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Top 25 Best Mars Science Fiction Books

The Top 25 Best Speculative Fiction Works About Mars

Mars, our closest neighbour, the red planet, has always loomed large in the human imagination. Its bloody colour prompted ancient people to associate it with the God of War. And then, late in the 19th century, the Italian astronomer, Giovani Schiaparelli, noticed lines on the surface of the planet which he called grooves or "canali". This was mistranslated as "canals", and other observers, notably the American Percival Lowell, not only saw the canals but also changing surface patterns that they interpreted as vegetation. The popular belief that Mars was inhabited spread rapidly, aided by the huge international success of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

Because Mars was assumed to be an older planet, it was similarly assumed that any Martian civilisation must also be older and more advanced, perhaps even decadent, perhaps even in decline and looking with envy upon our own green and fertile world. While astronomy developed an ever more sophisticated view of a world without canals, without vegetation, without life, science fiction persisted in holding to that older view of the planet. From the warring races of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom to the lush and intriguing world full of different forms of life in Stanley Weinbaum's brilliant short story, "A Martian Odyssey", Mars was always full of life. Indeed, Martian became the common word for any alien, from the panic-inducing invaders of Orson Welles's radio dramatization of "The War of the Worlds" to the strange and magical figure of the 1960s TV comedy, "My Favourite Martian".

Gradually, our scientific knowledge of Mars became inescapable, and a few writers tried to describe a more realistic planet, as in The Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke, but the more romantic image of Mars as ancient civilisation or as frontier territory, persisted. Only with the accelerating Nasa explorations of the planet over the last few decades has the realistic Mars come to dominate Martian science fiction. But now those explorations seem to be bringing us full circle: we are, after all, seeing water channels if not actual canals, and there is now talk of the possibility of life in some form or other. Who knows where Martian science fiction is likely to take us in future, but for now these are some of the best novels (and a couple of novellas) to date about the planet.

This is, without question, the best realistic portrait of Mars to date, as well as being one of the best works of science fiction from the last few decades. The three books, Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, take us from the first Spartan colony on Mars through the slow transformation of the planet as the colony grows and prospers. There are internal divisions over whether Mars should be terraformed or left in its pristine state; there's murder and terrorism, there's a war with Earth, there are major catastrophes, and through it all we watch as Mars changes from being a desert planet to being a world that can support its population in comfort.

It's an amazing work, huge, slow moving yet never less than gripping, so you feel that this is exactly how the colonisation of Mars will happen in the years to come.

 

The three books in the trilogy collected just about all of the major awards going, including the Nebula and BSFA Awards for Red Mars, and the Hugo and Locus Awards for both Green Mars and Blue Mars. And the trilogy has never been out of any list of the best sf ever since they first appeared.

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This is the only book on this list that doesn't actually set foot on Mars, so in a sense it's not a Martian novel at all. But it was the key book that fixed the popular idea of Martians, and it was the first great alien invasion story ever written.

In the depths of space our older sibling planet is running out of resources, so intelligences vast and cool turn their attention upon Earth; and in time launch their attack. As the 19th century ends a mysterious cylinder falls upon Horsham Common, west of London, and as a curious crowd gathers a horrible creature crawls out and turns a terrifying heat ray upon them. The invasion has begun, the great colonising power of the Victorian age is about to be colonised. So we get the great tripod war machines, the heat rays and black smoke, the red vegetation that quickly swamps the landscape, while thousands flee, the army fights hopelessly, and a few stragglers survive in the ruins. It's a vivid, dramatic and devastating novel.

 

The War of the Worlds was one of the five brilliant scientific romances that Wells wrote at the beginning of his career that effectively invented modern science fiction. The influence of this book can be seen not just in the Orson Welles dramatization or the film versions, but in the number of sequels it has generated, from Edison's Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss, a dreadful book rushed out immediately after Wells's original, to books like The Space Machine by Christopher Priest which you'll find elsewhere on this list.

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Ray Bradbury's science fiction is unlike anything else being written at the time, and that is particularly true of The Martian Chronicles. A collection of linked stories that tell of the human conquest of Mars, it is full of mysterious elements that add a haunting quality to the book. There's the human expedition that arrives on Mars only to discover a mid-West town exactly like the one the astronauts grew up in; there are the dead people from their past who reappear to the colonists; there are strange ruins and religious experiences. Yet amid all of this there are threatening images as well: a cataclysmic war on Earth witnessed from space, lonely colonists searching for company amid deserted townships, isolated settlements where the dead seem to be still alive.

