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We are the Martians

A familiar theme in science fiction is the idea that life here evolved elsewhere. Such scenarios range from the plausible idea that earth was seeded by microbes or bio-precursor chemicals from space (a family of scientific theories known as panspermia) to the more outlandish suggestion that the human race first arrived on Earth, fully-formed, in a fleet of spaceships. A recurring theme in these stories is the idea that humanity originated, in some form, on our neighbouring planet Mars. So how has science fiction dealt with this idea, and why is it so attractive in the human imagination?

[Caution: since martian origins are often the twist or big reveal at the end of a narrative, I’ve been unable to avoid some spoilers in the following.]

Mars is Heaven?

Amongst the earliest authors to explore the concept that humanity has a strong link with Mars was French astronomer and science populariser Camille Flammarion in his novel Uranie (1889, translated as Urania in 1890). In this narrative, a man’s spirit goes on a psychic tour, exploring the various conditions and forms of life in the Solar System. Amongst his revelations is the discovery that humans who die on Earth are reincarnated on Mars, complete with their memories intact. As a result, the Martian population are effectively human.

As with many learned people of the late nineteenth century, Flammarion was intrigued by the possibilities of psychical research and spiritualism, and it is likely this, rather than his scientific background, which is reflected in the reincarnation narrative of Uranie. However, his firm belief, based on the science of the time, that life on other worlds might be abundant and of varied forms, does make this book a fascinating glimpse into contemporary views of the Solar System, and of the close connection between Earth and its neighbouring planet.

The same idea - that Mars is, in fact, Heaven - recurs in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles story of that name (“Mars is Heaven”, 1948, [1]). Here a crew of Earth-humans land for the first time on Mars and meet what appear to be their own deceased relatives, in replicas of their own homes. At the risk of spoilers, I should note that this in fact turns out not to reflect reality. However the connection felt by the crew to those who went before, and their willingness to believe, again speaks to the persistence of the idea that the populations of Mars and Earth may have a close relationship.

Martian Origins

Quatermass and Roney discuss the remains of a Martian in the BBC version of Quatermass and the pitA more physical scenario is presented in the classic science fiction drama Quatermass and the Pit (BBC TV, 1959; Film, 1967), written by Nigel Kneale. Here a smooth metal object, initially believed to be an unexploded bomb, is found in a construction tunnel for an extension to the London Underground. It rapidly becomes clear that the object is, in fact, an alien spaceship, crewed by tripedal insectile aliens. However in and around the vessel, the investigators find oddly distorted humanoid skeletons, and they come to the conclusion that the Martians manipulated early hominids, modifying their intelligence and behaviour. While the original Martians are now extinct, they live on through their human progeny. In a memorable finale, the reactivation of the spaceship triggers a resurgence of Martian racial memories which threatens to overturn millennia of human development and civilisation. As Professor Quatermass himself declares:

"If another of these things should ever be found, we are armed with knowledge, but we also have knowledge of ourselves and of the ancient, destructive urges in us that grow more deadly as our populations increase, and approach in size and complexity those of ancient Mars. Every war crisis, witch-hunt, race-riot, purge is a reminder and a warning. We are the Martians. If we cannot control the inheritance within us, this will be their second dead planet."

An interesting aspect of this scenario is that it explicitly addresses the big question regarding any extraterrestrial origin for humanity - in that case, why is the fossil record of human evolution and the human genome so entirely consistent with the Earth biosphere? Here the Martians manipulate humanity but do not supercede or replace it, so that while we are their inheritors culturally and psychologically (and we only exist in our current form because of intervention) the evolutionary chain is unbroken.

A still more direct physical descent of humanity from Martians is explored in the French-language television drama Missions (TV, 2017-2021). The first series of this psychological thriller follows the trials of the first two (privately-funded) exploration crews to land on Mars, and the uncertain but deep connection between one crew’s psychologist, Jeanne Renoir, and a mysterious individual who appears to be a long-lost cold war cosmonaut. At its climax, Martian ruins are discovered, complete with apparently-human remains. Over the course of the following two series, alongside a journey of self discovery, it becomes clear that the connection between the two planets is profound, and that a Martian artificial intelligence is still self-aware and has been manipulating humanity for its own ends, in order to create a “better” future.

Jeanne discovers ancient ruins on Mars in Missions (season 1, episode 9)Missions focuses more on the philosophy, relationships and emotions of characters in this scenario than on the practicalities, leaving many details obscure. At least one parallel world and elements of time travel lurk in the complex story line. Nonetheless, we are told that humanity started on the red planet and depleted its resources. It is, of course, now doing the same to Earth. The Martian race was seeded on Earth millions of years ago, leaving behind a desperate remnant in search of utopia and unable to survive the world they’d destroyed. In the context of the series, this anti-exploitation theme is posed as a direct challenge to the wealthy industrialists who financed the Mars missions and the commercial motivations underlying it.

Exhausted World

The theme that, having already stripped one planet of its resources, humanity is now doing the same to a second recurs elsewhere in science fiction.

“Survey Team” by Philip K Dick (1954) is a short story following the first landing of near-future humanity on Mars. The crew are desperate to prospect for metals, minerals and other resources that are desperately needed by an overpopulated, war-torn and over-polluted Earth. Their horror at finding Mars barren is visceral and they roundly curse the long-departed Martians, before finding a telescope which reveals that this locust-like race of devourers left for Earth six hundred thousand years before. The explorers themselves are the descendents of the aliens they’ve been cursing. The story ends with most of the crew desperate to discover a space drive which would let them find a third world to strip, and only a lone voice objecting.

