From antiquity, Venus has been watched from afar. Often praised for beauty, its close position to Earth and its reflective atmosphere made it stand out amongst the stars. Like Mars, Venus has played into our stories, becoming a destination for many science fiction authors. Unlike Mars, however, the planet has never quite matched that of its colder, smaller sibling, and has provided a different vision for human habitation in the solar system.
The present state of Mars allows for some hope for human habitation and numerous science fiction authors have lovingly detailed the mechanics and engineering of how a human settlement might look, alongside fantastic imagery of space-suit clad colonists exploring the wonders of the Red planet as they might the American Southwest.
Habitation on Venus, on the other hand, is far more unlikely. With an atmospheric pressure over ninety times that of the Earth’s, the surface temperature hovers around a balmy 735 K (462 °C; 863 °F), enough to turn solid lead into liquid. The atmosphere is acidic and completely blocks light from the sun from reaching the surface. It is one of the most hellish locations in the solar system. But, science fiction is an optimistic genre, and even as we’ve learned about the true nature of Venus, we still visit on occasion.
Venus provides an interesting counterpoint to Mars: it’s the only planet in the Solar System named for a female goddess, who represented such themes as love, sex, fertility, and desire, due to the planet’s brilliant appearance in the sky.
According to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, depictions of Venus have been closely linked to: “Athanasius Kircher's Itinerarium Exstaticum (1656), Emanuel Swedenborg's The Earths in our Solar System (1758), and George Griffith's A Honeymoon in Space (January-July 1900 Pearson's as “Stories of Other Worlds”; exp 1901), and were influenced by the planet's longtime association with the goddess of love.”
By the mid-to-late 1700s, astronomers were beginning to examine the planet in earnest. Venus’ atmosphere was first discovered in 1761 by Mikhail Lomonosov of Russia. Thirty years later, German astronomer Johann Schröter directly observed the planet’s atmosphere with a telescope and documented several anomalies that led him to correctly guess that the planet was home to a thick atmosphere.
While the presence of such an atmosphere hindered direct study of the planet’s surface, it provided wonderful fodder for authors: with clouds hiding the planet’s surface, anything could exist on Venus.
Depictions of the world often included oceans or vast, steamy marshes, but always habitable, something that even scientists studying the planet couldn’t definitively rule out. It wasn’t just artists imagining this possibility: scientists such as Svante Arrhenius, who is known for his research into carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect, pushed a theory that Venus was an ideal candidate for harboring life, noting that a warm, wet environment might be similar to time periods in Earth’s past. Clouds potentially meant moisture, and a complete cloud cover might mean a lot of water.
Charles Greeley Abbot, who directed the Smithsonian Observatory, believed that Venus was essentially a twin of Earth. With plenty of moisture and similar temperatures, it was likely habitable. Should there exist life forms, humanity could enter “into fluent communication by wireless with a race brought up completely separate, having their own systems of government, social usages, religions, and surrounded by vegetation and animals entirely unrelated to any here on earth. It would be a revelation far beyond the opening of Japan, or the discoveries of Egyptologists, or the adventures of travelers in the dark continent.”
Thus, the idea of a wet Venus was grounded with some scientific backing: speculation from scientists, which in turn helped to inform public opinion and perceptions of the planet. For science fiction authors, looking to write stories about plausible science, this was a crucial component.
These perceptions carried over into the science fiction magazines. Pulp authors churned out a precursor to space opera called planetary romance, stories which featured adventures on our neighboring planets. The first to really use Venus as a setting was Planet of Peril, by Adelbert Kline, published in 1929, in which a man telepathically travels to Venus and goes on a variety of adventures.
Fellow author Edgar Rice Burroughs also went to Venus with his Amtor series.
The books followed the model of his well-known Baroom novels, but took place on Venus, following the adventures of Carson Napier. Early in the first entry in the series, Pirates of Venus, published in 1934, Burroughs introduces the planet:
“Yes, and I would prefer going to Venus,” he replied. “Enveloped in clouds, its surface forever invisible to man, it presents a mystery that intrigues the imagination; but recent astronomical research suggests conditions there inimical to the support of any such life as we know on earth. It has been thought by some that, held in the grip of the Sun since the era of her pristine fluidity, she always presents the same face to him, as does the Moon to earth. If such is the case, the extreme heat of one hemisphere and the extreme cold of the other would preclude life.”
Here, he hits all of the right notes, indicating the mysterious surface (and how it stimulates the imagination!), that it supports life, and that the planet is referred to in feminine terms.
