apt to wander from our immediate surroundings. The sight of that coloured fleck of light in the night sky, which resolves into a disc with only a very modest telescope, somehow gives the impression that it is almost within our reach, unlike most of the unapproachably distant elements of the cosmos. Given this proximity, it is hardly surprising that such a rich literature should have grown up around the planet - a literature alternately guided and unseated by the leapfrogging advances of our scientific understanding.
In Imagining Mars, Robert Crossley looks at how the literature on the theme of Mars has developed over the past few hundred years, alongside our evolving discovery and uncloaking of a planet that, as long ago as 1784, was described by astronomer William Herschel as being the one most like our own. The teasing glimpses of Mars offered by early telescopes, and the way the speculations of planetary observers captured the public imagination, merge with the themes of pure fiction so seamlessly that - as Crossley observes - some of the early predictions about the nature of the Martian surface and its presumed inhabitants now read like high-class science fiction.
Some of the literature is almost self-selecting, on the basis that it would be almost inconceivable not to include it. The H.G. Wells classic War of the Worlds is a case in point: even if you don't count yourself a science fiction fan, an astronomy buff or someone with an interest in Victorian storytelling, you are likely to have been exposed to it at some point. And yes, the 2005 film version starring a slightly puzzled-looking Tom Cruise does count - just. The glee with which Wells showed aliens demolishing his familiar haunts in southeast England is strangely infectious, and he used it effectively to cast light on his own society's imperial leanings.
Those who prefer their science fiction with a little more science will already have come across the monumental Martian trilogy produced (indeed, "written" seems too modest a word) by Kim Stanley Robinson in the 1990s. In Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars, Robinson leads the reader on what may be the ultimate road trip, a wild ride whose scope involves the transformation of the Red Planet to support human life following colonisation by Earth. Ultimately, this series of works is as much about the social and political development of a new community as it is about ecology and space flight - recurrent patterns in Martian literature.
Milestones such as these will be well known, but Crossley also looks much more deeply into the literature and draws out gems that have sadly become less familiar, over time, to a general readership. Tales from the 1950s such as Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and Arthur C. Clarke's The Sands of Mars, which share a common landscape but have divergent themes (the former apocalyptic and questioning, the latter technological and progressive) demonstrate just how rich and diverse a literary ecology can be. Further back in time - in 1912 - we reach A Princess of Mars, the spectacularly fanciful Martian romance of Edgar Rice Burroughs, which includes a few nods to the astronomical theories of the day but places far more emphasis on the "light" aspects of light reading, and is so testosterone-friendly that it cries out to be remade as a video game.
The canvas is vast, the characters numerous, the challenge immense, but Crossley has successfully tied together a huge number of literary strands. He presents them in a thoughtful and engaging way that both richly illustrates the development of the Martian genre (if it can be so labelled) and highlights the ways in which the concerns of the authors speak to us about their own time and place.
Imagining Mars: A Literary History
By Robert Crossley. Wesleyan University Press. 394pp, £35.50. ISBN 97808195691. Published 3 January 2011