Science fiction | Old Mars | Edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois
As George RR Martin says in the introduction, this is the 'old' Mars, the one in the imaginations of Percival Lowell, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury. The Mars with ancient canals so wide they are visible from Earth. Not the real Mars of barren lands and atmospheres thinner than ghosts. Short stories to evoke that utterly fictional Mars.
Let me go story by story. But to start with, I was greatly disappointed. The first stories are very much close to the tenor of earlier stories: all-male. As the book proceeded, though, I revised my early impressions. Which is good for you. I think.
Martian Blood by Allen M Steele is about an Earth researcher going into the tourist-ridden cities on Mars, looking for some Martian blood to prove or disprove his hypothesis that Martians and Earthers are ultimately descended from the same genetic pool. The Martian natives (no other word quite fits, sorry) are reclusive and hostile, likely to be violent. The researcher's hired guide is left to make world-changing decisions. Is it deliberate that the Martian aborigines' word for themselves is shatan?
The Ugly Duckling by Matthew Hughes could have been written by Bradbury. Fred Mather, an archaeologist, smuggles himself to Mars, marsquerading (I can't help myself) as a miner. Miners on Mars have quotas to fill. Martian cities are made of bone, and pulverising them and shipping them is hugely profitable. Nobody to record the cities, or the Martian culture. Fred offers to scout and lay the laser finders for the big machines. This way, he gets to see the city before it is demolished. He finds an amphitheatre, and the Martian script suddenly and telepathically makes sense to him, as he finds himself immersed in a Martian entertainment/history. The boss miner finds him lost to the Martian madness, in which he thinks himself a Martian, and has to save himself from Fred's attack. For some reason, ancient Martian 'masks' have value. Go figure.
In The Wreck of The Mars Adventure, Captain Kidd is rescued by the King of England days before he is due to be hanged, under condition that he leads an expedition to Mars. On a sailing ship equipped with hot air balloons. And accompanied by the eccentric scientist who has designed the equipment. Off they sail, through doldrums and storms between the planets. (Yeah, exactly!). Finally, they crashland on Mars, where their trade goods help them for a short while, to trade with suspicious Martian princes. The scene in which the Martians solemnly eat a Bible and the horror of the scientist at this blasphemy was quite funny! David D Levine certainly gets a good flavour of 100-year-old science fiction, Victorian without being steampunk, and utterly unscientific.
The Swords of Zar-tu-kan feature the first woman in the book, and high time. SM Stirling has populated both Venus and Mars with aliens, and this story is placed in that world. A biologist arrives on Mars, and is taken under the wing of a resident Terranan. Unfortunately, he is promptly kidnapped. Like many a Larry Niven character, the Martians have great respect for contracts. Also for debts. Sally Yamashita ropes in an old comrade, the Professional Practitioner of Coercive Violence, Teyudza-Zhalt. The duo find the missing biologist—but of course—with very satisfactory shenanigans on the way. A nice mix of Japanese culture and Mister Spock's alien logic, not to mention a talking 'optimal canid' named Satemcan. There is also a very good reason for the kidnapping. This story is one of my favourites in this book.
So I continued reading the book.
Shoals by Mary Rosenblum also explores the miners vs. dreamers trope. Maartin's mother was killed in a blow-out of a dome when miners after shoals of Martian 'pearls' undercut it. The miners are greedy for the vast riches that attend the finding of a shoal. People see wonderful visions with these 'pearls'. Except, Maartin sees them all the time, direct access to ancient Martians stored virtually. The virtual Martians still have a few tricks up their dusty sleeves, though, to save themselves and the farming city that Maartin's family is a part of.
In the Tombs of the Martian Kings by Mike Resnick features an Earthman named The Scorpion, who has a lion-sized Venusian 'dog' as a companion. Two pages in, we find the Venusian is telepathic. A Martian hires them to help him find the mythical lost Tombs of the really really ancient Martian Kings, who may well have been superpowered aliens (aliens to Mars, that is), worshipped as gods by primitive Martians. Our gun for hire helps the Martian, named Quedipai and called Cutiepie. Very Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lots of fancy traps and monsters to protect the Kings. A book with an invocation to awaken the last King... ok, you can guess how it goes.
Out of Scarlight by Liz Williams could well be placed on Earth in any fantasy world. Zuneida Peace pretends to be a man named Thane. She saves the adventurer Nightwall Dair from a sorcerer on her way to the Tribes, to get clues on finding a Martian slave girl stolen by a sorcerer from a lord of Cadrada, and whom he wants back. Scarlight is the name of the last town before the Cold Deserts. Zuneida/Thane finds the priestess, gets the clues, evades the attentions of Dair, gets caught by the sorcerer, rescued, and does some rescuing. All very confusing. Who is after what. But tied up neatly in a bow at the end.
