Even though Venus is the most Earth-like planet (despite it being hot enough to melt lead), Mars feels like a better neighbor. Venus is completely shrouded with khaki clouds, pale and unapproachable. In comparison, Mars is positively flirty, with its lusty red color and come-hither promise of terraforming.
It’s easier to imagine life on Mars than anywhere else, and many of the books below do exactly that.
A hard science fiction thriller, The Martian Race is about two competing teams struggling to get to Mars and returning safely, claiming a thirty billion (that’s a “B”) dollar prize in the meantime. It’s a little slow at first, as author Benford works out the details of how to actually get to Mars using pretty basic technology.
The pace picks up considerably, and Benford’s fully-fleshed characters help the ride along.
“A practicing physicist, he writes plausible hard SF as well as anyone on the planet, and his portrait of Mars is among the most believable in recent genre literature.”
– Publishers Weekly
Genesis was the first major work of fiction that addressed the idea of terraforming Mars. During its initial publication, Genesis was on the list of recommended reading at NASA, and has since gone on to enjoy cult status.
“[T]he Olympian grandeur of the characters and plot match well with the Martian landscape… The result is a triumph that deserves to be better known.”
– IEEE Spectrum
This is more of a character study than a gripping page-turner. Three convicts are sent to Mars as punishment, their penance made worse by the fact that there is no communication between Mars and Earth, and they have no idea what they’re walking into.
It’s far worse than they expect.
Red Star, by Russian political activist Bogdanov (Lenin exiled him), is about a communist and feminist utopia on Mars. It also gives a detailed description of blood transfusion (poorly understood at the time) in Martian society.
In 1924, Bogdanov started his own blood transfusion experiments, apparently hoping to achieve eternal youth or at least partial rejuvenation. Lenin’s sister Maria Ulyanova was among many who volunteered to take part in Bogdanov’s experiments.
“[A] surprisingly moving story.”
― The New Yorker
The year is 1893, and the workday life of a young commercial traveller is enlivened by his lady friend when she takes him to the laboratory of Sir William Reynolds, who is building a time machine. It is but a small step into futurity, the beginning of a series of adventures that culminate in a violent confrontation with the most ruthless intellect in the Universe.
The “scientific romance” of the title is what science fiction was called in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Mars is the first stop for Malachi Constant, the richest, most depraved man on Earth. With a beautiful woman by his side, he travels around the solar system, meeting aliens and ending up knowing much more about humanity, free will, and both the past and future than he ever wanted.
“His best book . . . He dares not only ask the ultimate question about the meaning of life, but to answer it.”
A group of Arctic explorers seeking the North Pole find a Martian base there. Lasswitz’s Martians are highly advanced, and initially peaceable; they take some of the explorers back with them to visit canal-dominated Mars.
Later, they are not so peaceable.
Wernher von Braun, whom NASA called “without doubt, the greatest rocket scientist in history,” was inspired by reading Two Planets as a child.
“[C]urious and fascinating . . . full of quaint dialogue, heroism, decorous lovemaking, and gorgeous gadgetry.”
– The New York Times
Founded by accident in the Martian desert by a scientist obsessed with the nature of time, the town of Desolation Road grows from a whistle stop on the Bethlehem Ares Railroad to a stronghold of freedom that rages against the ROTECH bureaucracy.
Desolation Road reads like a series of short stories: an elderly couple get lost in the infinite space of their garden; a baby growing in a jar is stolen and replaced with a mango; a man called The Hand plays electric guitar for the clouds and starts the first rain for one hundred and fifty thousand years.
“This is the kind of novel I long to find yet seldom do. Desolation Road is a rara avis… Extraordinary and more than that!”
– Philip José Farmer
(Rara avis means “rare bird.” I had to look it up.)
Hilariously, this book was released as Sin in Space in 1961. Its cover featured a nubile young thing taking off her shirt as a helmeted astronaut happily looks on. Do a Google image search for “Sin in Space” and you’ll see how bad it is.
Here’s the back copy from that version: “A rocketing, sensational exposé of sin in space; a story about a drug deadlier than heroin, more vicious than morphine—this was the Martian narcotic that drenched a planet in crime and perversion!”
Despite this lurid marketing, Outpost Mars is actually good enough to stand next to Red Planet and Sands of Mars, both books on this list.
Former astronaut Roger Torraway has agreed to be transformed by the latest advances in biological and cybernetic science into something new: a being that can survive the rigors of Mars before it is terraformed. Becoming Man Plus will allow him to be the linchpin in opening the new Martian frontier—but not without challenging his humanity as no man has ever been challenged before.
Some reviewers loved this book, calling it Pohl’s best, while others found it heavy-handed and its plot hampered by a dumptruck-sized hole.
Heinlein got the idea for this novel when he and his wife Virginia were brainstorming one evening in 1948. She suggested a new version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894), but with a child raised by Martians instead of wolves. He decided to go further with the idea and worked on the story on and off for more than a decade.
Mars is just part of the backstory to this book—the reader never travels there.