 

This is a vision of Mars that you really won't find anywhere else, but once you read these stories the images will stay with you forever. This is a beautiful book that should not be missed.

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The vision of Mars advanced by Percival Lowell had already been debunked by the time Burroughs wrote the first of his 11 Barsoom novels, but that did nothing to diminish the colourful invention or the massive popularity of these books.

This was Mars as an older, dying world, a desert planet inhabited by the green, six-limbed Tharks who are at war with the human Red Martians, who are led by the exotic princess Dejah Thoris. Civil War veteran John Carter is mysteriously transported from Arizona to Mars at the start of the novel, only to discover that in the lower Martian gravity he has super strength. As a result, he becomes the hero of the Red Martians in their war against the Tharks.

Okay, A Princess of Mars and all of its sequels are not exactly great literature, but they are vivid colourful adventures that went on to inspire The Martian Chronicles (see above) as well as work by Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Frederik Pohl and a host of other classic sf authors.

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Back to a Mars that draws on contemporary scientific knowledge of the red planet. In this version, Mars is little more than a research establishment, as a very small colony comes to terms with a planet that hasn't yet been fully explored.

A famous science fiction writer travels to Mars, and the novel basically describes his tour of the planet. At one point, the plane he is on is forced down in a Martian dust storm, and he encounters a previously unsuspected Martian life form. He also learns about plans to make Mars self-sufficient, including a scheme to turn Phobos into a mini-sun. In the end he is so enchanted by this scientific frontier spirit that he decides to stay on the planet.

 

Our knowledge of Mars has moved on considerably in the 60 or more years since this novel appeared, but for the time it was remarkably faithful to what was known. Indeed it was one of the first novels to make a serious attempt to describe the planet as science knew it.

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Practically every novel that imagines a successful Mars colony also imagines that the colony will come into conflict with Earth. Mars, which will of necessity attract the self-reliant, is invariably described as a place of radical thought that clashes with the inherent conservatism of Earth. One of the best portrayals of such a situation is this novel.

The political radicalism of Mars is also tied in with scientific radicalism, as a string of new discoveries fuel tensions with Earth. In the end, the title of the novel is a literal description of the plans of the Martian rebels.

 

Moving Mars won the Nebula Award for Best Novel, and it was, along with Red Mars, one of the books that kicked off the renewed interest in Mars in science fiction during the early 1990s.

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Award Nominations:1990 CLARKE

This is the closest modern science fiction has come to the haunting, magical sense of Mars as it appeared in The Martian Chronicles, and McDonald has mixed it with elements of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The result is a unique and enchanting novel.

It's set in the Martian desert, where a small community called Desolation Road starts to gather. Over the course of a couple of centuries, we see the community as it grows, and through Desolation Road we see the transformation of Mars around it. It's a story of everyday loves and tensions within such a small, isolated settlement, but it's also the story of the technology that keeps the town together and that makes it part of the new world that is Mars. The image of the train is one of the most profound and memorable parts of this whole novel.

 

Desolation Road was Ian McDonald's first novel, and all of the characteristics that we have come to recognise in his later books are found here: the large cast, the fluid relationships between characters, the sense that the future is not just, or not primarily, white and western. A sequel, Ares Express, takes the story forward and the two really should be read together.

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Desolation Road is one way of writing about Mars as a frontier; C.L. Moore's startling novella is another. In this instance, Mars most closely resembles a dusty township from the American West, where there aren't too many laws and where adventurers wander the streets with guns strapped to their waists. For a while, this was a common way of describing Mars in the planetary romances of the time, but none of them did it better than "Shambleau".

The tall, lean outlaw we first encounter in this, Moore's first published story, is Northwest Smith, an adventurer who made his living among the cheap bars and dangerous alleyways of planets that have been settled but not yet civilised. Here he rescues a young woman from a mob, only to discover that she is more menacing than any mob might ever be.

 

Mars as the Wild West became one of the abiding images of romantic planetary adventures from Edgar Rice Burroughs (see above) to Colin Greenland's Take Back Plenty. But "Shambleau" is the classic of the genre.

