Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Martian canals

Martian canals

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s vision of Mars in A Princess of Mars [1] owes a debt to Percival Lowell’s astronomical observations, but itself propagated a specific image of the planet in the public consciousness.

In 1895, Percival Lowell published Mars [2], a summary of his observations of the planet. His descriptions of Martian ‘canals’ were influenced by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s references to ‘canali’ [3 – see image], more properly translated as ‘channels’ or ‘gullies’. The concept of Martian canals, in this and Lowell’s later works [4], fuelled many people’s belief that Mars was an inhabited, ruined world.

Burroughs, who was aware of Lowell’s theories, included ‘the famous Martian waterways, or canals, so-called by our earthly astronomers’ in his vision of Mars. The canals have primary importance in the novel, controlled by the red Martians and the source of conflict between the races of the planet. Extrapolating from Lowell’s vision of a ruined world, Burroughs introduced Atmosphere Plants, combating the environmental threat of extinction of life. In his descriptions of ‘arid and semi-arid land’, ‘ruined edifices of the ancient city’ and ‘partially ruined towers of ancient Thark’, Burroughs aligned John Carter’s observations to Lowell’s popularly-believed findings.

While Lowell did influence other writers at the time of the publication of his work, including H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds [5], it was Burrough’s Barsoom series that proved the greater catalyst for the public perception of Mars. The concept of Martian canals remains popular today, as well as being a staple in literary depictions of the planet. Canals appear in The Martian Chronicles [6] by Ray Bradbury, who ‘admired Burrough’s Martian tales because they were romantic and moved the blood as much as the mind’ [7]. Many writers who later became prominent science-fiction authors were similarly influenced at an early age by Burroughs’s vision of Mars.

[1] Edgar Rice Burroughs – A Princess of Mars (1917)
[2] Percival Lowell – Mars (1895)
[3] Historical map of planet Mars by Giovanni Schiaparelli (1888)
[4] Percival Lowell – Mars and Its Canals (1906)
[5] H.G. Wells – The War of the Worlds (1898)
[6] Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles (1950)
[7] Aaron Parrett, Introduction: Edgar Rice Burroughs – The Martian Tales Trilogy, Barnes and Noble edition (2006)

Submitted to Coursera as essay 07 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2.5

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