Other authors followed in Burroughs’ footsteps with planetary romance stories: Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore, each covered the planet in their proto-space opera fiction, and incorporated these early preconceptions into their fiction. Moore’s 1934 story, “Black Thirst,” originally published in Weird Tales, depicted Venus as a planet populated with beautiful aliens:
“A long black cloak hid her, but the light fell upon her face, heart-shaped under the little three-cornered velvet cap that Venusian women wear, fell on the ripples of half-hidden bronze hair; and by that sweet triangular face and shining hair he knew her for one of the Minga maids—those beauties that from the beginning of history had been bred in the Minga stronghold for loveliness and grace, as race-horses are bred on earth, and reared from earlier infancy in the art of charming men.”
This ties in nicely with the perceptions of the planet, and its classical history: Venus, a planet revered for its beautiful appearance in the sky, passed along these virtues to its inhabitants.
Leigh Brackett, in her story, ”The Enchantress of Venus” (Planet Stories, Fall 1949), followed with her own conventions: she focused not only with the climate, “The air was heavy with moisture, tainted with the muddy fecundity of the land that brooded westward behind the eternal fog,” but also with the sense of mystery and unknown: “Even on its own world, the red Sea is hardly more than legend. It lies behind the Mountains of White Cloud, the great barrier wall that hides away half a planet. Few men have gone beyond that barrier, into the vast mystery of Inner Venus. Fewer still have come back.”
Ray Bradbury, another practitioner of the Planetary Romance subgenre, visited the planet on occasion. One notable entry is “The Long Rain,” published in Planet Stories in May 1950. Four astronauts crash-land on Venus and seek safety amidst Venus’ endless rainstorms:
“The rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped.”
As scientific interest began to heat up for the planet in the 1950s, so too did our perceptions of the world begin to change. After the initial discoveries of the planet’s atmosphere in the late 1700s, astronomers conducted little research on the planet. It wasn’t until the 1940s that researchers took another look.
There were indications that the authors were correct: in the late 1930s and early 1940s, astronomer Rupert Wildt studied the Venetian atmosphere and concluded that there was likely a runaway greenhouse effect on the planet, caused by high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Later that decade, Harry Wexler, the head of the U.S. Weather Bureau, began a study of planetary atmospheres, and helped push research that established that Venus’ atmosphere was not breathable. Further studies published in the late 1950s found that not only was the composition of the atmosphere toxic to human life, it was incredibly hot. “It was very disappointing to many people,” one of the discoverers recalled, “who were reluctant to give up the idea of a sister planet and perhaps even the possibility of life.”
Interestingly, 1953’s novel The Space Merchants was also ahead of the curve on the popular perception of Venus and its atmosphere. With their novel Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth shifted away from the imaginative vision of Venus that other authors had played with.
And the closing question of their youngest babbler (“Mommy, when I grow up kin I take my littul boys and girls to a place as nice as Venus?”) cued the switch to a highly imaginative series of shots of Venus as it would be when the child grew up—verdant valleys, crystal lakes, brilliant mountain vistas.
“The commentary did not exactly deny, and neither did it dwell on, the decades of hydroponics and life in hermetically sealed cabins that the pioneers would have to endure while working on Venus’ unbreathable atmosphere and waterless chemistry.”
Kornbluth and Pohl’s novel does two things simultaneously: one, it recognizes the popular image that science fiction itself had created: an aspirational destination for spacefaring adventurers, and a potential new home to escape from Earth’s problems.
Two, it introduces a reality check. The Space Merchants is a satirical novel, taking a number of science fiction’s tropes and inverting them. The Venus imagined by science fiction authors never existed, except in speculative stories, written either by the aforementioned authors, or by marketing agents.
The Space Merchants predicted this to some degree—it’s unclear how: if it was dumb luck, or if Pohl and Kornbluth had been paying attention to the cutting edge research that had been conducted by Wildt. Either way, theirs was one of the first that depicted Venus accurately: inhabitable.
Other stories began to pick up on the science: Arthur C. Clarke’s short story ‘Before Eden’, published in the June 1961 issue of Amazing Stories, described the planet as having a “green auroral light, filtering down through clouds that had rolled unbroken for a million years, gave the scene an underwater appearance, and the way in which all distant objects blurred into the haze added to the impression.”
By the 1960s, research on Venus was beginning to heat up, and was about to shatter our collective image of the planet. NASA’s Goldstone Observatory carried out the first radar studies on the planet, discovering that the planet rotated in the opposite direction of its orbit around the sun, and confirmed its size and axis—Venus boasted a 6,052 kilometer radius, a near match perfect for Earth’s own 6,371 radii.
During this time, the space race was beginning to heat up between the United States and the Soviet Union. While popularly seen as the race to the moon, each superpower was intent on leaving their mark on other locations around the solar system—namely, Mars and Venus.
When it came to exploration, “Venus actually made good sense,” notes Jay Gallentine in his book Ambassadors from Earth: Pioneering Explorations with Unmanned Spacecraft. “Every eighteen months the two planets are closest, and flights between them only take about one hundred and fifty days.” This made Venus a much better candidate for the earliest space probes. The first probe to be attempted was Sputnik 7, launched on February 4th, 1961. The rocket reached orbit, but failed to leave, and eventually burned up in the atmosphere.