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One of the signs of how influential H.G. Wells was in the history of science fiction can be seen in the number of later writers who have produced sequels to his books or picked up on his ideas. One of the most fun is The Space Machine by Christopher Priest. In late-Victorian Britain, a young couple, Edward and Amelia, encounter an inventor who has devised a time machine. But because of the motion of the planets, movement in time is also movement in space, and when Edward and Amelia use the time machine they find themselves transported to Mars on the eve of the Martian invasion.

The Mars they discover is extrapolated from The War of the Worlds, an ancient civilisation coming under threat from the advancing desert. The Martians are technologically advanced, and Edward and Amelia must find a way to prevent or a least impede their invasion of Earth.

A clever mash-up of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, that remains true to the events in both novels, this is a vividly enjoyable pastiche that shows how well Mars works as a landscape of the imagination.

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The revival of interest by NASA in sending missions to Mars in the early 1990s kickstarted a revival of interest in the planet as a setting for science fiction, with novels like Red Mars and Moving Mars appearing at roughly the same time. Also among that group was Red Dust by Paul McAuley, but unusually, instead of imagining a Mars colonised by predominantly Western, usually American, efforts, he thought what would happen if the planet was colonised by communist China.

The story of an American having to make his way across Mars while avoiding the Chinese rulers, brings in encounters with a host of advanced technologies, including nanotech, biotech and virtual realities.

 

Red Dust is essentially an updated planetary romance, paying attention to our increased knowledge of the planet but without letting that get in the way of a fast-paced frontier adventure.

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This novelette is one of the best works of fiction that Roger Zelazny wrote. It concerns a poet who visits Mars to learn the language of the Martians. The Martians became sterile a long time before, and though they are a long-lived race they are dying out. The poet becomes infuriated by their fatalistic stance on this.

He sets out to translate the Book of Ecclesiastes, which he believes is similar to their religious texts, and he also arranges for the ships biologist to create a rose that he can give to the Martian High Priestess.In the end, he finds himself fulfilling an ancient prophecy and bringing life back to Mars, but at great cost to himself.When the SFWA polled its members on the best sf stories that appeared before the Nebulas began, A Rose for Ecclesiastes was on the list, and it still rates as one of the very best stories about Mars.

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Just as Ray Bradbury's Mars ignores both contemporary scientific knowledge about Mars and the colourful landscape of the planetary romance in order to create a Mars that is peculiarly his own, so Philip K. Dick writes about a Mars that is less an alien planet and more a strange Californian suburb. Dick's unique vision conjures a Mars that is a place of madness, unstable identities, and people who are never fully in control of what they do.

Here mental illness is equated with different time perception, but that puts the autistic boy, Manfred, on a par with the Martian natives. From this basis, Dick tells a story full of twists in time, precognition, deceptions, and ordinary people struggling to make sense of a mixed up world.

 

It's by Philip K. Dick: that should be recommendation enough. Like Bradbury, anyone who creates a unique, individual vision of Mars is well worth reading.

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It was a time of colour-coded Mars Red, Green, Blue Mars, for instance so it is hardly surprising to find one that offers yet another twist on the spectrum. But the novels subtitle, The Mind Set Free, indicates that it is also a nod to the utopian writings of H.G. Wells.Martian colonists live in self-sufficient domes while the majority of Mars is left in a state of nature for scientific research.

But when economic collapse on Earth cuts the colony off, the leader of the community tries to establish a utopia, while others dream of terraforming the entire planet.Surprisingly few writers have seen Mars as a potential setting for a utopia, so this novel by Aldiss, written in collaboration with the physicist Roger Penrose, marks an interesting experiment.

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Awards Won:1962 HUGO

An expedition to Mars is lost. Twenty five years later, a second expedition finds there is one survivor of the first expedition, Valentine Michael Smith, who was raised by Martians. Returning reluctantly to Earth, Smith finds himself at the centre of a variety of political and religious disputes. But he brings with him Martian philosophy and wisdom, along with astonishing psychic abilities.

In time he founds his own Church of All Worlds, which brings Martian religious ideas, language and psychic abilities to humanity. But this brings its own dangers.Stranger in a Strange Land, which won a Hugo Award for Best Novel, was one of the most influential science fiction novels of the 1960s. The philosophical ideas that Heinlein expressed here, particularly the idea of grokking, was taken up particularly by the hippy movement.

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Award Nominations:1991 LocusSF

There aren't that many funny novels about Mars, but this is one of them. A satire on contemporary America and particularly on Hollywood, a spoof of many old fashioned sf novels, and a space adventure described with careful verisimilitude and genuine excitement combine unexpectedly but effectively in this story.America is in decline, so the ship that was once meant to take the first explorers to Mars has been mothballed.

