Visions of Paradise

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Mars Probes

Peter Crowther is one of the important current editors in science fiction. His small press PS Publishing has published a series of novellas the past several years that are worthy for their high quality and important for the outlet it has given writers in what is arguably the most important length for science fiction. Periodically groups of four novellas are reprinted in book form under such titles as Futures and Cities, which are highly-recommended. Recently he has begun publishing a regular sf prozine called Postscripts, another important jolt in the short fiction field.

Besides these ventures, Crowther also publishes traditional theme anthologies, such as Moon Shot and Mars Probe, the latter which was one of the most acclaimed original anthologies of recent years. The stories in the collection fall into three broad categories. First is stories deliberately reminiscent of specific classic Mars stories. The book opens with Ray Bradbury’s “The Love Affair”, a reprint from 1982 which reads like an out-take from The Martian Chronicles. While not equal to the best stories in that collection, the story does not diminish the reputation of Bradbury’s Martian stories.

Other stories in this category include Michael Moorcock’s “Lost Sorceress of the Silent Citadel” which bears the heading Homage to Leigh Brackett. In fact, the story is deliberately written exactly like a story in 1940s Planet Stories might have been written, purple prose and all, so much so that after 30 pages the story’s shallowness becomes a bit tiring. But overall it is a fun read.

Finally, Mike Resnick and M. Shayne Bell’s “Flower Children of Mars” is a satire on Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars which looks askew at what might have happened had John Carter arrived later in Martian history when all the sword-wielding Martians had “settled down” and become tame hippies. Cuter than Moorcock’s story, it also had the advantage of being half as long so the humor did not have a chance to dull.

The next category of stories were traditional sfnal stories set on a scientifically-realistic Mars. The best of this group was Allen Steele’s “A Walk Across Mars” about the personal relationship between two buddies who become members of the first Mars expedition and ultimately become famous when they become lost on the Martian surface and survive by walking back to base camp. This is not a mere adventure though, since its main concern is how the relationship of the two men belies the image in the famous picture of them returning to camp arm-in-arm for support.

Alaistair Reynold’s “The Real Story” told of a famous astronaut who underwent a psychological crisis on his long-ago flight to Mars and the reporter who finally discovers the truth. This story’s payoff was that of a mystery which was revealed gradually layer by layer, and fairly successfully at that.

Ian McDonald’s “The Old Cosmonaut and the Construction Worker Dream of Mars” was a densely-constructed story which did not work for me. In fact, I ended up skimming the portions about the construction worker while actually enjoying the old cosmonaut’s tale much better. Their ultimate meeting in the dream world was moving but might have been more successful had I not lost interest in the construction worker earlier.

Two grandmasters offer strong stories combining traditional storytelling with philosophical depth. Gene Wolfe’s “Shields of Mars” is the story of two construction workers engaging in mock Martian battles reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but as usual in a Wolfe story there is more going on beneath the surface than on the surface itself. Brian W. Aldiss’ "Near Earth Object” is a tale of time travelers from Mars’ future accidentally being trapped 30 years in the past. What is most interesting about this story is the attitude of the time travelers towards the people of the past and their society, an aspect which is rarely, if ever, considered by other writers. That attitude was the highlight of the story, although the ending also packed a fairly strong punch.

The final category is stories which were not set on Mars but were primarily “about” Mars. Scott Edelman’s “Mom, the Martians and Me” was a humorous story about a woman’s husband’s running off with a young art assistant and her resultant delusions about Mars and how those delusions affected the life of her son and community.

The best story in this group–and perhaps in the entire book–was James Morrow’s “The War of the Worldviews” which was a satire based loosely on H.G. Wells’ classic tale in which rival aliens from Phobos and Deimos descend on New York City to wage a philosophical battle by engaging in physical warfare so brutal it is destroying the city itself. Only three inmates of an asylum understand the true nature behind the battle and know how to end the struggle philosophically. Like most Morrow stories, this is not intended to be taken seriously but is a romp with some thoughtfulness beneath it.

Overall, Mars Probes is a good collection of stories, none of which loom as classics of the sub-genre, but most of which are worthwhile reading.


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