Editorial – Nov 2014: Where there’s dead planets there is no life.

November 6, 2014 | By | Reply More

Hello everyone

You know how it is, you get a thought in your head and then start investigating it and start a chain reaction. Not a big one yet, grant you, but through Pauline Morgan, I got the Birmingham Science Fiction Group thinking even if only a couple of their members, Michael Jones and Rog Peyton, solutions didn’t beat my stop-off point that I couldn’t defend myself against their suggestions beyond that point. Even SF expert Dave Langford of Ansible fame thought there might be some obscure short story hidden away that might prove me wrong. So, let’s see if I can get a bigger chain reaction and go world-wide and ask you reading this to put your thinking caps on and see what you can come up with. Now there’s an SF scenario if ever I saw one.

Planet Stories Pulp.

Originally, I was going to present this information as an actual anniversary but now it seems more prudent to present the facts but with only two months left in the year and see if anyone of you could dispute it. If not, then we can all have a celebration in December. It’s not as if anything else is going on then after all.

What am I talking about? That’s right I haven’t actually said yet. So, settle back and have a ponder.

It all started when I was thinking about the last time that there was any Science Fiction where there was any non-human indigenous civilisations on other planets in the Solar System. That’s not so crazy as it might seem. Until nearly the middle of the last century, Man still thought there was life on the other planets hereabouts.

I even had an astronomy book that still speculated on that from the 1950s that had been handed down to me when I was young. You can blame Percival Lowell for mistaking the reflections of his retinas in his telescope lenses for thinking that there was life on Mars in 1906, carrying on the tradition of Giovanni Schiaparelli in thinking that that there was a civilisation on the red planet. However, considering that everyone else thought the same, shows the problem with the reflective lenses of the time. With Venus covered in clouds, it was even easier to speculate that there might be some life existing on the surface because it meant that it had an atmosphere. Of course, no one knew what the clouds of Venus actually were at the time or that they could create a greenhouse effect that made that world a real hell-hole.

No one really knew for sure until the early 1960s when Mariner 2 got close to Venus in 1962 and in 1964, Mariner 4 showed Mars was a dead planet. It wasn’t until 1976 when Mariner landed that the final proof was indisputable and that Martians weren’t hiding an extinct species. However, this places my first piece of evidence that 1964 is my determined end point for any belief that we had life on the other planets. Who was going to fight against actual evidence? If you wanted life on other planets in Science Fiction, you had to look elsewhere.

This kind of analysis needs some point where fact takes over and in Science Fiction, authors do take note of what happens in the real world and they adjust their fiction likewise afterwards. Some might speculate that civilisations might have existed on Mars and Venus in the distant past and we missed them but this seems even more improbable now. Even space-farers from other stars would give them a miss, even for a brief stay over.

When it came to fiction of life on our other worlds pre-1964, stories were rife across comicbooks but also pulp Science Fiction as well. Aliens sold comics. They sold novels. They sold magazines. You only have to look at Frank R. Paul’s covers for the Gernsback magazines to see that having an alien or its spaceship on the cover sold issues in a big way. People truly wanted life to be out there, regardless of what their intentions were.

Picking out examples and I’d be here to doomsday. There’s certainly enough out there to pick from. Even if they thought that the atmosphere might not be anything like Earth’s, they adjusted life to fit accordingly. After all, the likes of luminaries like Isaac Asimov had sentient Jovians in one of his robot stories ‘Victory Unintentional’ in 1942. Even fantasy writer Ray Bradbury did with his collective anthology ‘The Martian Chronicles’ (1950) which was also given a TV series in 1980 although, as that was based on an existing property and a known fantasy, we’ll kind of ignore the latter date. I was more surprised that the end point was 1964 with a children’s TV show which means we have an effective 50 year anniversary that everyone seems to have forgotten.

What was more surprising was that the majority of prose Science Fiction authors appear to have given up a few years previously to 1964. Had SF writers already given up on the idea before Mariner and saw the fate of such stories? The only one I could come up with was Robert Heinlein’s ‘Stranger In A Strange Land’ from 1961 where he had Valentine Michael Smith brought up on Mars although the story never actually went there or really saw his Martians. It was a lot easier to find the last film was being ‘Santa Claus Conquers The Martians’ in 1964 although you’d have to call that one a fantasy or a space fantasy if you must. TV wise, UK’s ‘Space Patrol’ (1963-64) puppet series had aliens on all the major planets although none other than the Venusians and Martians were ‘normal’ looking and came from Earth-atmosphere planets. ‘Space Patrol’ also makes it the last juvenile SF in that category as well. Lest anyone asks about ‘Fireball XL-5’, they didn’t meet aliens in the Solar system and was released in 1962. If there was life, then it wouldn’t be like us and probably not even sentient. For those wanting a more comedic send-off, 1964 also had at Gold Key, Uncle Scrooge on the Moon but as everyone wore spacesuits hardly counts but probably an early acknowledgement that the Moon was vacant and in a vacuum. Having life on the Moon really stopped with HG Wells and even he placed his Selenites underground.

