Old Mars edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois
Old Mars edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois (Bantam Books, 2013) is introduced in “Red Planet Blues” by George R R Martin. The editors are of an age to have grown up with the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs and other early fictioneers who preferred the idea of our solar system’s planets being full of life just waiting to be discovered. Venus was a jungle world enveloped in mists and full of potentially dangerous life forms. Mars was the world of canals and a dying civilisation. And so on. There was a great deal of romance in the old-fashioned sense of the world as magic and science merged in simple, linear story lines of daring-do. By modern standards, the majority of these stories are badly written. So simply to recreate stories in a long-dead style would be a pointless venture. If people really want to read the supposed classics of this period, they are fairly easily obtained for a few pennies on the secondhand market. Consequently, this anthology is aiming for a retro feel with enough substance and, if appropriate, postmodern whimsy, to appeal to modern readers. For some of the authors, this proves to be a challenge too far. For others who are old enough in the tooth to have supped wine from the cups of pulp, the updating is something of a triumph.
“Martian Blood” by Allen M. Steele shows the strength and weakness of this theme. The set-up is genuinely interesting albeit not very original in trying to prove a scientific hypothesis. We happily pursue the plot hoping for something new or interesting. Perhaps there will be a twist we haven’t seen before. But when the end comes around, there’s no resolution. Instead of solving the problem and potentially preventing the outbreak of violence between Earth and the aborigines of Mars, all our hero has done is kick the can down the road. Not quite the return we expected for the predictable cure he administered. Although perhaps we’re supposed to think the genie was out of the bottle once the question had been asked back on Earth and that, sooner or later, someone would try again. “The Ugly Duckling” by Matthew Hughes seems to be a better balance between the old fantasy feel of Mars and more modern sensibilities. This time an archaeologist infiltrates a mining operation as it begins work to dismantle an old Martian town. He’s the stereotypical egghead surrounded by roughnecks in a place of wonder the miners can never appreciate. The question then becomes what represents the value of understanding a past culture and leaves us wondering what the swan will look like.
“The Wreck Of The Mars Adventure” by David D. Levine is a classic rerun of a science fantasy trope in which an adapted sailing vessel crosses the void between Earth and Mars, and then recovers from a crash landing to begin its return journey. It’s delightfully wacky as the sailors struggle with unexpected problems in navigating using the solar winds and then learn to trade with Martians for materials with which to rebuild the ship. “Swords Of Zar-tu-kan” by S.M. Stirling is a pleasing piece of noir set on the red planet with a kidnapping requiring tracking and extraction — not too difficult with an optimal canid to follow the scent trail and a Coercive to back up the human in the rescue mission. It flows nicely because it presents the extraordinary as ordinary and not needing explanation.
“Shoals” by Mary Rosenblum is a modern story pretending to be retro. None of the pulp writers would have been interested in a young man who could interact with Martians in a fractionally different dimension overlaid on the reality humans can see. Because he can interact with these beings, he can protect his human community but also plan an eternal life. It’s a rather beautiful story. “In The Tombs Of The Martian Kings” by Mike Resnick is a wonderful pulpish story of two adventurers who accept a commission to find the tomb and then begin a whole new negotiation. The sardonic humour of the piece elevates it to a higher level. “Out Of Scarlight” by Liz Williams is something of a curiosity. It’s a high class, high fantasy story of three different people tracking down an escaped slave, but I see nothing to require the reader to place this story on Mars. It could have been set anywhere. “The Dead Sea-bottom Scrolls” by Howard Waldrop is another delightful story but not at all pulpy.
“A Man Without Honor” by James S.A. Corey again sees eighteenth century ships of the line suddenly dragooned into service outside Earth’s atmosphere. This time, it all comes down to the word of an Englishman. Can he really be relied on to act as honour dictates? “Written In Dust” by Melinda Snodgrass is a standout story about a family out in the Martian boondocks next to the only remaining Martian city. The tragedy in the human relationships is all too recognisable. It’s a shame people make such problems for themselves through their inflexibility. “The Lost Canal” by Michael Moorcock is an author just having the greatest fun possible with two likely lovers going underground to save the world and have a drink of water. “The Sunstone” by Phyllis Eisenstein is a surprisingly sentimental story in which the notion of what it means to have a home is explored. Obviously, it could just be a physical place where you hang your hat, or it could be membership of a wider cultural construct. “King Of The Cheap Romance” by Joe R. Lansdale plays the game well with an implacable monster in pursuit of the resolute girl as she hurries to deliver the vital vaccine across the Martian ice. It touches all the bases of dead Martian culture as our hero takes a whistle-stop tour of a previous battle site while fighting her own. “Mariner” by Chris Roberson preserves the pulpish feel by engaging in matters piratical as a misplaced human sailor takes command of a Martian ship with interesting political repercussions. “The Queen Of Night’s Aria” by Ian Mcdonald produces a great wave of irrepressible fun as we rerun the oft-forgot Space Opera by Jack Vance with an Irish tenor playing Mars and winning in the final act. I’m not at all sure H G wells would have approved of this continuation of his great conflict, but it’s a rousing way to bring the curtain down on this anthology. Albeit slightly uneven in tone, Old Mars nevertheless represents very good value for money.
For reviews of other anthologies by our top editorial team, see:
Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance,
Songs of Love and Death and
For an anthology edited by Gardner Dozois on his own, see:
The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirtieth Annual Collection.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.