We've seen so many Mars images in recent years, our nearest neighbor might be starting to seem a tad familiar. Science fiction author John Updike aims to fix that, with some help from National Geographic.

Updike has an essay in the new issue, all about the history of people studying Mars, from its mythology to its elliptical orbit and topography. Written in Updike's typically florid style, the essay talks about the pull Mars has exerted on the imaginations of humans, from the ancient Babylonians up to the present.

There are some pretty cool revelations, like this one:

One of the keenest eyed cartographers of the planet was Giovanni Schiaparelli, who employed the Italian word canali for perceived linear connections between presumed bodies of water. The word could have been translated as "channels," but "canals" caught the imagination of the public and in particular that of Percival Lowell, a rich Boston Brahmin who in 1893 took up the cause of the canals as artifacts of a Martian civilization. As an astronomer, Lowell was an amateur and an enthusiast but not a crank. He built his own observatory on a mesa near Flagstaff, Arizona, more than 7,000 feet high and, in his own words, "far from the smoke of men"; his drawings of Mars were regarded as superior to Schiaparelli's even by astronomers hostile to the Bostonian's theories. Lowell proposed that Mars was a dying planet whose highly intelligent inhabitants were combating the increasing desiccation of their globe with a system of irrigation canals that distributed and conserved the dwindling water stored in the polar caps.

Did you know that Carl Sagan believed "polar bear-sized creatures" could be roaming the Martian surface, as late as 1965?


Updike also takes in science fiction, from H.G. Wells to Edgar Rice Burroughs, with obvious relish, especially when he talks about virile humans mating with Martian maidens. He concludes by saying Mars isn't really as dead as we thought in the 1970s, now that we've seen how geographically active and varied it really is.

The accompanying illustrations, as you'd expect from NG, are compelling and fresh — there's a Mars gallery, but also a really nice interactive Mars timeline dating back to the Soviet Union's failed 1960 Mars probes, Marsnik and Marsnik 2. (I didn't know about these.) [National Geographic]