Then a maverick movie producer decides that making the voyage, with the original crew, would produce a wonderful film. So the now aged explorers are gathered together, along with a midget cinematographer and a glamorous Russian cosmonaut, and set off on the voyage of a lifetime.Bisson is a rarety in science fiction, an author able to produce a gripping adventure story that is also very funny. There arent any other Mars novels quite like this one.

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Award Nominations:2003 LocusSF

The great wall is a massive construction, large enough to enclose an entire city, and the atmosphere above it. The wall encloses the base of the Conjoiners, a group that uses neural implants to enhance intelligence. When a representative of the opposing Coalition arrives for negotiations, he finds himself trapped when his own brother starts to attack the base.

Injured himself, the representative realises that a young girl who seems to be brain damaged is actually controlling repairs to the Great Wall, and ends up having to rethink his own attitude towards the Conjoiners.An early story from the Revelation Space sequence by Alastair Reynolds, this story plays an important part in setting up the complex web of ideas that runs through the sequence.Reynolds has returned to Mars several times in his fiction, most thrillingly, perhaps, in Blue Remembered Earth. But this story presents a particularly startling image of the planet.

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Written in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution, this is one of the classics of Soviet science fiction. A pair of human adventurers arrive on Mars and discover an advanced civilisation, but one in which there is an immense difference between the ruling class and the workers, who are forced to live underground near their machines. To further complicate matters, the planet is facing an environmental catastrophe, and drastic action is needed if the Martians are to survive. One of the humans ends up leading a revolt of the workers, while the other falls in love with Aelita, the princess of Mars.

 

Tolstoy effectively takes the familiar elements of planetary romances like A Princess of Mars (see above), and twists them in a new way to turn it into a dramatization of communist ideology. It just demonstrates how flexible a stage Mars can be.

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Dr Ransom is kidnapped by Weston and Devine and spirited away to the planet Malacandra, where they plan to sacrifice him to the alien sorns. When they arrive on Malacandra, which turns out to be Mars, Ransom manages to escape and quickly befriends the various alien races that populate Mars. Eventually he meets Oyarsa, the ruler of the planet, who reveals that there is an Oyarsa on each of the inhabited worlds, but that the Oyarsa on Earth, the silent planet, has turned evil.

Out of the Silent Planet is the first, and perhaps best, of Lewis's Cosmic Trilogy, which was followed by Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.

 

After Mars as the setting for a communist fable, it is fitting that here it serves as the setting for a Christian fable. Out of the Silent Planet has hardly been out of print since it was first published, and remains one of the most popular of all Martian planetary romances.

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Leigh Brackett was the queen of the planetary romance, indeed her vivid and highly coloured work practically defined the form. She set many of her stories on the same Mars, a venerable realm giving way to desert and populated by a variety of humanoid races. Of all these stories, the best is probably this novel.

Brackett also wrote crime novels, and often used criminal adventurers as characters in her science fiction. The Sword of Rhiannon is no exception. Matthew Carse is an archaeologist turned thief who is engaged to steal a precious relic, the Sword of Rhiannon, from an ancient Martian tomb. But when he enters the tomb, Carse finds himself swept back millions of years to the time of the Martian Sea Kings. Captured and chained as a galley slave, Carse's knowledge of the Sword of Rhiannon is the key to saving the planet.

 

Leigh Brackett is underappreciated today, but she is still one of the most fluent and entertaining of writers from the golden age, and her planetary romances, of which this is the best, remain fresh, exciting and surprisingly charming.

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On the first manned mission to Mars, astronaut Mark Watney is stranded following an intense storm. Knowing it will be years before the next mission is liable to reach Mars, Watney has to improvise ways to survive until he can be rescued. But even though mission control back on earth become aware that he is still alive, a series of disasters put seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the way of his survival.

Although the science might be questioned the Martian air pressure is so low that no storm such as the one at the beginning of the book would be possible the careful attention to technological detail, and the inventive way of improvising with current technology have made this a highly popular and successful work.

 

The success of both the book and the film that has been based upon it means that The Martian is leading the current revival of interest in Mars.

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Already in this list we have met H.G. Wellss Martian invaders with their huge heads and tentacles, Ray Bradburys Martians who can appear just like the family you left at home, Edgar Rice Burroughss six-limbed Tharks, the Sorns and Hross of C.S. Lewiss Out of the Silent Planet and many more.