Howard Waldrop has a 'modern' Earthman follow the old trek of an ancient Martian, writing a diary detailing the old diary. A short and whimsical story, The Dead Sea-Bottom Scrolls.
James SA Corey describes another story based on sea pirates. In A Man Without Honor, we have an American-spelling story about a subject of the King of England, explaining the circumstances under which he killed the King's Governor. The pirates attempt to loot a derelict, find it still under attack, and rescue the damsel with the treasure. But she's a Captain herself, of a spacecraft. She's getting some chemicals from Earth to help her Martian race (very human-like) to save themselves from tentacled Martian tyrants of another species. Bravely, the pirates and the heroic humanoid Martians ally, as do the greedy Governor and the Martian monsters. Will the good guys of Mars be saved?
Written in Dust by Melinda M Snodgrass, too, has the ancient Martians accessible through stored memories, and under risk of demolished cities. In this one, a teenager reaching college age on Mars finds her two fathers' marriage being torn apart by her control-freak Martian grandfather (all humans here). There is family adventure. And of course the access to Martian dead—perhaps human dead, too?
Michael Moorcock, you either love or hate, and I tend to sit on the latter side, but this was a cool story. The Lost Canal has future humans on Mars being contacted by close-to-today humans via a time machine. 'Your mission, should you choose to accept it' offered to the fugitive Mac Stone is nothing less than to save the planet. Mac has been making money and the rich people don't like it. There are killer robots, ancient bombs, a lost canal with a tremendous waterfall (that possibly goes to the centre of the planet), and only seven hours to save the world. The time machine gives him useful information and gadgets for super strength and anti-gravity. On the other hand, apart from killer robots, he's being hunted by a top assassin as well.
Phyllis Eisenstein's The Sunstone is set in the heroic savage mould. David Miller returns to Mars after being educated on Earth, to find his archaeologist father missing. He has gone to find one more wonderful city, to make tourist money off. David teams up with his father's Martian friend Rekari to go find the body. Rekari tells him his father was adopted by the last of a dying tribe, so that their memories could live on, and gives him a traditional sunstone to wear. The traditional Martians don't like that. Is David a true Martian or will he be unable to enter—or exit—the Martian repository of tradition they find beneath his father's body?
(These are all rhetorical questions, okay, you're supposed to guess the right and obvious answer.)
Joe R Lansdale's King of the Cheap Romance is possibly my favourite in this book. It has spacecraft (ok, aircraft, but Martian air is too thin to live in), a young protagonist left to find a way to save herself and the next city all alone. Angela King's Dad is killed in a crash while they are carrying vaccine to the local town. The 'cheap romance' is what her father calls adventure stories. She loads up everything including the body, onto a solar sled with limited battery power. She is chased by a persistent and deadly Martian ice shark. Then a climbing berg climbs out of the ice. These are rises of solid ice coming up from old old Mars. Full of living organisms that need air once in a while. This one has an ancient Martian ship embedded in it. Angela evades the ice shark and goes inside the berg, where she sees ancient Martian wonders. With the last of her consciousness, she does reach the city. With or without the vaccine? With or without the fever herself?
Mariner has an Earthman stranded on Mars. He gets there while attempting to sail around the Earth. A type of Martian captures him, and fortunately he is able to convince them he is air-breathing. Other Martian species all war with each other. The only commonality is that they all need respirators in air (to keep their gills moist). Jason becomes a pirate, then a pirate captain. What happens when he rescues a ship full of to-be-slaves, when he is already below quota on plunder? Chris Robertson writes a straightforward tale.
Ian McDonald doesn't. The Queen of the Night's Aria is the closest to a horror story in this book. Maestro Jack Fitzgerald, the famous singer from Earth, is on a downward economic spiral and refuses to accept it. He and his sidekick are reduced to singing for the Earth troops on the frontline in Mars. Mars had attacked, Earth had counterattacked. Earth has now occupied most of Mars. There are all kinds of exotic aliens and alien cities. During his performance at the Front, the Martians counter-attack. The Queen of the Martians is a fan of the Count. Things go downhill from there. It's more poignant than horrific, come to that. I mean, we're not actually suffering reverses on Mars, are we?
TL;DR? A good read for sci fi fans.