While it’s a little less bleak than Dick’s vision, the Paratime series also considers the relocation of a Martian humanity to Earth. In his short story “Genesis” (1951) and Paratime series of fictions [2], H. Beam Piper also explored the idea that Homo sapiens developed on Mars, and was seeded on Earth in the distant past by colonisation since Martian resources were depleted. In a parallel to Dick’s "Survey Team", the central characters of these stories are part of a society that exhausted Mars’ resources and then Earth’s before looking elsewhere to supply their needs. However a key premise of Piper’s Paratime stories is the existence of a spectrum of parallel alternate universes probing a distribution of probabilities - in the majority of alternates, the Martian colonisation plan failed, leaving the survivors reduced from atomic power to the stone age and unaware of their origins; our universe is one of these. The main characters instead occupy a timeline where the colonisation succeeded, and the resource-hungry populace is now parasitic, harvesting the assets of the uncountable parallel worlds which are less developed.

Futuristic technology from Paratime story Police Operation, from Astounding - July 1948
[Image: a glimpse at the futuristic technologies of the Paratime home time line in Piper's story "Police Operation", Astounding, July 1948]

Notably, in this paradigm, evolution proceeded perfectly in parallel on the two worlds, with a certain delay on Earth. As a result, the early colonists encountered, fought with and eventually superceded the Earth-native Neanderthals - thus explaining the paleontological evidence of hominid evolution, with a seamless transition into anatomically modern (Martian) humans around 75-100 thousand years before present. Whether such a close genetic parallel - sufficient to permit direct replacement and even interbreeding - is possible would seem unlikely, even set amidst the other implausibilities in the series.

The Lure of Mars

But why is the idea of a human origin on Mars so pervasive in the popular imaginary?

A human origin elsewhere - wherever that might be - always seems to have exerted a powerful draw. It’s tempting to speculate that this appeals to a sense of human exceptionalism that can be traced back back to the controversy over evolution itself. By denying the idea that humanity evolved, unaided, on the Earth, it reintroduces the separation between human and animal and supports the premise that humanity is in some way distinct from the animal world which we inhabit. Importantly, it does this without an appeal to religion, allowing the increasingly secular and science-oriented audience of the twentieth century the comfort of asserting human importance without appealing to the divine. A related factor of relevance is likely the attraction of claiming a great and noble heritage. The idea that we are all the rightful inheritors of a planet-spanning civilisation capable of space travel bolsters the ego of those who engage with this fiction, including those whose national or social backgrounds are not perceived to present particular distinction.

That Mars is the subject of such distant-origin stories should perhaps not be a surprise. Of our neighbouring planets only Mars or Venus could have been seen as a plausible site of human life, even as early as the start of the nineteen-hundreds. By the time the first science fiction stories were exploring our Solar System, telescopes were already studying the appearance of Mars and mapping the apparent changes of its surface features. By contrast, Venus was obscure and alien, cloud-shrouded and poorly understood. In this context, Mars would have seemed the more attractive of the terrestrial worlds. Mars would also have been favoured as an origin for human life because of its presumed age. Early theories of solar system formation suggested that the outer planets formed first, such that Mars was older than Earth, which was older in turn than Venus. Thus a migration inwards towards the Sun would make sense, particularly for a migration of an ancient civilisation which happened hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions, before present.

The barrenness of Mars - already suspected in the early nineteen hundreds and confirmed by probes in the second half of the century - also provides a powerful setting for narratives with environmental themes. In the age of the Space Race, Mars was seen as an obvious candidate for colonisation, and debates regarding whether this should be done on a commercial or philanthropic basis were active. Given the rising concerns over environmental mistreatment of Earth during the twentieth century, the idea that another world should be ravaged in the same way was already strongly emotive in 1954 when Dick published his "Survey Team" [3]. It remains so into the twenty-first century, as shown by the recent television series Missions, and in the light of interest in colonisation by commercial interests, including technology entrepreneurs. Indeed, Mars colonisation narratives remain in dialogue with “no planet B” environmental narratives in the media today.

Decades of research in both physical and genetic anthropology have now made it as certain as possible that the record of human evolution on Earth is unbroken. What’s more, detailed studies of the surface of Mars have effectively ruled out the existence of any substantive ruined civilisation. However the possibility of more subtle influences - such as those seen in Quatermass and the Pit, or the potential seeding of Earth with Martian microbes at a very early stage - remain impossible to rule out. Indeed, the idea of a Martian-origin panspermia remains an active area of scientific research.

Despite this possibility, the possibility that we are the Martians remains a dim and distant one. It likely tells us more about our own conceptions of human significance, and the way Mars can be used as a stage to mirror our own concerns, than about Mars itself. In fact, as was seen in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and in Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic Mars trilogy, it is likely that if one day we discover that we are the Martians, it will not be as a result of some distant influence reshaping the Earth, but instead result from Mars areoforming contemporary humanity.

“We are the Martians”, Elizabeth Stanway, Cosmic Stories blog, 26th February 2023.


[1] "Mars is Heaven" has been dramatised for the radio several times, including for the radio anthologies Dimension-X, X-Minus-One and Escape. Curiously, Venus has also been proposed as a human heaven in science fiction. [Return to Text]

[2] There seems to be some debate whether “Genesis” is in fact a Paratime story itself, since Piper did not include it in lists of the relevant stories. However its premise aligns closely with the series, covering one possible scenario for the colonisation itself. The Paratime stories were collected in a volume of the same name in 1981, and a number of sequels have followed from other hands since Piper’s demise. [Return to text]

[3] "Survey Team" was included in Mike Ashley's recent compilation of environmental science fiction Nature's Warnings. [Return to text]

Definition: areoform - making Mars-like, from the equivalence between Mars and Ares in ancient mythologies.

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