Well, when visitors from Earth arrive on Mars in this short novel they discover all of these fictional Martians in place.At a time when Mars been presented in a range of colours (see The Mars Trilogy and White Mars above), Rainbow Mars is an affectionate tribute to the bustling, populated realm of science fiction history.The Mars of old, the Mars that inspired so much science fiction, isnt quite dead, and its fun to read a homage to it all.

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A lone astronaut stranded on Mars isnt original with The Martian (see above), nearly 60 years earlier the plot was played out in this extraordinary novel.A secret British rocket is heading for Mars when there is an accident, and every member of the crew except one is killed. When the rocket crash lands on Mars, the engineer Gordon Holder has to find a way to survive for fifteen years, until an American mission arrives, thinking they are the first to reach Mars.

Of course the Mars of this novel is very different from the Mars of The Martian; for a start there are gigantic nocturnal creatures with whom Holder must learn how to co-operate.As the title suggests, this is a version of Robinson Crusoe (though the later film, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, owes nothing to this book), and the struggle to survive against the odds is as gripping here as it is in The Martian.

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When the rocket about to launch the first manned mission to Mars blows up at take off, NASA abandons the project. Instead, a $30 billion prize is offered for the first private expedition to reach Mars. An American consortium is determined to win, but they face stiff competition from a rival European-Chinese bid.

Eventually, the American rocket, crewed by Viktor and Julia, wins the race, but thats not the only Martian Race in the book, because when they get to Mars they discover a primitive life form.The story is continued in The Sunborn, in which Viktor and Julia, now historys most famous astronauts, are offered the chance to go on a mission to Pluto.You would expect physicist Benford to be rigorous in the scientific accuracy of his novel, and you wouldnt be disappointed; but it is the invention of primitive life on Mars that really makes this book stand out.

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This was the first in what became Ben Bovas huge and on-going Grand Tour sequence of novels detailing human exploration of the Solar System. In this novel six men and women have just a few months to explore Mars and prove that it is worth another mission. One of them, Navajo geologist Jamie Waterman, discovers microbial life on the planet, and then stumbles upon the ruins of a cliff dwelling.Within the larger picture of the series, the story of Mars is continued in two further volumes, +, in which further exploration is hampered by the actions of a dystopian earth government.

A further volume, Mars, Inc, is an alternate history of the exploration of Mars, as sponsored by private enterprise rather than the government.Bova is a rather old fashioned hard sf writer, so what you get in this novel is solid and worthy but doesnt really have the flair of contemporary novels like Red Mars or Red Dust; nevertheless, as a tour of Mars the book really works.

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If you want a Martian society now that is as flamboyant and as varied as the old planetary romances, then your best bet is the digital extravagance of a post-human society. And thats exactly what you get in the first volume of HannuRajaniemis hugely successful trilogy.The legendary thief Jean Le Flambeur is sprung from prison in order to commit the theft of the century. But before he can embark on that enterprise, he must retrieve his memories, which have been stored in one of the moving cities of Mars. But as he seeks his memories through the elaborate society of Oubliette, he comes to the attention of 10-year-old boy detective IsidoreBeautrelet.Jazzy and so crowded with invention that its not always easy to keep up with what is happening,The Quantum Thief paints a picture of Mars unlike any other book on this list.

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A Martian Odyssey was Weinbaums first science fiction story; but within eighteen months he was dead, having written barely enough to make a collection. But with that first story he guaranteed his lasting fame, and significantly changed the role of Mars in fiction.Dick Jarvis, a member of the first expedition to Mars, crashes and has to walk 800 miles back to his base. Shortly after beginning the journey, he rescues a curious birdlike creature, which Jarvis recognises as intelligent.

The creature, which calls itself Tweel, joins Jarvis on his trek, and is the first of a whole range of fanciful beings that are encountered along the way. These include a silicon-based being that is building a line of pyramids, a tentacle monstrosity that lures its victims by projecting illusions, and other creatures that are constantly pushing carts. When these cart creatures attack Jarvis, Tweel stays by his side. For the first time in science fiction, we saw alien creatures that werent automatically enemies or subordinate sidekicks, but friendly, helpful and independent, with their own reasons for doing things that are not necessarily apparent to humans. A Martian Odyssey is only short, but it remains one of the most influential works of Martian fiction.

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