Martian Landscape (NASA)

Plot-a-Day: Planets of The Solar System – Mars

Our solar system is an awesome place for stories and adventure, and there’s also a lot we still need to explore and discover.

In the next half-dozen installments of Plot-a-Day, I will post ideas about the various planets, moons or asteroids of the solar system. And to star this series off let’s take a look at Mars.

Mars (NASA/Hubble Space Telescope)
Mars (NASA/Hubble Space Telescope)

The red planet has fascinated mankind for thousands of years, and has been center to many a science fiction story over the past century: Martian invasions, Princesses of Mars, Ancient Canals, but also the human exploration and colonization of Mars are all subjects that resonate deeply with us. It’s a great place for all kinds of stories.

  • Up until the mid-20th Century, people thought there might have been a civilization on Mars. You know, canals, ancient cities, dried-up seabeds. Of course we now know that no such civilization ever existed, but if you are doing an alternate reality setting then things might be very different. And of course you can always go down the conspiracy theory “NASA is covering it up” route, although that’s a bit of a stretch.
  • In a setting where Mars is inhabited, an invasion from the “Red Planet” is a common trope.

War of The Worlds: The Defining "Invasion from Mars" Book
War of The Worlds: The Defining “Invasion from Mars” Book

  • On a formerly inhabited Mars, the exploration of a ruined Martian city is a great archetypical activity. Especially when the archaeologists start noticing eerie similarities to certain ruins found in the south Pacific.
  • In settings and fiction from more recent years, Mars often serves as a basis for aliens from elsewhere, or is the site of an ancient alien base that mankind discovers. Technologies found there are then used as a rationale for FTL hyperdrives or any other magic technologies the author needs. The discovery and exploration of such a base makes for a good story, as does the inevitable international conflict over the control of the base and its technologies.
  • Mars will almost certainly be the first planet we land on; simply because it’s close and the environment is comparatively non-hostile. The first mission to Mars is a story that has been told over and over again and there’s probably no reason why it should not be told another time.
  • The colonization of Mars is another common topic, either with or without terraforming. My understanding is that terraforming of Mars is probably a pipe dream because of the lack of a Martian magnetic field that would protect the planet from solar wind; but there might be a solution for that problem. Colonists could probably live in domed cities or underground, however, and since the Martian gravity is only a third of Earth’s, exploiting Mars for its resources might be feasible. If there’s money to be made, sooner or later someone will find a way to do it.
  • After Mars is colonized, it will eventually fight for independence. This is a big trope, so you should probably twist this a little. For example, Mars may not be united in its struggle, or perhaps Mars is independent already and Earth is trying to annex it – especially after the alien ruins were discovered. The Martian colonies could be the last remnant of a fallen Terran superpower, and the nation that defeated the superpower is now coming after the colonies.
  • Martian bacteria or even higher life forms could lie dormant under the Martian deserts, and awaken once terraforming begins. Such life-forms might turn out to be deadly or, in the case of animals, might be borderline sentient. See The Sandkings for one example.
  • We know that caves exist on Mars, and it’s entirely plausible that we may find many strange things in them once we go looking. You could easily use this as a rationale why we haven’t found life forms or alien bases – they’re underground. Or they might be dull, lifeless cavities under the desert. Either way – if you are setting a story on Mars, consider some Martian spelunking.
  • On the subject of Terraforming: Maybe we will see some strange changes on Mars before we even get there. Atmospheric changes. The planet warms up. Scientists can’t explain these changes – but it quickly becomes evident that someone is already terraforming Mars. Depending on your setting these could be Martians who woke up from their million-years slumber; alien refugees who arrived in our solar system, found that Earth was already occupied, but can’t move on to someplace else – so they started terraforming Mars; or a supervillain who decided that the Earth is not Enough and to set up his main base oN Mars.
  • In some settings, Mars becomes a powerful political entity in solar system affairs (Buck Rogers XXVc comes to mind), in others, it’s an industrial power house (Warhammer 40k). You can easily set any sort of espionage or political campaign in such a setting.
  • Mars can easily serve as a fantasy setting, as well. Either by using a “populated Mars” akin to Barsoom (Dark Sun does this)

Martian Landscape (NASA)
Martian Landscape (NASA)

Personally, I lvoe Mars. It’s a desert world, but it’s complex enough to feel like a real place. I think this is due to our fairly extended knowledge of Mars, and the amount of pictures we have – compare it to, say, Venus which is really not nearly as tantalizing. I believe you can set any sort of adventure or story on Mars, as long as you twist the ideas around and make them your own, and be better off for it. But of course I am heavily influenced by the science fiction stories of my early childhood. So please do excuse me while I grab an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel and start digging a canal in my backyard.

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2 thoughts on “Plot-a-Day: Planets of The Solar System – Mars


  1. Good stuff as usual. Nice ad too 😉 The Martian caves idea is one I hadn’t ever considered. A little Red Planet Indiana Jones might make an awesome adventure. We set out to colonize (I can’t believe that’s real now) and we know that underground is the only option. We find freaky remnants of what was a Martian civilization before the atmosphere was lost. I was watching a Discovery Channel special, today in fact, that said Mars’ northern hemisphere has a thinner crust than the southern. They think it was hit by something massive enough that it scattered much of the crust into dust that then settled lower. They know that there was liquid water on Mars at one time, and theorize that this big collison is what destroyed the atmosphere allowing solar radiation to overheat the planet and boil off the water. Neato!

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