The best science fiction novels about Mars colonization

Bruce Balfour, PhD Author Of The Forge of Mars
By Bruce Balfour, PhD

The Books I Picked & Why

Red Mars

By Kim Stanley Robinson

Book cover of Red Mars

Why this book?

Hard SF writers need to build believable worlds as seen from a variety of character perspectives. These stories require a ton of research to create the details about how technologies may develop and how cultures might respond to those changes to make the story world credible. When I was researching other hard SF novels written about Mars in the early 1990s, Red Mars was at the top of my list because of its high level of detail and character perspectives. I worked for NASA and am picky about technology projections. Although the technologies have continued to change, the novel (published in 1992 with the story starting in 2026) still holds up well in terms of colonization strategies and in terms of the overpopulation and environmental destruction issues as drivers for migration to Mars. 


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Moving Mars: A Novel

By Greg Bear

Book cover of Moving Mars: A Novel

Why this book?

What if you have an established culture on Mars in 2171 that wants to be independently governed? What if Mars develops a powerful new technology linking human brains to the most advanced AI ever built, giving them almost magical powers of teleportation? I like this book because it’s another great example of how to make advanced technologies and social developments believable through a small number of character perspectives. Arthur C. Clarke said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and I appreciate how this novel was able to accomplish that. As a social scientist, I also appreciate the political aspects of this world as shown through the female lead, who starts as a young student protestor for Martian independence and evolves into a seasoned politician.


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Mars

By Ben Bova

Book cover of Mars

Why this book?

After spending a few weeks on the Navajo lands in Northern Arizona in 1988, I wanted to write my book from the holistic and naturalistic perspective of a young Navajo who had worked for NASA and lived off the reservation for several years (loosely based on a friend of mine). As it turned out, Ben Bova got there ahead of me in 1992, sending a Navajo geologist on the first crewed mission to Mars. While he’s there, he makes a discovery that also ties into Navajo culture. I have always appreciated the worldview of the Navajo people, and characters with this perspective offer a different lens for interpreting Martian landscapes and the possibilities of a new frontier that can be settled without being destroyed by human activity.


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Stranger in a Strange Land

By Robert A. Heinlein

Book cover of Stranger in a Strange Land

Why this book?

Heinlein was another master at world building. If you’ve ever heard the slang term, “grok,” meaning “to understand something intuitively,” this is the novel where that originated. Published in 1961, you would think this book about a young man raised by Martians who goes to Earth for the first time (as an instant wealthy celebrity) would be too dated, but it’s a classic satire about Western culture that uses humor to explore concepts such as free love, individualism, and the dangers of mixing religion with politics. I had the privilege of having a few conversations with Heinlein back when I was adapting his The Moon is a Harsh Mistress into a computer game for Interplay in 1987 (one year before he died at age 80), and have always liked his ability to make future human societies believable.


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The Martian Chronicles

By Ray Bradbury

Book cover of The Martian Chronicles

Why this book?

Ray Bradbury wrote a lot of stories that were warnings, using a lyrical and humanistic style that makes you feel both the sense of wonder about “colonizing” a new world while also demonstrating the hubris of our culture. When the first humans land on Mars, it turns out that Martians have been living there for thousands of years and they really don’t care about the new arrivals who look somewhat like themselves. Most of Bradbury’s colonizers inadvertently destroy the ancient Martian culture and environment just as they have destroyed Earth. This book is really a set of linked short stories that use satire and poetic language to demonstrate how humans are still children who can’t be trusted with the technologies they have created.


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