The Soviet Union was undeterred, however: Just days later, on February 12th 1961, they successfully launched the Venera 1 probe. The probe failed just weeks before it reached Venus, and eventually passed the planet in May.
NASA had similar bad fortune with its first mission as well: Its Mariner 1 probe launched on July 22nd, 1962, and was destroyed 294.5 seconds into its launch when it began to veer off course. It was on August 27th that the first mission to Venus succeeded when Mariner swept past Venus in December, coming within 22,000 miles of the plant. It provided us with our first look at our closest planetary neighbor.
Venus, as it turned out, was a hellish world. The probe discovered that Venus was home to very high temperatures, high surface pressures, an atmosphere made up of carbon dioxide, and no magnetic field. Any thought of easy human habitation went right out the window.
The United States might have had the honor of being the first to pass by the planet, but it was the USSR who landed hardware on the planet: They launched Venera 3 in November 1965, with a mission to land on the surface. The probe’s communications system failed before it reached the planet, and it likely crash-landed. The USSR’s next probe, Venera 7 was more successful: it crashed down on December 15th, 1970 and transmitted some data back, reporting temperatures of 887 °F on the surface before it failed. More than just being the first probe to land on Venus, it was the first probe to land anywhere. Two years later, Venera 8 touched down, and sent back even more information.
NASA’s Mariner 10 followed, passing by Venus on its way to Mercury in 1974, sending back some pictures of the planet and additional information about the planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field.
Over the next couple of years, the USSR sent a battery of probes to the planet and in 1978 with varying degrees of success NASA followed with two additional probes: the Pioneer Venus Orbiter and the Pioneer Venus Multiprobe. The orbiter arrived on December 4th and sent back observations on the atmosphere and surface until 1992, while the Multiprobe launched four small probes into the atmosphere on December 9th, one of which landed on the surface.
In more recent years, NASA, the European Space Agency, and Japan Aerospace eXploration Agency launched orbiters in 1990, 2006, and 2010, respectively. Magellan orbited the planet for four years and sent back detailed images of the surface of the planet and information about its geology.
The result of all of this exploration was a completely new vision of Venus. Like the revelations that Mars was inhospitable, stories about Venus began to adapt to the new reality. While Mars can likely be inhabited by people, Venus presents much greater challenges for human habitation, and even remote exploration.
As a result, Venus has become a far less hospitable destination for science fiction authors, especially when compared to Mars. Some books do use the planet for their stories. One notable example is 2000’s Venus, by Ben Bova. In this story, the son of a space transportation company died on a mission to Venus. A massive reward is offered to anyone who can recover the remains of the man. Another son, Alex, takes his father up on the reward, traveling to the planet to recover the reward. Bova plays with the possibility of life existing on the inhospitable planet, but incorporates modern research into his story.
Another author, Kim Stanley Robinson, is known for his realistic portrayal of the solar system, and he takes a more optimistic view of the state of Venus in his 2012 novel, 2312:
“Venus’ atmosphere was now so reduced in density from its native state that it was transparent, and even though the whole planet was in the shadow of its sunshield and therefore in perpetual night, one could make out the dim white dry ice seas, and the black rock of the two continents partially blown and scraped free . . . Venus and Titan were really the best remaining candidates to join Mars as fully terraformed worlds—shirtsleeve worlds, as some called them, with free atmospheres humans could breathe.”
As with most of Robinson’s novels, he takes a technologically optimistic view of the future. Here, even the solar system’s most hellish world can be bent to the will of humanity to become a habitable world that would fulfill the earliest imaginations of the early science fiction authors.
Despite these advances in our knowledge of Venus, the image of the planet as a mysterious world persists in science fiction. S.M. Stirling’s 2006 novel The Sky People, takes an alternate universe in which the solar system of the pulp stories really existed, including a populated Venus.
This pull towards nostalgic images is due in part to the attention that the planet gets: Mars and the outer solar system have been visited often and recently by robotic probes, while Venus has had a much smaller share of visitors.
Yet, there is an allure to the romance of the image that we have of Venus. Writing in the foreword for his anthology Old Venus, Gardner Dozois notes that “There have been plenty of stories about the New Venus in the last couple of decades . . . but some of us missed the Old Venus, the Venus of so many dreams over so many years.” There’s a sense of nostalgia for the stories of old, and Venus, ever the mysterious planet underneath its perpetual cloud cover.
Andrew Liptak is a writer and historian from Vermont. He is the author of the forthcoming book Cosplay: A History (Saga Press, 2021), and his work has appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine, io9, Kirkus Reviews, Lightspeed Magazine, Tor.com, VentureBeat, The Verge, and other publications.