[originally posted here at Castalia House]
Mists of Mars by George A. Whittington appeared in the Summer 1945 issue of Planet Stories.
Whittington does a good deal better, I feel, with this Planetary Romance than with his space thriller A Battlefield in Black; with fewer characters, he’s able to bring more life to them without too much taken up by the Lt. Whatshisnames and Ensign The Other Guys.
Mars is plagued with murders in the mists. Earth miners have been turning up missing only to be found dead out in the Martian deserts following incidents of strange mists enveloping regions of the planet. Barry Williams, a space cop investigator type, has been sent by earth to look into the disappearances.
While he’s investigating, the mists descend upon him, but rather than murdering him, a beautiful Martian Princess named Deisanocta, who looks kind of like Greta Garbo in a nightie in Kiemle’s illustration, shows up and warns him that he needs to get off Mars; he’s not like the other humans here, so he will be spared the Martians’ vengeance.
See, Craig Grey, who is basically a sci-fi version of the Penguin, managed to get the Earth government to declare all Martians savages and animals; the thugs he’s brought with him to Mars are pillaging what treasures can be mined and are free to kill and abuse the natives with impunity. When Williams survives the mists, the miner folks take him for a Martie-sympathizer – one of them pulls a ray gun and threatens Williams. Of course, what happens when you pull a gun on a cop happens, but the miner dindunuffin, so Williams finds himself on the run from angry company men and Craig Grey’s thugs.
Williams joins up with the Martians and ultimately learns their plot to make a simultaneous strike on all of the Terran colonial facilities using the Mists as cover to take back their planet. One way or another, it will be a blood bath. Williams has to convince the Martians that if they slaughter all the Terrans, the Earth government will have no choice but to come in and exterminate them in retaliation; what they need to do is prove that Craig Grey falsified the initial reports that the Martians were savage and animalistic so that he could force them off their land and effectively enslave them.
The twist in this story hinges on a Martian prophecy about “Justice from the Crypt”; no one, even the Martians, knows what to make of this riddle, be it prophecy, curse or code for a secret weapon hidden in the ancient Vaults of Mars’ nobility. It turns out to be a literal Rocket from the Tombs; the Martians were humans who had landed on Mars in a colony ship centuries before! The Martians get recognized as humans by Earth, Craig Grey gets his monopoly on Mars busted, and the beautiful Martian Princess leader of the resistance lives happily ever after with her dashing space cop.
In the sci-fi pulps, Mars is frequently a thought experiment in the effects of colonialism. Generally the story goes that an ancient culture (sometimes peaceful, sometimes warlike) has fallen under the authority of a foreign power, in this case Earth, and is exploited by monopoly that forces natives into a sort of subservient class. This usually leads to some kind of violent attempt to throw off the yoke that turns out either for better or for worse. Usually there is some coming together between natives and a sympathetic outsider to resolve the situation. A few notable examples I’ve covered in the past include Leigh Brackett’s Nemesis from Terra and Raymond Jones’ The Martian Circe. Where Mists of Mars differs is, rather than inhuman analogs for primitive displaced cultures, the Martians are fellow men who have been dehumanized by propaganda (and maybe capitalism? A Marxist SF story? Say it ain’t so!)
Writers in the Pulps could use Mars as a tool for exploring themes of colonialism, racism, noble savage myths, etc, and do so safely because hey, they’re only Martians and it’s only science fiction!, but there was clearly a zeitgeist about Mars and a desire to use it to tackle moral issues of slavery and treatment of indigenous peoples. Martians of the 30s and 40s weren’t H.G. Wells’ conquest bent inhuman tentacle monsters; they were a chance to question both the morality of conquest (it was wrong to take their land, enslave and murder them) and the morality of the reprisals of a conquered people (it is wrong for them wantonly murder colonists), sometimes offering answers and hope, sometimes just posing the question.