Despite mixed reviews, Stranger in a Strange Land won the 1962 Hugo Award for Best Novel and became the first science fiction novel on The New York Times Book Review‘s best-seller list.
Big (560 pages) and loaded with technical details, this bestseller follows humanity’s first expedition to Mars. The astronauts face deadly meteor showers, subzero temperatures, a mysterious virus, and the flailing emotions and prejudices of fellow expedition members.
“Technically accurate and absorbing if somewhat ponderous at times, with questions and answers reliably in balance: a dependable, satisfying foray into science realism.”
– Kirkus Reviews
Moving Mars won the 1994 Nebula, and was also nominated for the Hugo and Locus awards.
Mars is a colonial world governed by corporate interests on Earth. The citizens of Mars are hardworking, brave, and intelligent, but held back by Earthly powers keeping the best inventions for themselves. The young Martians—the second and third generation born on Mars—have little loyalty to the Earth, and a strong belief that their planet can be independent. The revolution begins slowly, but matures to its inevitable conclusion.
“Bear introduces a wildly intriguing hard-science idea, and the novel spins into a tense science fiction thriller.”
– Publishers Weekly
The Sands of Mars is Clarke’s first published science fiction novel and something of an anomaly: it’s lightweight, easy-reading hard science fiction.
Written in 1951, the book includes a number of details about the moon and Mars that we now know to be incorrect. In the preface, Clarke acknowledges this, and challenges the reader to find all the mistakes.
Renowned science fiction writer Martin Gibson joins the spaceship Ares, the world’s first interplanetary ship for passenger travel, on its maiden voyage to Mars. His mission: to report back to the home planet about the new Mars colony and the progress it has been making.
“[A] careful, thoughtful projection of the problems of government. . . . written with a quiet realism.”
– The New York Times
In the hopes of gaining an advantage on a Martian real estate deal, powerful people enlist the help of an autistic boy who seems to have the ability to see into the future. But is the boy sending them to the real future or one colored by his own dark and paranoid filter? As the time travelers are drawn into the boy’s dark worldview in both the future and present, the cost of doing business may drive them all insane.
“The writing is humorous, painful, awesome in its effect on both mind and heart…There are few modern novels to match it.”
― Rolling Stone
Packed with wall-to-wall swordplay, daring feats, beasts, battles, and beauties, A Princess of Mars is a classic of 20th-century pulp fiction.
Its original title was Under the Moons of Mars, and is also known for introducing interplanetary romance, which became popular in the following decades and is still seen today in the Star Trek movies.
Do not expect hard science here. It was written in 1912, when there were more horses on streets than cars.
Though it’s one of his books for juveniles, Red Planet‘s attention to detail, engaging characters, and smooth plotting show that with this book, Heinlein finally found his true direction as a writer.
Jim Marlow and his strange-looking Martian friend Willis were allowed to travel only so far. But one day Willis unwittingly discovers a treacherous plot that threatens all the colonists on Mars. This sets Jim off on a terrifying adventure that could save—or destroy—them all!
In 1994, the novel was adapted (and much altered) into an animated miniseries for Fox Kids.
“A fascinating story of Earth-humans on Mars… the most thrilling and tingling kind of science fiction story by an experienced hand.”
– Kirkus Reviews
When I think back to being blown away by books as a kid, The Martian Chronicles always comes to mind.
Bradbury imagines a place of hope, dreams, and metaphor—of crystal pillars and fossil seas—where a fine dust settles on the great empty cities of a vanished, devastated civilization. Earthmen conquer Mars and then are conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race.
In this classic work of fiction, Bradbury exposes our ambitions, weaknesses, and ignorance in a strange and breathtaking world where man does not belong.
The granddaddy of alien invasion stories, The War of the Worlds was classified as “scientific romance,” as was Wells’s earlier book, The Time Machine.
Wells appears to have enjoyed the idea of obliterating his neighborhood. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “I’m doing the dearest little serial for Pearson’s new magazine, in which I completely wreck and sack Woking—killing my neighbors in painful and eccentric ways—then proceed via Kingston and Richmond to London, which I sack, selecting South Kensington for feats of peculiar atrocity.”
Red Mars is a great hard-SF read, with enough astrophysics to satisfy a large conference room at a ComicCon. You can tell author Robinson did a huge amount of research, and it pays off.
“[A]n action-packed and thoughtful tale of the exploration and settlement of Mars—driven by both personal and ideological conflicts—in the early 21st century.”
– Publishers Weekly
The Martian is one of the most enjoyable science fiction books I’ve ever read. An astronaut is left behind on Mars, and must survive by himself for over a year, using only his wits and what was left behind by a few previous missions.
Author Weir does a masterful job in creating his highly likable, intelligent, and deeply human protagonist Mark Watney. The science in The Martian is hard and feels as real as stone.
This book is a great combination of man vs. nature à la Jack London, with the inventiveness of MacGyver, moments of laugh-out-loud humor, page-turning pacing, and plot twists that are surprising but in hindsight feel inevitable.
All in all, a good story well told.