The Italian astronomer Schiaparelli and his American “successor” Lowell badly misread their telescope observations of Mars more than 100 years ago. Their astronomy books on the Red Planet convinced a lot of people that it was a populated world with a decaying hi-tech civilisation, thereby creating a subset of science fiction dealing with a dying desert world full of high adventure. Writers from many countries* gradually established a common vision of what that imaginary place is — or ought to be — like: ancient ruins, dry ocean beds, decaying and decadent cities older than Babylon.
I encountered this Mars for the first time during a summer vacation when I was about ten years old (late 1960s) and my favourite uncle lent me his Swedish pulp magazines and cheap boys’ adventure novels from the late 1940s. I don’t remember the name of the book’s author (some long-forgotten Swedish hack writer) nor its title. It was a ripoff on C-quality SF from the United States: intrepid engineers built a back-yard spaceship in our northern wilderness and flew to the red planet, where they had pulpish adventures among the dying world’s noble humanoids and savage wildmen. The novel was bad, really bad, but it was a part of that particular tradition of the fictional Mars. And I immediately fell in love with the concept.
And that love affair still remains 40+ years later. Since 1988, I am a great fan of the Space 1889 “steampunk on Mars” role-playing game, in which our Swedish scientists travel along the canals, thwarting the diabolical schemes of the Stench Abyss cult and furthering the interests of king Oscar. My own game version of this Mars is more pulpish, less Victorian (link to a Swedish PDF >>>).
Continue to part 2 — link >>>
*Americans like Leigh Brackett, Robert Heinlein, Edgar Rice Burroughs; British like Michael Moorcock, W E Johns; Swedes like Sven Wernström.