This doesn’t mean that there weren’t continuations of existing pre-1964 stories. Marvel did this with their version of HG Wells’ ‘War Of The Worlds’ with ‘Killraven’ in ‘Amazing Adventures’ in 1973-76 plus later graphic novels, although set in an alternative reality even to their Marvel Universe or even the US TV series of 1988. Sometimes, they evade a little and fit in with the facts that Mars might not have a civilisation now but millennia earlier, hence ‘The Ice Warrior’ of the same 1963 story from ‘Doctor Who’ in 1970 and later ‘The Ambassadors Of Death and the more recent ‘Waters Of Mars’ (2009) but the Time Lord reality is practically a pocket universe now. Indeed, any continuations like this has to be played out this way and not seen as belonging to our reality format. There was some revision that the Ice Warriors weren’t actually from Mars so someone was paying attention.

The same pretty much applies to Venus. People probably have the strongest images of ERB’s Mars/Barsoom (1912-64) and Venus/Amtor (1934-70) stories but they extended long beyond what was first thought. Putting dates to things is difficult, mostly because films like ‘Mars Attacks’ (1996) is based off a bubble gum card set from 1962. Other films and even the odd book are based off extinct Martians rather than an on-going civilisation. I think people realised early that Mars just wasn’t habitable. Don’t confuse these examples of being new fiction breaking the 1964 end point.

Please don’t confuse Science Fiction with science fantasy where the latter is more like border-line fantasy. As the name suggests, in that particular sub-genre, anything goes. Harry Harrison’s ‘Star Smashers Of The Galaxy Rangers’ (1973) used cheese for fuel and was a parody. Gregory Benford and Godon Eklund’s novella ‘If The Stars Are Gods’ (1974) gives no indication where the aliens came from. Hardly a sentient ran civilisation.

For the record, ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ by Walter Tevis only implied Mars and Roger Zelazny’s ‘A Rose For Ecclesiastes’ both appeared in 1963 which meant they had to have been written earlier than their print year. There’s always bound to be few straddlers so check release dates and then minus one or two years for when they were being written. Editors, even back then, weren’t going to stop a known SF author’s work going into print when they had the material available.

Whether there was life on any of the moons of the other planets, none of the SF writers really took any chances with these. Far better to seek life and new civilisations and boldly go elsewhere by coming up with new space travel technology to go to other star systems. It was a safer ground that to use our own Solar system. Science Fiction kept in step with what science had shown which is understandable. It was the new frontier after all.

It keeps going back to 1964 as the end point which is fifty years ago and therefore an anniversary year of closure. The end of civilised sentient life in our Solar System other than on Earth as we know it.

Like all theories, this now has to be tested. I’ve set up a separate poll if you want to offer any books or stories that appeared after that time. Include date and author and, more importantly, why you think it qualifies. If I can’t disqualify it then the threshold isn’t broken. A win for commonsense in the Science Fiction mind of its day of not backing a dead horse, Martian or Venusian.

You will have to bear in mind the criteria is of indigenous civilisations living on the planets in our Solar system with atmospheres. Alien colonisers living under domes don’t count. They need an evolutionary tree or ecology brought up there. As there’s no proof that there have been extinct sentient Martians, then for the moment these should be ignored. Likewise, any accounts for why these planets atmospheres have changed. Mars has a weak carbon dioxide atmosphere because it has a low mass that couldn’t retain oxygen not because of any atomic wars. You’ll note that I’m centring on Mars more than Venus, simply because since HG Wells, it was the planet of choice. Terraforming doesn’t count if you’re thinking of Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Mars’ books neither.

If you can name any stories leading into 1965, remember that they were probably written in 1963. I would be surprised had any been written in 1964 with the Mariner information known. I expect most were waiting for the results of the Mariner missions. Any good SF author would have thrown such stories into the bin knowing that they could never sell them.

If there were any after, then all it means is pushing back the anniversary a year or so. If there isn’t then you have two months left to celebrate.

I should point out that because of delays, I’ve discovered by advance copy that next March, Bantam/Random House are releasing ‘Old Venus’ edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois with modern author stories when people there was life on Venus. I mean, even today, who’s going to believe that, especially when in the introduction they also agree that 1962 was the year things changed. An even weirder side note, does this mean we’re at the start of a fourteenth sub-genre of Science Fiction called retro SF?

So, have a think, rummage through your collections and see if you can prove me wrong.


Thank you, take care, good night and we’re really alone in this immediate star system.


Geoff Willmetts

editor: SFCrowsnest.org.uk


A Zen thought: Death is an interesting experience but I wouldn’t want to do it all the time


Observation: If you look at the screen time of mentors, Qui-Gon Jinn, Ben Kenobi and Yoda, in the ‘Star Wars’ franchise, why do I get the feeling that Luke Skywalker might not last more than a third of the way through the new film.


Observation: An odd thing about the original Thunderbirds TV series is that although the Tracy family are seen invariably smoking, the exceptions being Alan,, there doesn’t appear to be any ashtrays. All right, there is an ashtray on Jeff Tracy’s desk but considering unless it has an automatic emptying function when it flips on its side, I doubt if any of them would use it.


Observation: Looking at the celebrity teeth on the box these days, I feel like being a horse doctor by wanting to examine their teeth with a UV light.


NOTE: Although there are details below, please observe the bigger message elsewhere on site. I’m recruiting reviewers. If you’re living in the UK and love books, read the notes. You might be want I’m looking for and I do train people up.




Category: Culture, Scifi

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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